Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2011 (Chicago): The Running Man

Lest you forget, this is a runner’s race.

Going in I anticipated the obstacles as a great equalizer, leveling the brawny to scrawny playing field. But with the first tire climb, late-stage marine hurdles, and final wall representing the only true physically demanding road blocks, most of the on-course crawling and hopping served only as modest speed bumps for the fleet of foot.

I became attuned to this deep into the first running leg when a smallish, older competitor in baggy red cotton sweat pants and mesh tank top flew passed me at around mile 2 just prior to Navy Pier and the first obstacle course. The awaiting log jam at the tire climb brought us even, and I eclipsed him over the tires and through the course, only to see him flutter past me 45 seconds into the post-obstacle run. I didn’t see him again. To the runner go the spoils.

Now completely hip to the run-to-obstacle math, a central part of my focus between now and October is to, in short, become a stronger runner. More strength. Increased speed. Better endurance (all easier said than done). In future posts I’ll talk more about how I’m working to accomplish all of that, but today want to share the 7 running stages of the Urbanathlon so that you can devise your own plan for 2012 (the official Urbanatholn map shows 3 legs, which jives with the relay team transitions, but here I’m talking about all of the between-obstacle runs, of which there are 7).

*Mile marks are close approximations, not an exact science.

LEG 1: 2.5 miles

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Wide lanes, a lot of road ahead. Start strong. Photo by Ray Maker

The longest uninterrupted run of the race. A beautiful straightaway down Columbus Avenue in wide lanes past cheering friends and families, and a few curious onlookers. As is the case with most races (I imagine), the start was bunchy and herky jerky, with runners battling nerves and excitement, and dialing into their pace. I stayed to the left where I could comfortably pass when I could, and several runners joined me. Columbus Avenue and Lake Shore Drive provide the widest, straightest lanes, so use them as you see fit; the remainder of the course is more narrow and passing is sometimes difficult.

Running over the Chicago River (on that metal BBQ grate of a surface) you get your first glimpse of the wave before you as they exit the first obstacle course and head back over the river (you don’t see the course from here, though, just flushed runners). Winding into Navy Pier the course begins to narrow (and you look directly into the sun) as you transition from open street to grassy paths and boulevards. If you want to hit the first hydration station here I’d encourage you to hang to the right. I couldn’t reasonably get over, and because it was so early in the race, and hydration stations abound elsewhere, I bypassed it. No regrets.

It was interesting running around the back of Navy Pier, in through a small tunnel, and then out into the touristy front lakeside area (it was still closed to the public). Coming out of Navy Pier is your first obstacle, and since the course here momentarily widens again, and is a straight shot, I recommend you give it a little gas and hustle to the first waiting obstacle course.

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

How I did in 2011:
New to running, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel, so I ran at a comfortably brisk pace (for me), meaning about a 7:30 mile split, and stayed on the fringes to avoid the clumping in the middle of the road.

What I’ll do different in 2012:

  • Because of a last-minute decision to use the port-a-potty, I ended up relinquishing my coveted spot up front and had to settle in the back row of my wave (the second to the last wave at that), meaning I had to tap dance and frogger the first half mile or so, burning energy I didn’t need to burn. I’ll hit the bathroom early in 2012.
  • Most importantly, I expect I’ll push myself much harder on this first leg and establish a faster pace (I ran comfortably in 2011, and in 2012 I’ll be more aggressive in terms of speed). Because it’s so open, and it’s the longest running leg (but still just 2.5 miles), I’m hoping with a little effort I will shave at least a minute off this portion.

LEG 2: 1 mile (3.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A scenic lakefront path, just like your run at home, right? Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 2 comes as you start this leg.

One of the first things you do transitioning out of the first obstacle course and back into your run is climb a flight of stairs to go back over the Chicago River. While it’s a small flight (about 15 steps), it was unexpected, and coming so quickly after the tire run it just worked my quads that much more and hampered my recovery.

Surprisingly, this was the point where we started to catch up to the wave just before us. This was refreshing, but also crowded (especially on the now narrower running paths). A few times heading back on Lake Shore Drive and on the bridge I dipped off of the walkway and into the street to pass, as did others.

Not to discount it, but this stretch is just a mile, goes by quickly, and leads into a not-so-demanding obstacle course (alternating police barricades and cargo net).

Obstacle transition:
Alternating police barricades and cargo net

How I did in 2011:
While steady and something I can be proud of, my pace on this leg was noticeably slower (probably close to 8:15/mile). If I beat it into my head that it’s just a mile, perhaps I could have given more effort.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
I’m horrible in math, and thought by keeping time on my watch’s stopwatch and running the numbers in my head to calculate my splits, I’d not only know my pace, but I’d occupy my mind with something other than the endless concrete ahead of me. No dice. I had the numbers all jumbled at this point and didn’t have an inkling of pace. By the time the 2012 race rolls around I hope to have a GPS watch to help keep me on track (I don’t know that I can press or pull back just on feel alone).

