Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014: Stairway to Heaving

If I know one thing about the Men’s Health Urbanathlon it’s that it will expose your weakness. Swiftly.

You might rip through 5:45 mile splits, but the Marine hurdles or monkey bars will exploit those long forgotten about biceps and shoulders. Maybe you eat parallel bars for lunch and wash ’em down with police barricades, but three miles in to a 10-plus mile run and you’ll think you inhaled a carton of Marlboro Reds at the last water stop. And if you do find that rarefied balance of speed and strength, the stadium steps will set you straight.

In that regard it’s almost the perfect race. Pick your poison.

I’ve experienced varying levels of those scenarios in my three Chicago attempts. And in real time out on the course it’s devastating. Physically and mentally.

In 2011 I had a field day throughout the obstacles, but was reduced to the Ickey Shuffle by mile 7 and had to gather myself for an eight-count before attempting the final wall. 2012 my running endurance was strong, as was my obstacle fitness, but I got log-jammed at the stadium. Feeling shafted by the crowd the previous year I ran with wave 1 in 2013 and declared it ‘my time’ at Soldier Field. I set up the table nicely with a smartly run first half and nothing but open steps when we arrived in Soldier Field. Stopped in my tracks by step 4. Weakness exposed.

I’ve said it before, the pitch and volume of the Soldier field upper deck stairs are otherworldly. And if you go in to the event not having put in the training on actual stairs a world of hurt awaits. I imagine this holds for Citi Field and AT&T Park, too.

That I missed first place in my age group in 2013 by a scant 23 seconds, well, if there are 23 seconds along the course to be had, it’s here on the steps. But they won’t come easy.

So that’s where I am today. And where I’ll be once a week for the foreseeable future. Back at my old stomping ground at the stunning James J. Hill Mansion steps, grinding through multiple sets of 186 up, 186 down. They hurt. Hands-on-knees hurt. Heaving is-my-phone-nearby-in case-I-have-to-call-911 hurt. But among the 1500 steps come race day, thanks to my efforts today, I know I’ll be able to find 23 seconds in there somewhere. Maybe more. Or maybe I’ll get exposed … again.

Men's Health Urbanathlon Stair Climb

Putting in the time now might save me some time later. A painful reminder of the diabolical Soldier Field stair climb.

Men's Health Urbanathlon Stair Climb

In this together … a little help from Team Bunker.

I encourage you to find steps of your own. Run ’em ragged. I can’t promise you that you won’t get stopped in your tracks come Urbanathlon time, but I do know you don’t stand much of a chance without putting in the real work right now. On real stairs. Resist the urge to rely on squats or hills to account for your stairs training. Get out there.

I also think the stairs are a great equalizer, as probably 95% of Urbanathletes have difficulty with them. Train hard here, then flip the script and create a competitive advantage.

There’s still plenty of time.




Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014: Embracing change and the new ‘sprint’ course

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a miser when it comes to change. So no surprise when I roundly poo-poo’d the Men’s Health decision to scrap the relay portion of the Urbanathlon in 2014 in favor of a newly designed ‘sprint’ course. Three to five miles and seven or more obstacles. The standard, or ‘classic’ course still holds. (The sprint course in Chicago is 3.6 miles, New York is 4.6, and San Francisco is 3.) 

More than change, though, I think I was miffed because in their 2012 post-event survey Men’s Health asked a few questions to gauge interest in a ‘sprint’ distance. I kind of knew it at the time that they were high on the idea and asking the question was more formality than feedback. What you don’t know about me is that I love taking surveys (rarely pass one up), but it’s always the most unsatisfying experience in my life (give honest feedback to loaded questions that you never get closure on). Yet I keep coming back; I can handle the disappointment.

And to be fair to Men’s Health, they did probe about an extended 13-mile course, too (I was more receptive to this change, but didn’t endorse completely).

The more I kicked around the idea the more I came around to appreciate it. Even like it. The relay always struck me as a fun activity among friends, but legs 2 and 3 have to spend an inordinate amount of time simply waiting in the cold, there’s little to no fanfare for leg 2 if you like that kind of thing, and divvying up the legs to see who gets to do what obstacles never seemed like a fair shake.

