Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 2012 Recap and Observations

With a year of running and one (shaky) Urbanathlon already under my belt I was far better prepared for Chicago 2012, and my results bear this out. But I wasn’t the only one who upped his game. Men’s Health returned with what I thought was a much improved experience; though like my 2012 run, it wasn’t all roses. Here are some of my general thoughts and observations about the 2012 Men’s Health Urbanathlon in Chicago, in no particular order:

Packet Pickup
A little off the beaten path in the opposite direction this year at REI, meaning we had to drive (this was fine since we picked up the packet before visiting a friend in Oak Park). Off-street metered parking was an option, but no spaces available. With the persistent threat of rain I opted to park in the attached garage around the back of the store, but was caught off guard by the $8 for the first half hour price tag (pricey for this Minnesotan). Ouch. I rationalized the cost, of course, and later on during our browsing around REI found that they validate parking (either a detail I missed, or one that could/should easily have been noted in the pre-race emails; take the guess work and anxiety out of parking). Signs at the door lead us upstairs and the check in process was a breeze; they check your ID and run your name in their database, then give you your race bib and chip timer. A second room held your Urbanathlon T-shirt and a sponsor-provided Jockey undershirt (these were available by the truck load at the race Saturday …).

Packet pick up was a breeze. We nabbed an REI membership while we were here.

Bib assignments …very efficient.

T-shirts …

This is essentially what comprised the race packet. I was nervous about the Tissot timer (here attached in red to the race bib) since it was a bracelet-like loop you attached to your shoelace, and not the old timing disk. It worked fine, of course, but gave me one more thing to obsess over. I loved the black participant T-shirt this year.

Finish and Festival Area
I initially bristled at the idea of holding the finish and festival in the south parking lot of Soldier Field (what with the crawling and the potential for spills on the final wall). But I was wrong, and this turned out to be a great idea. In 2011 we spent a good portion of the festival trying to avoid the mud (less of a big deal for those of us who ran the race, but not so much fun for the family), and in 2012, where we had actual rainfall, it just washed away on the concrete and we all fared much better. Good call.

The parking lot sounded like a bad idea at first, but I’m first to admit I was wrong.

Getting to the Start Line
I had anticipated walking/jogging to Soldier Field from the Best Western River North, just to warm up, but the intermittent drizzle and 2 or so long miles made me think otherwise (I walked from the hotel in 2011, but Soldier Field was just out of my range). As I sat in McDonald’s at 5:15 a.m. eating oatmeal I tried calculating the time and route of the CTA bus from my phone, but the loose details left me way uneasy, and I instead hailed a cab back at the hotel (across the street from McDonald’s). The cab ride was an easy five minutes and $10 away, though I kept telling the driver ‘south parking lot at Soldier Field’ to which he would quickly fire back ‘which one, there are many!” Oh boy. Once we hit Soldier Field he just followed the crowd and my trip was a breeze (my wife drove and parked in the lot for $20; she said she got right in to the covered lot, and we were all glad we had wheels when we were tired, chilly and wet after the event).

However; the crew (that I encountered) working traffic at Soldier Field were complete (rhymes with ‘bass bowls’). Wow. The cab driver pulled off to an empty area to let me out and they were yelling at him like he stole Mike Ditka’s mustache; “hey Cabi, move it MOVE it!” and before I set one Asics on the ground they were all over me to keep it moving and walk the other direction across the street (I hadn’t exited the cab yet!). My head was in race mode, so I was a little on edge and mumbled something in their direction to the tune of “I’m just getting out of the cab … what?” To which one guy yelled back, “I’m … just … LETTING YOU KNOW!’ Damn. An hour before race time and I’m already worked up, and now I felt like I had the stink of bad karma on my side. To their credit, traffic was moving nicely, but what colossal bass bowls.    

My Urbanathlon pre-race ritual.

Streets all quiet at 6 a.m. Who knew. Now at about 6:15 a.m. I’m feeling nervous about the time and I asked the front desk staff at the hotel to please call a cab, which they did.

Soldier Field
In 2011 I chafed at the running distance inside the Soldier Field concourse; it was 20 miles if it was a foot. This year we entered Soldier Field via a very long incline on the north end of the stadium (I think), ran the concourse for just a moment and then we were at THE climb; four up and four down. That was great, and what I had expected the prior year.

However; my biggest complaint (and so it seems of other competitors) is that we have to get a handle on corralling those who want to run the steps versus those who want to walk them. It’s not all on Men’s Health, either. In 2013 I’d love to see signs on the steps (from top to bottom) that indicate the right side for walking and the left for running. A few volunteers can scatter along the climb with signs to reinforce this. Now runners, you can help, too. Just hang to the right if you choose to walk (heck, I may join you there). Most painfully, going down the steps there were two guys strolling side-by-side as if sauntering barefoot in a patch of daisies, with nobody in front of them for 30 feet. Like others, I’m sure I lost a few minutes walking up Soldier Field. We can do better.