LEG 3: 1.5 miles (5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A beautiful shoreline stretch that felt much longer than it was. Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 3 kicks off this leg. Do not miss this one.

Bar none the most beautiful stretch, hitting the run paths along a perfectly scripted shore line. Still feeling strong, I thought, “hey, I can totally do this” and just sort of settled in for the haul, knowing I’d make it through. The congestion became more pronounced with previous waves now mingling into porous clusters with other waves, and groups of runners partnered up side-by-side keeping a conversational pace (I didn’t mind the buddy system at all and thought it to be a cool outing with a friend). This meant occasionally dodging onto the grass to maintain speed, or worse, lingering behind them, lulled into a slower gallup.

It was at about mile 3.5 when I felt a sharp pain in my left side. Not like a side stich, but more like getting poked really hard in my chest with a popsicle stick. It wasn’t crippling, but present, and of course now I’m thinking, “do I stop and let it subside,” “do I run through it and hope it goes away,” “how stupid will I feel if my wife and kids have to scoop me up off the boulevard and drag me to the ER, and worse yet, that I’m not smart enough to listen to my body to know that I’m having a heart attack?” As I contemplated all of this, passing East Balbo Drive, I saw the handmade signs from my kids, and my wife working the camera phone (which ended up not working here), and I eased up, pulled to the right, high-fived the team and found a new hop in my step. I ran through the popsicle stick mauling and made it pain-free the rest of the way.

As you approach Shed Aquarium it’s important to note that you start to cross paths in the opposite direction with runners who are descending into the final mile of the race, so it’s nearly single file around the quarter mile or so of path, and volunteers will demand you move over and hug the wall (this is the only time volunteers get on you, understandably). You can easily get stuck behind a line of 3 or 4 people that you want to pass, and if it’s open to the right you can take it (do it quickly, though), but depending on the runners coming the other way (and they come fast and slightly down hill) you may not have that opportunity.

Obstacle transition:
Police tape followed by pallet stacks

How I did in 2011:
Shortly after seeing my family, I thought, “WTF, shouldn’t there be another obstacle by now?” Felt like 10 miles if it was an inch; it certainly felt longer than the first leg. Maybe because it’s the straightest leg it just felt unending. Anyway, because I kept thinking an obstacle was just up ahead, I didn’t run the last half as well as I should have (and there are stairs near the end of this leg, to boot), and well, I was tiring. A slow but steady leg for me that I can only describe as “plodding.”

What I’ll do different in 2012:
Aside from the view there’s nothing magical here. With some newfound experience, endurance and strength I’ll run this leg more deliberately from start to finish, knowing it’s a long, straight haul, and knowing I have the endurance to do it.

LEG 4: 1.5 mile (6.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A few unexpected, but manageable course curve balls. Photo by mexicomacabro

Hydration station number 4. Drink up. Water and Gatorade as usual.

Still hugging the shoreline, I recall this leg as being choppier than much of the rest of the course. Tighter running lanes, more transitions from paths to walkways to corridors, mini stair climbs, and overall just a more dense landscape (mainly in the McCormick Place vicinity). The running field really loosened at this point, though, giving you the freedom to roam at your own pace.

Plodding as well as ever, I felt good enough to maintain my pace, but never felt like, “sweet, I’ve got another two gears to kick it into come the final leg,” Nope. This was it. At this point in the race I was at the threshold of my running wheelhouse, meaning much of my training was in the 5-mile variety, so we’re playing with house money from here out. I could tell I had the endurance, but my legs started to feel like I was wearing tight weighted pants.

I think for many of the runners this marked the ‘things are about to get interesting’ stage, with several miles behind us and a few of the more difficult obstacles coming up, followed by Soldier Field, and the final wall.

Obstacle transition:
Alternating parallel bars and monkey bars

How I did in 2011:
I knew that the monkey bars were coming at the end of this leg, and after all of the climbing and hurdling I really looked forward to this particular upper-body-strength obstacle, and ran with a little more urgency and gusto. I wasn’t swift by any measure, but steady.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
While this mile marker was in my sweet spot in 2011, in 2012 I hope to have much fresher legs and a few gears in reserve that I didn’t have before.

LEG 5: 1 mile (7.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Have a field day after the monkey bars, then grab a Gatorade. Photo by mexicomacabro

There is a hydration station coming out of the monkey bars, and you should hit it. No chance you’ll miss it since the obstacle course finishes in a large open field, giving you a grassy 60-yard dash before you transition back into a more defined path. The field was an unchaotic free for all, as runners shook the feeling back into their hands and arms, hydrated, and moved on.