This sprint distance keeps the miles manageable for those who want that, and more importantly everyone gets to experience the most iconic and exhilarating portions of the race. Specifically the stadium stair climb and the final wall (at the final wall you also close with the taxi climb, bus climb, and fence crawl trifecta). I’m not sure what other obstacles are included throughout, but at gunpoint I lay money on police barricades, jersey barricades and a cargo net for starters … maybe a tire stutter step. That’s a pretty gutsy race, and you’ll have earned your light beer in the festival afterward (if you’re gonna have to wait somewhere, the beer tent is the place, not the course).

Depending on when you register, the sprint will run you $65, $78, $85 or $94.

When the 2012 post-event survey came out I gave an emphatic ‘no’ to the sprint distance. But in this case I’m glad Men’s Health didn’t listen. I think this will be a nice, ummm, ‘change’ for an event that works hard to balance keeping things consistent with adding something new to keep us challenged and coming back.

So if you crave a more full Urbanathlon experience, but 10-11 miles is a bit out of your comfort zone, the sprint is a great fit. Make it so.

Now go climb some stairs! You’re gonna need the reps before hitting Soldier Field/Citi Field/AT&T Park.

Now everyone gets to experience the joy and pain of the stadium climb.

Now everyone gets to experience the joy and pain of the stadium climb.


Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014 (Chicago): Seeing how things will play out

And there you go. You may have already received the Men’s Health ‘Urbanathlon registration begins March 14’ heads up email (with ‘best pricing’ through March 28).

Men's Health Urbanathlon registration email

Men’s Health Urbanathlon registration email

With the events seven months out it’s far too early for me to consider registration now, but it’s nice to see that two of the three races are set in stone: Chicago October 18 and New York October 25. San Francisco is generally in November, so while it’s currently ‘TBD’ and not yet on the books you can do the math and plan accordingly.

I have to say, I’m not entirely all-in on whether I’ll compete in Chicago this year (blaspheme!). I love everything about the event, I love Chicago, and love LOVE the extended weekend getaway before winter sets in vibe for us, but it’s a pretty sizable financial commitment and after three years we just need to step back and refocus on if it’s time to try something new (note, we did float the idea of competing in New York or San Francisco …).

Adding to that, I’m planning to run my first marathon in June, and if things go well (or even just okay) then I will strongly consider running the Twin Cities Marathon October 5 (an amazing event right in my backyard … the last three years I competed in the Twin Cities 10K as part of marathon weekend and use it as my warm-up race to the Urbanathlon). That’s important because the proximity of event dates may or may not be conducive to proper recovery for a strong showing in Chicago (kind of sounds like an excuse, but it has merit).

There are a lot of miles between today and October (and I usually register around July), so we’ll get things figured out.

In the immediate term, running has been going okay for me. Despite the record amounts of snow and below-zero temps I’ve been able to keep up with my miles. In fact, pretty much all of February was spent running indoors on the treadmill.

Looking for me this winter? Safe bet you'll find me here.

Looking for me this winter? Safe bet you’ll find me here.

I’ve read all the ‘dreadmill’ jokes, and I’m guilty of many of them (I was the most ardent treadmill detractor), but I’ve come around in a big way. It’s actually been really enjoyable (no insane layers of clothing) and I’ve consistently been able to bang out 10-13 miles at a clip. Not ideal but beats not running or coping with hypothermia.

Periodically we get hit with a still-very-cold-but-not-so-cold-you-fear-for-your-life day and I’ll venture outside. I love my roller coaster route and the intensity that the hills demand. But those days are few and far between, with no signs of letting up. Plus many of my standard routes are snowed under (people have just given up on shoveling at this point and the park trails are tough for crews to consistently maintain).

A rare but enjoyable sighting in February.

A rare but enjoyable sighting in February.

In fact, I decided against a 10-mile race on October 8, partly because I know it will still be too cold to be enjoyable, and partly because I have to imagine the roads will still be craptastic and icy. Not fun.

I’m sticking with my standard season opener April 12 at Goldy’s Run 10 mile at the University of Minnesota.

Hope your running is going well. Stay with it.

Reindeer Fun Run 5K Race Report

One person’s fun is another person’s funk.

It’s my own fault. I’m a harmless procrastinator, and when the Minnesota Running Series kicked off this past April, I quickly rattled off three of the required four qualifying events, and then looked down an endless buffet of time to pick off the final event and receive my ‘free’ Minnesota Running Series’ jacket.

The things we do in the name of ‘free’ crap.

As expected, events came and went, and for one reason or another I couldn’t commit.  The Reindeer Run 5K was the end of the line. And now here at the end of the line morning temps stalled at minus 13 degrees.

