Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2011 (Chicago): One course at a time

The goal of this post is to walk you through the seven stages of obstacles, with only a little perspective on the run. I’ll talk in more specifics about the run, and the general Urbanathlon vibe and related activities, in subsequent posts.

Getting started

Being in the 40-69 age group (that’s a rangy bunch), I was jettisoned to the second to last wave to start, and as a result probably experienced some heavier than normal traffic on the first few obstacles, as well some of the tighter running trails. I look at that as a good thing, since I was able to move along and catch up to some of the earlier waves. Things loosened up near the middle, but bottle necked in Soldier Field, which I think many runners experienced.

The first leg of the race is the furthest uninterrupted run; about 2.5 miles. It’s a gorgeous path along the outskirts of downtown, over the river, and into and around Navy Pier. I ran pretty hard and spent a lot of energy Frogger-ing left and right in and out of runners (probably not worth the extra calories burned and ankle risk), and eventually settled along the outside with a guy who unofficially paced with me.

Twisting into Navy Pier you’re greeted with your first hydration station. I felt compelled to grab and go (water on the first table, Gatorade on the second), but the cups were running low, I’d have to cut through traffic from left to right, and well, I felt strong, so I bailed on a half-hearted attempt to slide over and just kept running.

Obstacle 1: Vertical tires, followed by alternating sets of police barricades and flat tires

Vertical tires

Bigger just might be better

Think of a roll of Lifesavers made out of 5-foot monster truck tires, and you have to get over it. I was particularly excited about this first set of obstacles because it was our first transition from running to physical activity, and I loosely regarded it as a litmus test for how the rest of the race might play out.

Winding out of Navy Pier the first obstacle comes into view about 30 yards out; at least the huddle of waiting athletes. I had good steam leaving the first leg of the run and didn’t want to regress by lingering, so I eyed a lesser traveled path on the outskirts of the cluster, but really it was all a log jam once in the thick of it. I estimate I spent a good minute and a half waiting. On one hand I was cool with it because some people had trouble getting over the tires, and after a few attempts they either made it on their own or someone offered a hand, but on the other hand I knew I had the hops to get up and over and just wanted to be on my way. Like a middle linebacker I kept my head on a swivel looking for an opening and finally caught some room to my right, made sure I wasn’t cutting anyone off, then took a four-step approach, planted both feet, and leapt to the top of the tire. Because of the height on my jump I didn’t need much upper body strength to get over, but if you can’t get high enough you’ll need those arms to hoist you the rest of the way (and your feet to dig in and propel you up).

  • Difficulty: 3 out of 5 for size and muddy conditions
  • Tip 1: As you approach the tires, as far in advance as you can eye an opening and go for it. If you get stuck in the huddle, pack a lunch, it’ll be a while.
  • Tip 2: All of the tires are different. The taller tires seemed to have deeper treads to grab hold of and dig in to. Don’t get seduced by the smaller slicks unless you plan on being able to jump to the top of the tire on your own merit.

Police barricades

These are short (maybe 3-feet high), blue saw horses that moonlight as police barricades, and you alternate between a few sets of these and a few rows of tires to high step through. Like most runners, I went over, not under them. Oops. In the moment it didn’t ever occur to me to go under (which I think was the rule), plus everyone in front of me was hurdling them, so up I went. As a high school hurdler (more than 20 years ago) my mind is trained to find a pattern when leaping in succession (in the high hurdles it’s 3 steps between each hurdle). No rhythm here. These were pretty short and closely stacked so I bounded over some, hurdled over others, and just sort of pirouetted over the rest.

  • Difficulty: 2 of out 5 if you go over, 1 out of 5 if you go under.
  • Tip 1: Just get over these (or under). You aren’t going to make or break your race here, and it’s not demanding, so just try not to maim yourself.
  • Tip 2: Some runners went over these like you would hop a chain link fence (see barricades reference below), planting a hand and hoping over. I may do this next year to save my quads.