Best New Obstacle
Over / Under / Through was awesome. In Chicago it came at about mile 9.5, and it was positioned on the beach. We had to run down a steep (but small) hill to reach the sand, run for about 30 yards along the beach, and then hit the obstacle (plus there was an awesome drill sergeant-type volunteer yelling at us to “hit the sand; get DOWN, GET DOWN!”). Because it was on the beach the “Under” portion was a small trench dug into the sand so you had to slink way down and then crawl up. After the final “Through” we had another 30-yard run in the sand to a boardwalk that led back to the running trail and final leg. Well done.

Best New Obstacle II
The Tissot 40-yard dash was also a great touch. Simply haul ass for 40 yards. Most people gave this a shot, I think, despite being depleted after 10.7 miles. I ran it in :06, and the momentum helped launch me over the awaiting taxi cabs, but left me gassed for the cargo net climb, and nearly lifeless for the wall climb.

Here’s the end of the 40-yard dash. It leads directly into the taxi cabs. I liked it.

Worst New Obstacle
Kudos to Men’s Health for including participants in the planning process, but the new competitor-designed Traffic Jam was a mess by the time I came by. Instead of a spider trap of taught bungees it was a colander of au dente spaghetti. And it was all of five feet, so it became more of a nuisance mid race more than formidable obstacle.

Old stand bys, like the final wall, posed the usual challenges. I attacked the wall much quicker this year, but had to work much harder to get over (still spent from the 40-yard dash, I think). Also, notice that the ropes on the wall now go all the way over the wall; they used to go up only about two-thirds (I think the guy in blue to the far left is using the rope with success).

Least Forgiving Obstacle
For the most part I ran unscathed throughout the course (all the tire stutter steps and police barricades were pretty basic), but on the Marine hurdles I scraped my left shin pretty good (surprisingly couldn’t get me leg cleanly over on the first one), and between the three Marine hurdles I nearly gave myself the first ever quintuple vasectomy.

Course
The course was pretty consistent with 2011. Some beautiful shoreline straightaways, a moment on Navy Pier, stretches running adjacent to traffic, a few stairs here and there, and lots of room for spectators. I think many spectators hung close to Soldier Field and took advantage of the designated cheer zones. Patrick, a participant who ran with a GPS watch clocked the entire course at 11.2 miles, which included Soldier Feld; a measurement I don’t think Men’s Health takes into account.

My gloves for 2012

My gloves before the race …

I’d been telling anyone who would listen, ‘wear gloves.’ This post-race photo is one reason why.

Side note: The one thing I forgot to pack on the trip was my homemade energy gel. This was going to be my big difference maker in 2012. Thankfully there was a Whole Foods close to where we had lunch in Oak Park on Friday and I was able to whip up a batch in the hotel for Saturday’s race. I took the gel (in the sandwich bag on top of the brown rice syrup) at about mile 5, just before Soldier Field.

Running Assignments
So, a common gripe I overheard while waiting in line at the start is that the waves are staggered by age, not skill. Only the first wave is earned and established by speed. None of us wants to be put out to pasture, and if you’re going to jettison us 40+ year olds to the dregs of the race pack without considering our athletic prowess you may as well have a fleet of motor scooters and bottles of Ensure waiting for us. Honestly, I don’t really care. It’s a much looser, self-deprecating group and I like the air of camaraderie (plus we had sweet hot pink race bibs this year). And trying to place 2,000+ in waves based on qualifying times is no small feat, so nothing I expect Men’s Health to grapple with.

However; two-thirds into the race I kept telling myself in disbelief, “hey, nobody has passed you; just keep running … you’ll be fine as long as you keep running.” When I scaled the final wall my face nearly exploded at the idea of finishing first in my age group. Wow. But when final results were tabulated I was second; still, wow. But it dogged me because the entire race I felt like I was running down hill and I would have noticed something hot pink (race bib) flying past me. So when official race photos and video became available this week I curiously typed in the first place bib number to see if I recognized the runner (from the wave line up), and not only did I not recognize him, he had on a blue race bib (he was in an earlier wave). So did the guy in third place in our age group and several others who placed high. How is that? Maybe there is more wiggle room on wave placement than what some of the participants thought (or there are teams or something like that).