Call this a ‘fun’ run if you want, but I couldn’t have been more grumpy.

Any other race, in the preceding weeks, I’m pretty restless. But on this Saturday morning, over a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with sliced bananas, my enthusiasm hovered alarmingly low.

Secretly I hoped they’d just call it on account of unsafe temperatures. In fact, the race website posted a message saying that they’d announce at 8 a.m. whether the race was still on (really, it was COLD). At that moment I sort of mentally checked out, and thought, ‘hmmmm, sweet, I’ll call my dad and we’ll grab a gyro omelet or chicken and waffles, BS over some good coffee, and I’ll have plenty of time to chauffeur the kiddos. Reindeer Run, what say you?!’

Come 8 a.m., and about 326 browser refreshes later, I saw this …reindeer run7

Shart! It says ‘the RACE IS STILL ON’ (all caps, even). We Minnesotans wear the frigid weather like a badge of honor, so deep inside my shivering heart I knew the race would go on.

I spent so much time fretting about ‘is it on, is it off?’ that I hadn’t responsibly pulled all my gear together. I hastily grabbed a few hats and pairs of gloves and figured I’d sort it all out on the drive to Minneapolis.

About as ready as I'm going to be

About as ready as I’m going to be

Approaching Lake Harriet I could hear all the Whos in Whoville yucking it up, slinging there Who Hash, and in general being a little too enthusiastic about things.

Having a little too much fun in the cold.

Having a little too much fun in the cold.

The warm up
I had about 30 minutes to spare, so I took a mile warm up. I felt okay, but knew immediately my feet were going to bear the brunt of the cold.

The ground, and my feet, were going to be problematic

The ground, and my feet, were going to be problematic. Not a great combo.

I hustled back to the ‘Warming Tent’ to thaw out my hands and feet, and then scurried to a port-o-potty before we lined up. The lines were only about 4 people deep but so bloody slooooooow moving. With everyone heading to the start I gave myself a quick little bounce and jiggle to see if my bladder could play nice for 25 more minutes, and before I could do all the bladder math in my head I just bolted for the start.

The 'warming' tent.

The ‘warming’ tent. It was warm, but not warm, warm.

the lake is an almost perfect 5K distance

Conveniently, the lake is an almost perfect 5K distance, so once around and we’re done.

Since I was alone I was able to wiggle my way near the front. Santa was at the start and yelled ‘Ho, ho, ho, GO! (how cute).

Standing on the sheet of ice

Bundled for business. Standing on the sheet of ice I was very concerned about the small kids at the front. Bad call.

reindeer run start line

Another look at the start. It was tough because instead of filling in back to front, people had to claw through the front to get to the back, thus, most people just settled in the front.

The run
The first 200 meters were a bobsled run. Sheer ice. I ambled my way to the right. A few runners fell into me, and everyone had their head on a swivel to ensure things stayed safe. After about 400 meters the front of the pack had already separated itself and settled in single file along the left of the road where there was enough packed snow and sand to keep you upright.

And there I just settled in, about 10 runners back (the leader wore shiny gold tights so he was easy to keep an eye on).

I checked my GPS to humor myself at my pace, but I guess I didn’t fully press the ‘Start’ button with my thick mitten. Ugh. I didn’t care so much about pace as I did distance. There were no on-course markers. The lake was disorienting, in that I’d gauge ‘okay, we’re about half way around’ and then a few minutes later I’d look at the band shell and correct myself, ‘wait, NOW we’re halfway around’ (I did this three or four times).

I felt like I was moving at a good clip, and just kept telling myself I could do anything for three miles. Heading into mile three (seemed like mile 3 at least) I looked up and realized I was in second place! I didn’t dare look behind me, and instead just dug in.

For a moment, with the leader just a Payton Manning tight spiral ahead, I tried to channel some extra oomph to close the gap. I had no more gears to tap.

And then I hear the familiar pitter pat of a spry 16-year-old(ish) kid running me down. I could have pulled up my green Grinch body suit and stayed the course (tough to pass here with the ice), but somewhere along the course my heart grew two sizes that day, and I kindly jumped to the right, in the thick of the ice luge run, and gave him the proverbial bull fighter ‘ole’  and watched him pass.

reindeer run race photo

Twisting the knife, my sole race photo is where I’m getting run down at the end. Thanks, guys! No, really. Thanks. This kid slowed just before mile 3 to check on a friend who burned out, but clearly he made up the ground and with less than a mile dispatched of me.