Flat tires

A few short rows of tires (maybe 4 tires per cluster) flat on the ground alternating with the barricades, concluding with a 30-yard minefield of tires near the end. As a guy with larger feet (size 13) I was cautioned, and aware, that I’d have to aim for the front of the tire so that I could set my entire foot inside. I was hyper alert about my footing, but it never became an issue. My second concern was making sure I stepped in the tire directly in front of me and not skip any (a no-no). Like the barricades preceding the tires, a very low degree of difficulty, so I went pretty aggressively over them. While this obstacle itself didn’t pose a challenge, completing the first trifecta and transitioning back into the run, my legs (quads) were burning (the exertion of jumping coupled with the high stepping) and I thought ‘crap, I didn’t expect my legs to feel this way, and I’m just beginning.’ I never thought about stopping to shake off the rust, which was smart because the burning subsided after 30 seconds and I found my pain-free stride again.

  • Difficulty: 1 out of 5. If you can walk forward, you can do this.
  • Tip 1: Nothing fancy, just keep your head down, get your knees up (but don’t press), and finish through.

Looking down at my watch I was pleased with my time (I guessed I was running at about a 7:30 mile split), and was still a touched heated about having to wait at the first tire stack. That all washed away with the first mini stair climb to hop back on the bridge and over the river (if this was a litmus test for how I’d handle the Soldier Field stairs, I was screwed).

Obstacle 2: Alternating police barricades and cargo net

Police barricades

Summoning my youthful inner hurdler I half expected to just go all Edwin Moses (dating myself) here, but these barricades were probably a good 4 feet tall and I knew I didn’t stand a chance. Approaching full steam I didn’t know what I’d do, but instinctively planted both hands on top of it and sort of pole vaulted over, hopped forward twice on both feet, planted two hands on the next barricade, pole vaulted, hopped twice, and so on (you do about six barricades in your first set, two in the second, and then just one at the end). This is where my hurdler mindset paid off. I expended next to nothing getting over, I had a good rhythm that gave me momentum from one barricade to the next, and my legs were spared by doing the two-footed two-step hop.

  • Difficulty: 3 of 5. These are taller and will take more effort to get over, but they are solid so you can jump on them, over them, against them, whatever.
  • Tip 1: Try some form of planting your hands and vaulting your body over sideways (like you might hop a neighbor’s chain link fence). Taking these head on, or worse, hurdling, would be more challenging, and could take a toll on your legs, and possibly your face.

Cargo net

Stay low to avoid wearing a hair net

The cargo net is half nuisance, half welcoming respite. I ‘trained’ to do the bear call through (crawling on hands and feet, not knees) and that’s what I did, but I felt clunky and slow doing this and probably would have been just as well crawling on my hands and knees (advantage, shorter participants). It’s not every day you do the bear crawl.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. If you are shorter, probably a 1.
  • Tip 1: Just plow through this. You won’t impact your time much, but it’s not that taxing either, so just get through it.
  • Tip 2: If you are over six feet, go hands and knees, unless you have bad knees.
  • Tip 3: This is a net, so watch your head or you may be wearing a hair net. I didn’t see anyone get twisted up, but it’s not out the question).

There is a hydration station coming out of this obstacle so don’t linger after the last barricade (I saw a lot of runners with hands on knees here). 20 more yards and you can rejuvenate with some water or Gatorade.

Obstacle 3: Police tape followed by pallet stacks

Police tape

A Men’s Health gimme. Black and yellow police tape stretched about two feet off the ground held up by orange traffic cones. There were 9 rows, and like the first set of blue police barricades, there was no rhythm to be found, just a mixtape of awkward hurdles and hops. These rows stretch pretty wide so if you see a crowd in one section there is ample room to slide over and pick your open run. The repetitive quick-twitch bounding will tax your quads some, but not much.

  • Difficulty: 1 out of 5. Your biggest risk is taking down an entire row if you clip a sheet of tape, but at two feet high the degree of difficulty is minor (and volunteers are there to keep the tape up if it gets moved round).
  • Tip 1: None.

Pallet stacks

Sneaky challenging. The height (about 4 feet) and girth made it challenging to hurdle like some of the previous obstacles. The first few stacks I was able to hit on stride and take head on (run up, on, and over in a fluid motion), but after two of those my quads started to burn and I didn’t have the same oomph on the remaining piles so I settled for a quasi taxi cab hood slide on two more (though I was irrationally nervous about sliding thinking I might catch a staple or something), and a modified two-hand plant and vault on the last (there are five in all). There are plenty of stacks in each wide row so you don’t have to worry about waiting. Stronger runners will just hit these in stride and bound to the top, run across, and off. I was good for only two this way. These also took a lot out of my legs and I could really feel the burn coming off the final stack. A few runners littered the exit area to regroup before pressing on (hands on knees), but again, running through the 30 seconds of discomfort to regain my stride was exactly what the doctor ordered.

