Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 2012 Obstacle Course Breakdown

Recently I broke down the 10.8 mile running portion of the 2012 Chicago Urbanathlon, and you can reconcile that post with the following obstacle overview to map out your complete plan.  

Note: this is based on my perspective, strengths, and weaknesses. Your experience will vary, but this gives you a good baseline for what to expect, and that’s all I want. For official course and obstacle details and images, go to http://www.menshealthurbanathlon.com/chicago-course.html

OBSTACLE 1: Plastic Barricades and Police Barricade Combo. 
In 2011 the plastic barricades came deeper into the race, and I have a feeling that as the first obstacle runners will take these more aggressively than they probably should. In truth, it comes down to form over speed. I suggest rather than hurdle or jump (there are a lot of these and your quads will betray you), resort to a two-hand plant and swing your legs over (like jumping a chain link fence). Especially with the third/last set of barricades, which are quite long, where you can develop a smooth rhythm (last year I unwittingly fell into a hand plant / swing over / two-hop repeat motion that worked swimmingly (and fast). As for the police barricades, as I mentioned before about 2011, everyone went OVER these, not under. I’m guilty as charged, too, but in the flow of everyone hurdling these I just figured that was the rule (even watch the videos on the Urbanathlon site and people are bounding these things).

Anticipated difficulty: 2 out of 5. Use good form, otherwise this will become a 4, and make the rest of the race miserable. 


OBSTACLE 2: Cargo Net and Traffic Cones with Poles Combo.
This is less about difficulty and more about ‘do you have good enough knees to crawl on the ground and hop back up.’ For taller runners (6-feet+), the down-on-all-fours crawl works best, whereas the bear crawl (on hands and feet) may do the trick for others. I tried the bear crawl in 2011 and it was more cumbersome and awkward than I expected so dropped to all fours and plowed through. You won’t win or lose the race here so get through with minimal damage (to your knees or head). The traffic cones are a gimme. They are pretty low to the ground, and more than anything there spacing makes it hard to find a rhythm between each one.

Anticipated difficulty:  1 out of 5.  


OBSTACLE 3: Police Barricades and Tire Stutter Step Combo.
Again with the police barricades, and again, go UNDER, not over. Keep in mind that course volunteers, while extremely supportive and helpful, are not task masters and will not flag you down and demand that you start the obstacle over if doing it incorrectly. It’s more reliant on the honor system, so just do what you know is right. On the tires, keep your head down and your knees up. I think people with big feet worry about getting through these cleanly, but I wear a 13 shoe and in 2011 had no issues getting in and out. Also, take one tire at a time. They were more staggered last year, so you hopped more diagonal than straight ahead, so focus on your placement, and to the best you can take one at a time (which is the rule).  Last year I saw runners skip tires and I was just waiting for course karma to deliver sweet justice later in the race.

Anticipated difficulty:  2 out of 5.  Now that we’re nearly 4 miles in, everything requires just a bit more effort. In 2011 the tires and barricades were the first obstacle.


OBSTACLE  4: Subaru Crawl, Marine Hurdles and Police Barricade Combo.
The marine hurdles are undoubtedly one of the more challenging obstacles, due largely to their height and upper-body strength requirement (finally). As I wrote in 2011:

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).”

I recall doing 6 of these in 2011, and the 2012 course map shows 3. 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.

We’ve already addressed the police barricades, and the Subaru crawl is a necessary sponsorship evil (I like you, Subaru, a lot, but maybe in 2013 we have to chase you down, not crawl under you).

Anticipated difficulty:  4 out of 5.  If you can make it up and over the marine hurdles with little effort, you can feel good about the remaining obstacles to come, as they are all inferior.


OBSTACLE 5: Soldier Field Stair Climb.
I’ve written at length about the stair climb, so I won’t get too detailed here. It’s a miserable, miserable thing. The interesting thing in 2012 is that Soldier Field comes early in the course. Here are the broad strokes of what you can expect.

  • The amount of running in the concourse, coupled with the many mini stair climbs and incline ramp runs, and the final two-up two-down climbs is intense and difficult for everyone.
  • Expect to run, A LOT. You will improve your time if you stay focused on your run for a good portion of Soldier Field. In 2011 I just kept expecting we’d be at the stair climb, and it didn’t come for a long time.
  • The final climb is really steep (two up, two down)
  • You can only go as quickly as the person ahead of you, 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. In 2012 I hope Men’s Health has a handle on this, because it seemed to be the only consistent gripe for runners. 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.

