Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): [Not so] Frequently Asked Questions

Part I | Part II

Registration for the 2013 Urbanathlon is in full swing. And with each year comes a reposting of the standard frequently asked question on the mhurb.com website. All straightforward stuff, though come race day, surprisingly, racers still get blind-sided with basic missteps, or more so they pump Men’s Health for super specific details on things that simply require a little flexibility (wave start times, for example). So I’m taking on an FAQ of my own to build off of what Men’s Health has started. This is based largely on some of the standard conundrums people seem to face, what really goes on race day, or situations or misconceptions I thought simply needed a little more color or clarification.

With that, here is part I of my Men’s Health Urbanathlon FAQ for 2013 (note: thoughts here are my own, and for official rules you should refer to mhurb.com):

Q: I’m fired up … How should I approach (upper body) strength training for the race?
A: If the Urbanathlon field was one big football team, previous winners (save for a modest few) across the Urbanathlon series would represent the place kicker. Tough, sure, but not the most imposing figures by any stretch.  That’s not a slight, just hammering home the point that brute strength is secondary.

If between now and October you have only minimal time each week to commit to strength training I recommend pull ups and pushups. Pull ups will help you through the most frustrating obstacles; monkey bars, marine hurdles, and the final wall. Push ups are just an all-around solid exercise that you can rep out pretty much anywhere. Anything you do beyond this is gravy.

Q: Okay then, so how should I approach my running?
A: 
To simply complete the course you need to have some strength in those legs (and wind in those lungs). We’re talking 11-12 miles compounded by what equates to a bunch of squats along the way. I think if you can comfortably run 5 miles, and build up to a periodic 10-mile long run, with hill repeats peppered in there once a week or so, you’ll be in fine form come October.

If you want to gauge your status right now, go on a 3-5 mile run, and along the way hit a small flight of stairs (12-15 steps) or find something like landscape-type rocks to leap over (preferably 3 in succession) or a park bench and then keep your stride. You’ll be surprised at how taxing those seemingly small efforts are on your legs, and you’ll get a feel for how your body recovers and when you can regain your preferred pace. This is just small sampling of the Urbanathlon running experience, so depending on how you feel coming out of these modest quick-fire obstacles/tests you can adjust your training accordingly in preparation for the real thing.

Q: My significant other made me a bomb mix tape and I really want to listen to it when I race; are devices really off limits on the course?
A: Sorry, but yeah, you need to leave these at home. Now, of course you’ll see plenty of people throughout the course plugged in and tuning out (I don’t condone it, but people do it), and nobody on the course is there to enforce the rule (though it is something they say they ‘aggressively enforce’), but it’s just not a good idea with all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and arounds and throughs of the course obstacles (plus in Chicago the stretch along Monroe Harbor is a wee bit tight and I’d hate to see someone get bumped into the drink … this totally could happen).

Q: So listening devices are out, but what about my cell phone?
A: I don’t know the official ruling on this, and I know some people rely on their phones to map their runs and track their pace, but I’m sure it’s frowned upon here. Again, on race day you’ll see all kinds of phones holstered on biceps, and I don’t know if it’s on the up and up, but nobody is saying to ‘knock it off.’ Because of the obstacles I say just leave it in your bag.

Q: Where on the competitor scale do I need to be in order to participate in the Urbanathlon?
I haven’t competed in a lot of races, but in terms of intensity the Urbanathlon feels a lot like most others. There are a few who are jacked up and in it to win it, but for the most part people are there to compete hard with others, try something new, have fun along the way, and hoist a beer and take insane photos when it’s over. It’s a high-energy atmosphere (what with the incessant base pounding and someone yelling over a PA), but in a fun let’s-get-this-party-started-and-plow-through-this kind of way. On a scale from 1-10 most people probably land on 5; me, I’m a solid 8 (will compete really hard, but am not a douche in the process). A few people even dress in costume, and I’ve seen military personnel in full-on combat boots and fatigues, so we’re rangy and loose.

Q: Soooo, registration is a little hefty; is it really worth it?
A: 
In short, yes. Most of the local races I compete in fall into that $40-$60 range (for 10 miles and half marathons), so yeah, north of $100 is a stretch, but the Urbanathlon is pretty unique with the course and obstacles. And if you need something more tangible than that, the event sponsors the last few years have come loaded for bear (I’m wearing one of my many Jockey undershirts as I type). Post race food was sparse last year (mostly Chipotle chips and guac, light beer, and the usual recovery bananas and bagels), but it was enough to quell the pangs until lunch later in the day. Since race weekend is kind of a mini-vacation for us (traveling from St. Paul, Minn), I’m a little more lax with this particular registration fee, but when I do the experience + tangible goods math, you will get your money’s worth (even more so if the weather holds).