  • Difficulty: 3 out of 5 due to size, especially if you try to hurdle in stride to the top.
  • Tip 1: Lots of different styles in play so try not to kick someone, or get kicked yourself.

Obstacle 4: Alternating parallel bars and monkey bar

Parallel bars

Awkward, but fun

Earns the award for most awkward obstacle. It wasn’t until about a week prior to the race that I knew these were even in the picture. At a playground near my house there was a similar enough set up that I tried a few styles (alternating hand walking, and hop-step), and could tell immediately that the alternating left-right hand walking was out. Just too difficult to fluidly move forward. By only lightly bending your arms and bunny hopping forward you could launch yourself to the end in a handful of bursts, so long as you maintained your grip, and that’s exactly what I did in Chicago without missing a beat. The bars are only about 7 feet long, and I traversed them in about 4 quick hops. There were several lines of bars without any waiting so you can get through this quickly.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. If you lack upper body strength you may find this closer to 3 or 4.
  • Tip 1: Wear gloves. I read a lot of pre-race posts about not needing gloves, and no you don’t NEED them, but they helped make light work of the bars. I wore a cheap (inexpensive) pair of batting gloves from Dick’s.
  • Tip 2: Hop across with short bursts. Alternating stiff arms left to right is more awkward than you think, will take three times as long to get across, and require three times more effort.

Monkey bars

Gloves not required, but you’ll be glad you have them

The most anticipated obstacle for me. I couldn’t wait. After all of the running, crawling and leaping I was ready to work my upper body a little. Maybe it was the gloves (felt like Lester Hayes stick’m), maybe it was the prep (lots of pull ups in the weeks leading up to the race), and maybe a combo of the two, but I bolted across the monkey bars and was a little let down at how easy it went. The bars were chunky, heavy cast iron rods so you can get a good hold and there were only about 10 rungs (would have loved to see more). On a side note, the guy ahead of me breezed through nine rungs and fell to his backside on the very last one. He popped up, kind of shook his head, sheepishly looked around for a second, slapped his hands clean, and then ran to the back of the line to give it another go. That was some refreshing gamesmanship, especially having seen a few others cut corners along the way. Good for him, I thought. Later in the home stretch he passed me up, and that was the only point in the race where I was cool with getting dusted.

Immediately after the monkey bars is one more set of parallel bars, and then a hydration station. Fuel up! Things are about to get fun.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. Again, if upper body strength is your Achilles heal, than this may be a 4 for you.
  • Tip 1: Wear gloves! Just wear them. Your garden variety batting gloves will be perfect and will make your life easier (and with all the crawling you’ll be doing throughout the race you’ll spare your hands).
  • Tip 2: Make sure you use your body’s momentum, which means you may need to practice leading up to the race (your playground variety monkey bars are ideal). If you do that sort of dead-man’s hang in the middle of your flight you’re toast. Allowing your body to be your weight to propel you forward will take the pressure off of your arms; not all of it, but enough to make this tolerable.
  • Tip 3: Wear gloves.

Obstacle 5: Marine hurdles and Jeep thingy

Marine hurdles

The marine hurdles doled out its share of bruises

Seemingly most competitors’ nemesis. Post race I read a handful of Tweets about nursing bruises, and I think the marine hurdles can be attributed to that. 5 or so feet of hardwood planks that you have to climb over, and because of their height I think a number of runners would get an arm hooked over the top, than a leg, and then scrape a rib or 3 slinking down the other side. This is where my height, (modest) upper body strength, and hops paid the most dividends. It didn’t take much for me to hop up to nearly belly button high, plant my (gloved) hands on the top of the hurdle, push up and get a foot up as well, and then hop over (more than anything I was most concerned about tweaking my suspect ankle on the long jump down). Six up, six down. There is enough room for two people to go at the same time, but careful that you don’t catch a mouthful of shoe (there is a lot of flailing about on these). Look around as you go and give someone a hand if they need it. I think everyone in my pass made it over, with varying degrees of difficulty, but overwhelmingly I think competitors struggled here.