‘Finish strong!’ was all the encouragement I could muster (a common pitiful refrain of mine when I get run down deep into a race). I had difficulty catching my breath in the biting cold but survived the final 800 meters to nab third place overall.

jack frost

I came in just before this guy and I remember seeing him cross the finish. Seeing him I knew it was just too damn cold.

This was not a chip-timed event, but the clock was at about 21:18 when I crossed (I’ve run only one 5K before and of course, nowhere near a PR here).

I grabbed a heaping cup of coffee to ‘warm up’ and promptly spilled it all over my pants. Time to go.

I walked the few blocks to my car, defrosted my phone (would not power up after the race), started coordinating pick up times with my kids, and then realized I couldn’t feel the toes on my left foot. I was too scared to look, so I took off my shoe and held my socked foot beneath the heater for the drive back to Saint Paul.

Back in the car, my phone defrosted before I did.

Back in the car, my phone defrosted before I did.

By the time I picked up my twelve year old and we made it home, the feeling had started to come back, and I got the nerve to remove my socks to get a looksee. Aside from my usual hideous stuff, everything checked out.

In addition to four coupons to Noodles and Co, I won a pretty nice fleece blanket that says '2013 Reindeer Run Third Place.' Hard to see in the photo.

In addition to four coupons to Noodles and Co, I won a pretty nice fleece blanket that says ‘2013 Reindeer Run Third Place.’ Hard to see in the photo.

Took me the balance of the day to fully get right. But, I know, it’s my own fault. Don’t think next year I won’t tick these events off as quickly as the punk teenager ran me down.

Overall grade: B-
The race organizers, volunteers, sponsors, participants, and Marines were all phenomenal. They put on a great event. That they pulled this off without any hiccups was gritty and selfless. The bitter cold is just so tough to overcome, and I think if I  had a better plan for my feet I would have been able to enjoy the Reindeer Run just a touch more.

What does this mean for the 2014 Urbanathlon?
Nothing noteworthy, as far as I can tell. It was good to get the speed work in, and it was reassuring that aside from a tough final 800 meters I hadn’t lost the running fitness I lost a year ago at this time (no way I would have even attempted this race in 2012). So my base is still there, and I’ll keep plugging along with my scheduled training through the end of the month. So we’ll just say I’m ‘on plan’, whatever that is.

Here’s to all of you cold-weather runners!

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014 (Chicago): Not starting from square one

With fresh cover on the ground, and my face, it's time to put the earbuds back in and go slow and steady.

With fresh cover on the ground, and my face, it’s time to put the earbuds back in, the layers back on, and go slow and steady.

After last year’s Urbanathlon I took a solid two weeks off, which lazily bled into a third week, followed by a sidelining on-again off-again calf injury, and then submarined by Thanksgiving, and eventually obliterated by the Christmas and New Year’s combo platter.

Before I knew it I had picked up some unwanted pounds, and there I was, at the start of the coldest days of the year, recalibrating from what felt like square one (as it related to my running fitness). I was cold, achy, and winded, but I bundled up and hit the road to slowly, and mostly aimlessly, run. Not putting in the deliberate work and effort.

Fast forward to today. I’ve come too far with my gains the last several months and am not the least bit interested in reliving last year’s post-Urbanathlon backslide. But I have to balance that doggedness with the truth that I’m a little burnt out (a touch physically, a schtickle emotionally).

Still, I’ve cobbled together an informal plan to keep me lubricated through the end of the year. One that will indulge me in slightly longer, slow miles, while laying down a better strength foundation through cross training and, for the first time ever, yoga.

Come January we’ll switch things up, but the next several ‘please-stay-healthy-just-stay-active’ weeks will look like this:

Modest cross training. Body weight squats (with medicine ball), jump rope, single leg raises, ball jacks, planks, pull ups, etc. (no weights, unless I do curls)

About 6 easy miles

About 8 easy miles

About 8 easy miles


About 6 miles, with occasional hill repeats. May go a little faster here.

About 12-15 slower miles

I’m not specifically training for anything until Goldy’s 10-mile that runs April 2014 (so late January I’ll dial things up), and all I want right now is to lay down that base from which to build on come Spring.