OBSTACLE 6: Monkey Bars and Parallel Bars Combo.
Now we’re talk’n!  As in 2011, probably the most anticipated obstacle for me, since it’s one of the only obstacles to require a modest helping of upper body strength. The bars are chunky, heavy cast iron rods so you can get a good hold, and there are only about 10 rungs. I suggest you wear gloves (any inexpensive batting gloves will do). You don’t NEED them, but they sure help.

The parallel bars are more awkward than you think.  You can alternate left-right and hand walk this out, but it’s not very fluid. By only lightly bending your arms and bunny hopping forward you can launch yourself to the end in a handful of bursts, so long as you maintained your grip (gloves will help here, too). The bars are only about 7 feet long, and you can traverse these in about 4-5 quick hops.

Anticipated difficulty:  3 out of 5. These are not difficult, but if you are someone who has a hard time with monkey bars, which many people do, then these will be a handful for you.


OBSTACLE 7: Traffic Jam.
This is a new obstacle that Men’s Health is trying to get their arms around, so no real info about it yet. It was the winning entry in the Urbanathlon Design an Obstacle contest (Note: my ‘pole crossing’ earned runner-up status in this contest!). I’m bitter less about losing (just less bitter, but you can bet I’m still bitter) and more that this seems like a bad idea (for this race). There is no strength or endurance element and is there mainly to interrupt your flow. With some of the other lesser obstacles, like police barricades and traffic cones, at least you’re plowing ahead. We’ll see how long Men’s Health decides to make it, or if they put their own twist to it, but I’m not super excited about it.

Anticipated difficulty:  1 out of 5. 
Anticipated bitterness:  5 out of 5. 


OBSTACLE 8: Kumho Tire Stutter Step and Plastic Barricade Combo.
Hmmm, a mish-mash of previous obstacles.  We’ve tackled both earlier in this post. More than anything I think this is a gimme before you get ready to bring this thing home the last two miles.

Anticipated difficulty:  2 out of 5. Should be a 1, but now that you’re in over 8 miles, getting those knees up isn’t as easy as it was in mile 3.


OBSTACLE 9: Over, Under, Through NEW 2012 Obstacle
A little Urbanathlon intrigue. You’ll want to click over the Chicago Urbanathlon website to view a photo of this one. The obstacle title actually does a good job of explaining what it is. There are six walls (one in front of the other, several feet apart) constructed of lumber, and the first one you climb over (looks to be about as high as the marine hurdles, so not so tall that you’ll struggle too mightily, but not so short that you can dance over it without thought), hit the ground and crawl under the next wall, and then sort of jump/climb through window-like cutouts on the next wall. Over, under, through. There are two sets three walls, so six in all. I actually really like this idea, which combines some strength and agility (no sleepwalking through this one), and coming after 9 miles of running it’ll be THAT much more challenging.

Anticipated difficulty:  3 out of 5. The first and third walls will come as a challenge because of the height and required agility.


OBSTACLE 10: Tissot 40-Yard Dash NEW Obstacle 2012
Again, click over the Chicago Urbanathlon website to see an image of this obstacle. I’m not entirely sure how this will play out, but from the looks of it there is section near the finish area where for 40 yards you simply haul ass. It appears there is a chip reader at the start and finish of this dash area to record your time, and maybe there will be awards for fastest 40-yard dash. I don’t know. I’m also assuming that when you hit the dash area you just get on your horse and go (so start your dash a few yards early so you hit it at max speed). I love the idea of this obstacle. Some runners have a strong kick, and will do well here (after more than 10 miles of running!). In 2011 I would have stunk this up, but feel I’ll have something in the tank to give this obstacle a fair shake. Even better, if you go all out here the final obstacle is just ahead, so you’ll hit the taxis / bus climb / fence crawl / wall climb gassed and exerted. I love it.

Anticipated difficulty:  1-4 out of 5. The difficulty depends mostly on how hard you’ll take this on. If you just run though it at your current race pace, then yeah, it’s probably a 1, but if you make an effort to really run it hard and indeed ‘dash,’ then we’re looking at a 4 (based on where this comes in the race, what it requires from you, and how it leaves you for the final obstacle just ahead).