  • Difficulty: 3 out of 5, just for the sheer size of these things. If you are vertically challenged this could ratchet up to a 4 pretty easy.
  • Tip 1: In basketball they say you can’t teach height, so not sure what wisdom I can extol. A lot of people seemed to squirrel up and get their armpits up to the top and kind of hook their arms over. This is good and helps you then swing a leg over, just be careful to not scrape your side, or scrape your front sliding down the other side.

Jeep crawl

2010 champ and 2011 runner up Shane Logan

Gratuitous sponsor placement. If I could change one obstacle it would be this (if only because it seemed pointless and contrived). Beautiful Jeep Wranglers propped up on ramps so you have to crawl beneath them on green turf (I would have settled for crawling over them, but under was pretty underwhelming). A simple hands-and-knees crawl worked here (plenty of clearance, but probably not worth going all out with a bear crawl and risking a head knocker) and while the obstacle itself wasn’t challenging, the hard ground made it uncomfortable at best. I was wearing a thin compression pad beneath my right knee which absorbed some of the surface. It wasn’t completely clear on the path to take so I kind of alternated side to side, first crawling beneath one, jumping up and moving over to another Jeep and crawling beneath it, hopping up, moving over and then crawling through another. On a positive note this was the final obstacle before Soldier Field so I was a little relieved to have the respite, but I still felt a little untested here.

  • Difficulty: 1 out of 5.
  • Tip 1: The ground is extremely hard so take it easy on your knees (don’t go diving to the ground).

Obstacle 6: Soldier Field

You are now in Soldier Field, but nowhere near the steps

Notice I didn’t say ‘stair climb.’ More to it than that. This leg was pure gloriousness and hell damnation rolled into one, and probably comes closest to embodying the gritty Men’s Health Urbanathlon spirit I expected. First, this is just a magnificent, visually stunning stretch, both in terms of the stadium itself, but also peeking out across the city. I was at about my distance threshold at this point and unsure how my body would respond, but I still felt like I had gas in the tank, and nothing was tight or sore, so in my head I just kept telling my legs to turn over, turn over.

To get into the stadium you have to climb a series of small stair flights, and actually spend a good chunk of time running about the concourse before you peak-a-boo into the main concourse level and hit your first steps. You head down a tall flight of stairs toward the field and I thought ‘wow, I totally smoked the stairs,’ only, this was just a precursor. Running the concourse reminded me a lot of being at Disney World when you sit in a long line and think you finally made it to the front only to reveal that the line snakes around four more turns. We’d run a third around the concourse, head up a few ramps, hit some stairs, run some more, and each time I thought we were close we’d have to dart down yet another godforsaken concourse. I was really gassed, and the up and down wasn’t helping.

My gallop was reduced to a slow jog, and I even walked a few stairs, thinking I needed to save something for the final climb (though admittedly I had nothing in my reserves, so I don’t know what I was saving).

The final stair climb was a beast (459 of them). Twice up, twice down. And calling these stairs is a compliment. The pitch on these things was unreal, and it felt like climbing a latter into the sky. I kept my head down to focus on what was only immediately ahead of me. It was a pretty choppy climb because it was so congested. I ran up the steps when room allowed, but mostly walked because there simply wasn’t room to maneuver.

Emotionally, I felt amazing coming off the final decent, into the concourse, and then out of the gate. Plus there is a sizable crowd of supporters at that stage near the museum and that puts an added hop in your step.

Pre-rush hour traffic on the stairs, trust me

  • Difficulty: 5 out of 5. The amount of running, coupled with the mini stair climbs and the final two-up two-down climbs at this stage in the race was intense.
  • Tip 1: Expect to run, A LOT. You will improve your time if you stay focused on your run for a good portion of Soldier Field. I just kept expecting we’d be at the stair climb, and it didn’t come for a long time.
  • Tip 2: The final climb is really steep, so I’d encourage you to keep looking down or straight ahead, and not up (more of a mind game to me, not having to see the long, insane path ahead of me).
  • Tip 3: You can only go as quickly as the person ahead of you (not wide enough to pass), so don’t get too frustrated. There are just two paths up and down, and while it would be nice if one side was for walking and the other for running, it was a mix of both. You’ll be able to pick up steam on your first decent and then on the quick run over to the second set of stairs.

Final leg

Physically, I was in no man’s land. I’d never reached this distance before and while I felt I could continue without any problem, I certainly didn’t have an extra gear to kick into, and at this point confided in myself that I’d have just one good shot at the final wall.