Q: In Chicago, what’s the best way to get to Soldier Field from my hotel (assume I’m staying downtown)?
A: 
No matter where I go I insist on being early, or at least on time, so leaving anything to chance is out of my comfort zone when it comes to travel. This is why I nixed the idea of the CTA, which it looks like you could pull off, but it was way too unclear to me last year and I wasn’t totally comfortable with my sense of distance to Soldier Field. My cab ride was an even $10 (and I tossed in a $5 tip just in case the karma Gods had stopped by the Urbanathlon), and I got dropped off 40 yards from the festival area (much to the chagrin of the traffic patrol). I got a little uneasy when the cab driver became wildly confused with my ‘South lot’ directions (‘there are MANY!’ he kept repeating).

For $20 my wife parked in the nearby lot (the lot promoted on the mhurb.com website), which was worth every penny.  They got in without issue, and leaving was a breeze. I’m guessing we’ll do the same thing this year. Walking anywhere from Michigan Avenue may be a little ambitious (it’s still very dark that early and Soldier Field just a little too off the beaten path), so I suggest you hail a cab for a few bucks or carpool (chances are many people in your hotel are competing).

Q: I see that you like to get places early, but I’m sane … do I have to be at the festival area for all of the pre-race stuff?
A: Oh no. Everything up until your start time is completely optional. Some people get there early and do the instructor-led warm ups (I can’t take techno that early in the morning), some warm up on their own, stand around and BS with their friends, take photos, use the bathrooms, etc. (I remember eating half of a banana but I can’t remember if I got it there or at a coop beforehand … point is, some of us eat, too).  Others I saw literally getting to the festival area moments before their wave was about to run. You don’t have to check in anywhere, so what you do on your time is up to you. Just be there ready to run when it’s your turn.

Q: When EXACTLY is my wave start time?
A: 
Okay, calm down. This is a huge field with probably 10 or so waves, so allow for some flexibility. Just know that the first wave will start on time (Men’s Health has yet to announce the start time, but think 7:30ish in Chicago), and then each wave goes about 5 minutes after the previous. You don’t have to stand there and wait it out with your wave (stretch, mingle, have a snack, use the ‘facilities’, or whatever you need to do), but when they get marched to the start be prepared to jump in line.

Q: But what if I don’t want to run with my registered wave; can I start with one of the others?
A: Well, Men’s Health will say, rather emphatically, “no.” And that you won’t get timed to boot. Now, I watched other runners hotly debate which wave they would move into so that they could run together (some seemed nervous about the ruse, while others more brazen).  I can’t tell you if they were adequately timed, but they most certainly ran in earlier waves. Personally, I think it tends to screw with things when you mix and match waves, and suggest you run where you are supposed to run. Let’s just say run elsewhere at your own risk.

Q: Man, can I at least register to run in a different wave then?
A: 
I don’t know the logistics on this, but from what I have seen you can register to run in another wave while ‘competing’ in your age division (if that makes sense). I have no clue on how this happens, but just know there seems to be flexibility there, so think in advance about how you want to compete (with an older or younger friend, or a son or daughter, for example) and try to register accordingly.

Q: Is there a bag drop?
A: Of course. And you can’t miss it. Last year the line got pretty long shortly before the race, and because it was colder and overcast (in Chicago) I imagine people were staying clothed for as long as they could (that was my strategy). Your race packet comes with a bag drop tag, so just pin it on your bag and drop it off. Last year they did not give out those drawstring backpacks (kudos to them for that) so make sure you have your own.

Q: What is the situation with awards?
A: I can’t say for certain what the actual awards will be, but in terms of how awards are organized it typically goes overall male places 1-3, overall female places 1-3, overall relay team 1-3 (I think), fastest overall Soldier Field / AT&T Park / Citi Field stair climb, fastest overall 40-yard dash, and then top age group finishers 1-3 in each. Plenty to go around. And if you don’t fare well in these standings, in Chicago last year there was a push-up competition during the post-race festival (so those push-ups I mentioned earlier in the FAQ could pay dividends here, too).

Q: Anything else I need to know about awards?
A: 
Why I’m glad you asked. One poor guy made this mistake last year in Chicago (coincidentally, it’s the guy in the banner above, to my right with the knit cap and backpack), and the reps working the awards tent were not clear on the ruling at the time, but as soon as I overheard the rumblings in front of me I knew what was up.  Last year, and years prior, if you ran in the Elite wave (wave one) you are excluded from your age group rankings. So, even though this guy beat all times in his age group he missed out on an award because he did not run with his age group; the wave one Elite group operates almost like its own ‘age’ group. Ah, but here’s the rub. This year on mhurb.com the rule states “You will continue be included and ranked within your age group.” Read that last statement again. Clearly this is a typo of some sort, and it should say either:

“You will NOT continue TO be included and ranked within your age group”

or

“You will continue TO be included and ranked within your age group.”

Big, big difference, and the latter would be a departure from previous years. Point is, until Men’s Health clarifies that rule, if you want to be ranked in your age group double and triple check the ruling on the registration form (I have not registered yet so don’t know what it says).

If you have additional questions (specific or broad) let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them. Otherwise, check back soon for part II, and keep up with mhurb.com which is updated regularly from here out.

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