The cool thing about McCormick Place is that you don’t run around it, you run beneath it. The tunnel is wide and well lit. My heavy footsteps sounded like I was running on an oversized bass drum. My key driving force at this juncture was mental-noting the other race bib colors, and feeling fleeting satisfaction being in the mix of some of the earliest waves (not a completely fair comparison, since we’re grouped by age, not skill, save for the elite first wave). Each red, orange, purple or green bib I passed was simple motivation to keep moving, keep pressing (my bib was khaki).

I should also mention that this is the leg that turns you back into downtown toward the finish (at least heading that direction), shifting your thinking from “I need to pace” to “let’s bring this thing home and finish strong.”

Obstacle transition:
Marine hurdles and Jeep thingy, and then into Soldier Field

How I did in 2011:
I actually ran this leg pretty strong, possibly buoyed by a decent showing on the monkey bars. Running beneath McCormick Place was also unique, which maintained an element of fun.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
If all I do differently in 2012 is run faster, than I’ve done my job. It’s a pretty short distance leading into the Marine Hurdles (where I excelled), and then Soldier Field (where I bombed), so a real opportunity to shave up to a minute off my time.

LEG 6: .5 miles Soldier Field (8 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Prepare for a lot of this. Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 6 comes just before this leg. Drink, or else.

I’ve awarded Soldier Field its own unofficial running leg (as well as an obstacle course) because you put in a good half mile in the stadium before you sniff the vaunted stair climb, and it’s worth noting because nothing I read prior to the race prepared me for that little nugget. It’s a mix of concourse running, small ramps (up), and flights of 8 or so stairs at a clip before you settle into THE stairs.

The concourse was wide open, and the zigzag nature of the path was a little jarring. The small stairs on the other hand squeezed into near single-file lanes, and with some people walking, some jogging, some clinging to the rails, and others more aggressively slithering up between the masses, they were in general slow going. So lots of “run fast,” “now turn around and run fast,” “now slow down and wait,” “now run again, fast, and turn,” “now slow up.”

Regrettably, I walked a few stairs (before THE stairs), which I didn’t want to do, but I was blindsided by the amount of running here, naïve that we’d hit Soldier Field, run the mythical steps, and be done. Lesson learned.

How I did in 2011:
I’m saving the gory Soldier Field details for a future post, but I will say I have a huge opportunity to improve here.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
Descending the stairs, and drinking in the amazing view of the field, I wanted to scream “Go Vikings!” (especially since the Vikings were playing there the following day), but I wasn’t in the mood to take unnecessary grief for my allegiance and simply (and quietly) enjoyed the view. Next year, with hopefully a few more notches in the win column, I’ll give the Vikings a shout.

LEG 7: 1.5 miles (9.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Depending on your direction this will be either mile 5ish or mile 9ish … Photo by mexicomacabro

Hydration station number 7 (last one). Finish strong.

“Only about a mile to go, the finish line is close, it’s close” was the volunteers’ mantra as you exit out of Soldier Field (greeted by a sparse but raucous group of supporters) and wind your way back past Field Museum and Shed Aquarium. At the aquarium, momentarily, it’s back to near-single file because runners are still coming the other way. You see the “Mile 9” marker here and it feels great.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was in no man’s land here, in terms of distance. All of my previous training capped at about 8 miles, so all of these feelings (sluggishness, self-loathing, betrayal, confusion) were new (and annoying).

Between Shed Aquarium and the Columbus Drive home stretch I don’t know that I passed more than a few people, nor was I taken over by many, but a few runners clearly had the other gear I sorely lacked and they nearly sprinted the final 1200/800 meters.

The running was quite open along wide paths through the park, and visually it was stunning scenery. The majority of us just paced in a slow moving herd (again, not a lot of passing at this point), and I think we were just waiting for the end to open up into the final obstacle course. On Columbus Drive, before you turn back into the park, I really did try to eke out one small kick (just for the sake of momentum), but it was undetected even to the trained eye.

Herding into the final obstacle course was phenomenal, and spiritually energizing, with small crowds lining your runway, a super-pumped up emcee on the mike, and the end about 120 seconds away.

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

How I did in 2011:
I made it, and that was enough for me (at the time). Carried mostly by good vibes, I was as tired as I’d ever been (while running), and no matter what my mind told my legs to do, my legs responded with resolute consistency; “!&#* you.’

What I’ll do different in 2012:
That elusive extra gear I keep mentioning, this is where I’ll use it. We’ll see if my 2012 training pays off.

After the race, hang out at the finish and stage some photos like these guys. I forgot to.


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