OBSTACLE 11: Taxis & Buses to Chain Link Crawl to Wall Finish.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A great Urbanathlon finale. There are really three ways you can approach the taxis, since they are butted trunk to trunk

  1. Walk the bumpers and use your hands on the trunks to balance yourself (I did this in 2011 on the first set and it was easy but slow because of the person in front of me),
  2. Take the road less traveled and slide across the trunk or hood (I did this in 2011 on the second set and it was a good way to get over quickly).
  3. Go high and slide across the very top of the car (I won’t be doing this unless I’m shot out of a canon).

The cargo net and fence are straight forward. Climb and crawl.

I think a lot of runners are intimidated by the final wall (8 feet high!). In fact, before the race you’ll see people hanging all over this thing to size it up. I’ve talked specifically about the wall in a previous post, and I’ll recap it here:

  • The wall is a beehive of activity (and flailing legs). Pick your spot early as you come out of the fence.
  • Avoid the ropes. They seem like a good idea, but since they go up the wall only part way you have a better chance of getting stuck up two-thirds of the way. For shorter runners the ropes may be your best option to get started, though, unless you go for the next option …
  • There is lots of help here. Volunteers and other racers hang around at the top to help those who want it. Some are on the ground, too, to give you a boost.
  • Take your time. A lot of runners take 3 and 4 stabs at this thing before getting over.
  • I suggest you avoid trying to run to the wall, jump into the wall and plant a foot against it, and try to springboard to grab the top. The wall is too slick for this to work without you ending up on YouTube outtakes.
  • If you channel your inner Michael Jordan and can get both hands on the top in one jump, it’s just a single pull-up to get up and over.

Anticipated difficulty:  4 out of 5 (because of the wall). It’s more a 3, but if you don’t have the hops to get both hands to the top of the wall you’ll need to be more resourceful or dogged. Just know that it’s not as tough as you may think.


It’s now in your hands. If you have specific questions leave a comment. See you in chicago.

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3 thoughts on “Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 2012 Obstacle Course Breakdown

  1. Hi Randy, greats posts. I am doing the NYC urbanathlon this weekend and your blog is really helpful. quick questions about a few obstacles:
    1) how tall is the chainlink fence you had to crawl under? were you able to bear crawl or did you have to slide on your belly?
    2) the over/under walls: how tall do you think they are? about 5 feet?
    thanks for your help and great job on your urbanathlon!

    • Thanks for the questions. I know my posts have been very Chicago focused, but it’s been my hope that people could glean insights for NYC and San Francisco, so I’m glad you’ve found some of it useful. I’ll tackle your questions:

      1.) I’m hard pressed to give an exact height of the chain link fence, but you can bear crawl it (hands and feet) depending on your height. I’m 6,1″ and went through on hands and knees no problem (I did this both years). It’s not so short you have to go down on your belly (like you see in various mud runs). Also, there is a similar cargo net crawl early in the race and a lot of people bear crawl this because it had some give at the top (since this one was a net). Again, I took this one on hands and knees, too, because it was easier and because there was a full crowd going through and it was kind of slow going (but the folks to my right were hands and feet all the way).

      2.) Over/Under walls are a nice tweener height of about 4 feet (my approximation). I say ‘tweener’ because it is higher than the plastic barricades you’ll go over a few times (which seem about 3 feet) but not as tall as the marine hurdles (which are 5 feet). If in life you’ve ever found yourself in a position of having to jump a standard height chain link fence this is about spot on. You’ll be able to walk up to it and just sort of hop and swing a leg to the top of it and then jump over the rest of the way. Now, the opening on the ‘through’ wall is about the same height, but you’ll need to go through that sort of Dukes of Hazard style (grab the top of the opening, hop and pull yourself at the same time and then swing your legs through and slide through the rest of the way; the opening s were too small/narrow for me to go through any other way). The biggest challenge (for me) on this obstacle was simply where it came in the race (after 9 miles and on the beach), but still one of the more challenging.

      Looks like things are all set for NYC and I hope you have a blast this weekend. If you remember, hop back here and let me know how it went. All the best.

      • Thanks for your help. Luckily, we had beautiful weather that day and I shaved off 8 minutes from my time the year before, so I was pretty pleased overall. If you send me an email offline, I will send you my name/finish time (i don’t like to post because I am a privacy freak.) your blog was super helpful.

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