While my body was working harder just to maintain my current pace, my head was really drinking in the moment; taking in the beautiful scenery, appreciating the eclectic group of competitors, and basking in the glory of putting it all on the line. ‘Right, left, right, left … let’s go legs’ was all I could think. Volunteers along the course assured us the final obstacles were just ahead, and slowly small clusters of finished runners and friends mingled on the outskirts, and the feint sound of a jacked-up emcee on the mic was heard urging people over the wall. The end of the run winds beautifully into the final obstacle course.

Obstacle 7: Taxi cabs, bus climb, cargo net, wall.

Taxi cabs

Get hood with the cabs

I could see immediately that the final course was one big mud puddle, and since the taxis were first I thought it to my advantage since the slippery car exterior would aid me across the hood or trunk. As is the case on the street, things were busy at the cabs and I instinctively ran to the furthest row (there are about 3 rows of 2 taxis that butt one another). It seemed all of the cabs had runners draped on them so on the first set I went the basic route and tight-roped the bumpers. I couldn’t pass the runner in front of me and instead of following him again over the bumper I dove up and across the trunk of the taxi and slid to my feet on the muddy grass. A good choice, and more fulfilling.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. The cluster of runners and mud were the only difficulties to contend with.
  • Tip 1: Like some of the earlier obstacles, find your path as soon as you can. Volunteers will be near the end of your run to point out some openings, too.
  • Tip 2: If you have it in you, your path of least resistance may be over a hood or trunk, as a lot of runners tip-toed the bumpers.

Bus climb

A simple climb up a cargo net to the top of one of two buses and then back down the other side. I could hear my girls yelling my name while climbing up and it was fun to look over and spot them with their signs. Rules state that you have to ascend facing the net, which I did, but a few runners dove right past me or slid down, while one guy rolled. Not sure if all of that was intentional, but I was so concerned about facing the net that I tripped on the last part and landed on my ass. A touch of humility after nearly 10 miles of self adulation.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. I think the mud and volume of people wiggling the net and perhaps careening toward you add a degree of difficulty, but it’s a pretty straight forward climb.
  • Tip 1: When you get near the bottom turn around and walk/run the few remaining feet of net facing the next obstacle. Just too hard to moonwalk the last 4 feet.

Cargo net

We’ve been here a few times prior, so back to basics. Especially since I was so depleted and focused on the pending wall. I took a slow bear crawl through, and coming out of it my knee pad was dangling around my calf, so I must have really been dragging my feet (knees).

  • Difficulty: 1 of 5. It’s crawling.
  • Tip 1: This isn’t a cargo net, but a chain fence, so watch your head going in and coming out.

The wall

A lot of ways to get over the wall

Before the race a lot of competitors practiced jumping against the wall, and I think this final obstacle held a significant amount or allure for us all. I think there is just something symbolic about climbing that last mountain.

Coming out of the cargo net I aimlessly walked to the far left, since there were a lot of people dangling in the middle. I walked, didn’t run. I really thought I had one, maybe two shots at getting over. I paced for about 5 Mississippi to collect myself and take stock of how my legs felt, picked my spot, slowly started my approach, jumped with both feet, grabbed cleanly on the top with both hands, pulled myself up some, hooked my leg, and I was over. I pumped my fist in the air, jumped off the platform, ran like a maniac through the finish.

  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. It all goes back to my height, hops, and decent upper body strength. I think on average it was more like 3-4.
  • Tip 1: I didn’t try one, but my gut says that the ropes are more harm than good. They don’t go all the way up the wall, and with a muddy wall you can’t get the foot traction to scale it.
  • Tip 2: Everyone helps everyone here, so if at any point you want a hand there are volunteers at the top of the wall, as well as runners behind you.
  • Tip 3: When the race ends, go back to the wall (or taxis or buses) for a photo. I regret not doing this, but it didn’t even cross my mind at the time.

Official time

  • 1:30:39 (the night before I calculated I’d come in between 1:28 and 1:30)
  • Placed 53 out of 201 men in the 40-44 age group (I really thought I would place closer to 35-40 in my age group, but had nothing to base that on)
  • Placed 853 overall out of 2,999 total individual competitors (not bad, but I was fantasizing closer to the 600s)

The whole shebang

You’ll find a lot of good Urbanathlon clips on YouTube, but this one by ‘spartanmango’ is one of the better ones (9 minute clips of just the obstacles):


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