And of course, as is my standard training manifesto:

I am flexible and adaptive about all of this. This schedule is a best-case scenario and one I’ll work hard to honor. Life is busy and things come up routinely (and sometimes I’m just hungry and would rather eat lunch). These are guard rails for an ideal week, and while I don’t delight in missing a planned workout I’ll take it in stride when it happens. When possible I’ll figure out how to do something active in its place. This should be fun and fulfilling.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013: A Few Photo Options

This year Peacock Sports was on hand in Chicago and New York (and presumably will be in San Francisco) shooting race footage. I’m sure most of you who competed received an email with a link to view a video and a glam shot or two of you on the course, with various options for purchase.

A ‘web resolution digital image’ will run you about $14.99. The only photo option less expensive is a photo button. I’m good. I’ve read some bristling about the cost of a digital image, but I believe it was considerably more in 2012 (but only about $10 for a high resolution digital image in 2011, which I purchased), and comparatively speaking to other Minnesota races, it’s not bad. Trust me.

Anyway, another avenue for you is to look at the free gallery that Men’s Health posts on its Zenfolio page. If you competed in Chicago there are more than 800 high resolution FREE images to look through and download at your discretion. For New York just north of 300.

I ended up finding a half dozen pretty cool images I was able to weasel myself into and download. In fact the image in my blog banner, that’s one right there! I have three from 2012, too. And again, these are free, and you can download or simply share via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, or email, or copy the embed code and paste it in your blog or a webpage. These go back as far as 2011, so look around!

Here is a link to the 2013 galleries, and hopefully you’ll find yourself among some of the shots. They are very well done.

These are some of the images I downloaded. As you cruise the galleries, be sure to look closely, as you won’t always be the focal point of the shot.

URB CHI 13-8139 URB CHI 13-8077 URB CHI 13-8076 URB CHI 13-4868-2 URB CHI 13-4869 URB CHI 13-4867

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): My results

I found the whole thing utterly ridiculous and unbelievable, but there I was at 6:59:59 a.m., toeing the line with the Elite Wave 1 at the Urbanathlon in Chicago. It was a spot earned through a 2012 qualifying time (1:28:21), but unfathomable nonetheless.

Having spent my first two Urbanathlons in the distant 9th wave, I registered for wave 1 because I thought it would give me the best shot at an uncluttered course (it did), that I’d have my uninterrupted date with destiny at the feet of the Soldier Field stairs (it chewed me up and spit me out), and that the pace of the other runners would push me measurably (it did).

My approach at the Urbanathlon has always been a lot like golf; try to beat the course, not the competitors. The most imposing obstacles would be my own fabricated hurdles. So I simply ran.

My endurance felt good, the obstacles were doable but taxing, and exiting the gauntlet that is the Soldier Field / Marine Hurdles / Monkey Bars trifecta left me nearly in tears because my legs were shot hitting the back half of the course and I could barely moonwalk, no less run. I couldn’t fathom running another 5 miles feeling that broken.

I remembered Shane Logan in 2011 talking about how it took nearly a mile before he got his legs back after Soldier Field. I’m no Shane Logan, but I kept moving, and sucked it up after being easily passed exiting the Soldier Field lawn with no oomph to give chase. Eventually my back straightened, my stride strengthened, my pace quickened, and my confidence restored.

In the end I finished at 1:22:54. 16th place overall and 2nd in my 40-44 age group.  I couldn’t have imaged either.

At the dinner table Sunday night, with me rehashing stories for the hundredth time, I told my family that 20 seconds separated my time from first in my age group. They couldn’t believe it. ‘My heart feels like a squashed tomato!’ was my wife’s appropriate response. When I first saw that so did mine, but only for a two-Mississippi count.

Now sitting at home, well rested and replenished, I could trick myself into any number of scenarios that would have saved me 2 seconds here, 3 seconds there. You want 20 seconds? I can find 40.

But in real time, running through a mine field of goose poop along Monroe Harbor, I knew I’d be at complete peace with my finish, whatever it may be, because every step was my strongest, and nothing was spared. I had nothing more to give at any given time.

And good thing, because the only thing separating my 2nd place age-group finish and 3rd place was 3 seconds …

Congratulations, Urbanathletes.

Here's to everyone who overcame their own obstacles to conquer the Urbanathlon.

Here’s to everyone who overcame their own obstacles to conquer the Urbanathlon.

Here's to everyone who overcame their own obstacles to conquer the Urbanathlon.

I couldn’t do any of this without the support, and craziness, of my crew. And we couldn’t have asked for a better day to go nuts in Chicago.