Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Step up your game

On balance, I felt pretty good about my 2011 Urbanathlon performance (I could at least hold my head high). But on the evening following the race, in the hotel room as I obsessed over the race results on the laptop (sorting them every which way), I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in my gut about my stadium splits. 18:08. This was far and away the slowest climb in the cluster of racers in my age group who finished ahead of me and quite a few places behind me.

I refreshed the browser and highlighted the row on the screen to make sure I was looking at my line, but the data wouldn’t change. I knew while chugging through the stadium that I wasn’t at my best (meaning, I was tired). But 18:08 tired (why not 15:43 tired)?

(Click to enlarge) Look at the disparity on the climb, shown in the red column. The three previous columns are Leg 1, Leg 2, Leg 3

So after a good swim with my kids at the hotel, a pound of Maggiano’s pasta swollen in my belly, feet firmly propped up on the queen-sized bed, and the laptop jettisoned to the floor, I vowed that I would take back Soldier Field in 2012.

That was then.

My running the last few months has been going okay, but I only recently stepped up my game on the stairs (no pun intended). There are plenty of training options and hills in and around the Twin Cities to consider, but I had four things on my list of must-haves before locking in on a location:

  1. Safety. Figuring some of my training would come early in the morning or later at night, I needed to feel safe, and the physical environment itself structurally sound.
  2. Privacy. I didn’t want to make a scene, so popular venues with a lot of upside, like the State Capitol or History Center, wouldn’t cut it because of the general foot traffic and openness.
  3. Proximity: I prefer training closer to home, for various reasons. Plus, I’d love to incorporate the stairs into my run, so they’d have to be in reach of my house.
  4. Stairs. Lots of ‘em. Men’s Health is claiming 459 stairs at Soldier Field, and it’s important I be able to simulate that experience as true as possible.

I landed on beautiful Summit Avenue at the James J. Hill mansion. 187 steps, accessible yet discrete, and seemingly plucked straight from Soldier Field and hand delivered to Saint Paul. The steps run along the side of the mansion and down a hill leading into downtown Saint Paul.

James J Hill, the locally revered railroad magnate of the late 1800s, not only made a lasting impression on Minnesotans, but will soon have a vital role in the Urbanathlon.

On my first training day I finished just 5 sets. The first two at slow clip, one step at a time, the next two at 1:31.8 and 1:35.8, and on the fifth one my legs felt like they were filled with quick sand and set on fire (I don’t have a time for the last set because I inadvertently stopped my watch at 7 seconds, but I’m guessing 1:45 would have been a generous spot). That was enough for one day.

My goal right now is simply 1,000 steps/week (loosely translates to 6 sets once a week at JJ Hill mansion). Prior to the 2011 Urbanathlon I partly committed myself to running hills along my normal running route, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. I’ll commit to this routine for a few weeks, and then ramp up (without burning out) and finally incorporate it into my actual running.

My course starts on the mean streets of downtown Saint Paul (Smith Avenue) approaching the Interstate 35E overpass (note, there are two more blocks of steps like this below, which were blocked for repair the day I took this photo).

The Interstate 35E overpass provides a nice 40-yard sprint to the start of the climb (again, important to mimicking Soldier Field, which involves more running than steps).

The first few blocks of steps are easy peasy, but then the burn sets in.

At the very top there is another 50-yard dash leading up to the final block of about 16 steps, which spills you out onto Summit Avenue. Recovering from the climb while running to the final steps is a good simulation of the overall obstacle-to-run Urbanathlon experience.

Another look at the last run and climb. After the steps, the Cathedral is a Tiger Woods 7 iron to the right, and is a magnificent view while you’re barfing up a lung. The State Capitol is in view just beyond that.

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