Party Planning
Men’s Health has a ‘party rain or shine’ mentality, which is great, but the participants don’t. We party shine, and that’s about it. With the wind and on again off again rain, everyone scattered shortly after the race and the awards presentation was left to the small collection of those who earned an award. In 2013, I suggest Men’s Health keep in their hip pocket a tent or two that we can hang under if the weather turns; we have the space. And we’d all stay. This is evidenced by all the people mingling comfortable in the warm VIP tent. We don’t need the full VIP treatment; we just want to stay dry.

People hung around while the DJ did his thing and the race went on, but as the weather turned, so did the crowd. Not that it matters, but since I mentioned the DJ, he’s located in the black dome just between the two white tent tops furthest to the right.

My crew enjoying the post-race activities.

Sponsors
Sponsors came loaded for bear this year. From Gillette body wash and miniature Boss cologne, to Jockey T-shirts (as many as you could grab, so it seemed) and Kumho Tire head scarves (much cooler than they sound), Chipotle chips and guacamole, more Emergen-C than you can shake a stick at, and a host of other snacks and goodies. Men’s Health was clear they wouldn’t provide race bags this year, so I brought my black 2011 drawstring Urbanathlon backpack and filled it to the brim. Surprisingly, the Miller 64 beer tent allowed just one beer per ticket (still it was refreshing). I distinctly recall manhandling four cups of beer last year.

I think the one-beer per ticket rule kept things moving in the beer tent this year. I got in and out without waiting (for free beer!!) or getting spilled on.

Awards
Quite a let down here. There were very nice finisher medals for the masses (which you just grabbed off a table as you crossed the finish line), sweet Tissot watches for the overall winner (male and female, I think) and the fastest Tissot 40-yard dash time, special awards for relay team winners and fastest Soldier Field stair climb, special sponsor goodie bags for some of these previous award categories, too, and then awards for the top three finishers in each age group (male and female). It’s on the latter where the Urbanathlon fell down. Perhaps my frustration exacerbated by the cold and rain and anticipation, but age-group award winners received a gray Miller 64 T-shirt. Ouch.

Finishing third in 2011, this guy returned to win it all in 2012. He had the fastet Soldier Field stair climb, too (two years in a row).

About seven athletes representing the Challenged Athletes Foundation plowed through the course.

Me in the black hoodie making the unherladed (but prideful) walk to the awards tent.

Folding up my Miller 64 T-shirt … I couldn’t fully mask my disappointment

In 2011 I finished 53rd in my age group, then spent the next 364 days running stairs, sprinting intervals, getting my weight in check, running further distances, eating Chia seeds for crying out loud and doing anything else I could do to try to improve in 2012. So when I came in at 2nd in my age group, while steeped in personal pride and satisfaction, I was buoyed by the expectant experience of standing before my peers to receive a medal or certificate or Urbanathlon shirt to say, ‘you crushed it!’ A Miller 64 T-shirt just didn’t have that weight, and I was a little let down, but maybe I shouldn’t have built up that fantasy in my mind. My wife and kids were ecstatic none the less (they’ve watched enough of my middle-of-the-pack races to know how much effort went into my Urbanathlon preparation), and that means more to me than anything.  

This moment is award enough for me. See the red Tissot chip timer on my shoe?

We had to change with the weather, but weren’t going anywhere!

Celebrity Watch
Unceremoniously absent this year, the celebrity starter. I didn’t mind it one bit, as I’m sure they would have killed an extra 5 minutes at the start with bad jokes, empty banter, and wasted attempts at firing us up. I was so dialed in and eager that I greatly appreciated the low-key starter who paced in front of us talking only so the first few rows could here, “okay 90 seconds,” “okay 30 seconds,” “okay let’s get ready now” beeeeeeeeeeeep!

Urbanathlon 2013?
You bet. The dilemma for me is do I stick with my age group and run that 9th wave and try to improve to first in my age group, or assuming my 2012 time qualifies me for wave 1 in 2013, do I eschew my aged brethren and take a stab at the elite 300? The dilemma being that if you run in the first wave your time does not get included in your age group; you disqualify yourself from your age group (a misunderstanding that left one participant sullied after his time was tops in his age group, yet he registered and ran with the first wave so wasn’t counted in those rankings). I don’t stand a snowball’s chance at placing high in the first wave, but it would give me my best opportunity at a clean shot at Soldier Field, which I haven’t had in two years; no lines, no backlogs, no walking through daisy patches.

I’ve got time to think it through. I’m taking this week off, giving my body a needed rest, and then it’s full steam ahead. I’m slowly getting smarter about running and look to tighten my regimen so that I’m faster and stronger in 2013 (you’ll hear about that process in this space). Congratulations everyone.

Happy to trade Chia seeds for some of this … after the race we drove to the Original Rainbow Cone shop. The ice cream was as good as it looked, but we all loved the drip tray.

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