Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Let’s Break This Down Start to Finish

Men’s Health, while loyal to a few tried and true Urbanathon mainstays (looking at you police barricades, Marine hurdles, tires, pallets, etc.) they mix it up just enough each year to keep things interesting and to throw us off their scent.

So let’s look at what’s in store for 2013 in Chicago, and frame up an approach that will get us through it with our appendages, vital organs, and dignity intact.

*All distances below are highly subjective and questionable at best, and just meant to give you some context!


Run 1
About 1.7 miles

Obstacle 1: Police Barricades and Jersey Barricades
Paying tribute to 2012, this is again the initial obstacle set, which is a nice way to start. In 2011 the first obstacle was the vertical truck tires that you had to leap on and over, and right off the bat people were getting flustered and caught up. Here you can hit these obstacles in stride, and if you pay attention to your form you won’t expend much energy.

As I’ve said before, for the plastic barricades I suggest rather than hurdle or jump, resort to a two-hand plant and swing your legs over (like jumping a chain link fence). Especially with the last set of barricades, which come one after the other after the other … where you can develop a smooth rhythm. As for the police barricades, after two years I still don’t know if you go over or under. The rules clearly say go under, but when it hits the fan you’ll see over, under, and through. It’s nutty.

It should get pretty crowded at these early obstacles, so watch yourself as to not take a heel to the face on the Jersey Barricades.

A textbook approach to the Jersey Barricaeds

A textbook approach to the Jersey Barricaeds. Well done.

Anticipated difficulty
2 out of 5. You’ll have a ton of energy here since it’s early in the race, but focus on form, not speed.

Anticipated mindset
Wow this is fun. Here I am running down Lakeshore drive, and look, a huge water fountain!
 



Run 2
About 0.5 miles

Obstacle 2: Black & Yellow Poles/ Camo Net Crawl
De ja vu on obstacle two. Same placement as in 2012, and a gimme as far as obstacles go. 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. Since things got kind of log jammed here I resorted to all fours, as opposed to a bear crawl, and plodded through (not always a pretty view under their). The ground is usually very soft, and a touch wet, so it’s forgiving, and a little mucky in spots.

The traffic cones are pretty low to the ground, but just high enough that you need to clumsily pirouette over them, and more than anything their spacing makes it hard to find a rhythm between each one.

I won't say this often, but you must pirouette

I won’t say this often, but pirouette damn you!

Anticipated difficulty
1 out of 5.

Anticipated mindset
That was quick; already another obstacle! My heart rate is definitely up, and I’m feeling it, but this is awesome. Bring it!
 



Run 3
About 1.5 miles

Obstacle 3: Police Barricades and Tire Stutter Step Combo
Hmmm, so far still pretty cookie cutter from last year. Again, plan on going under, that’s the rule, but if everyone else says to heck with it and is going over, use the patented ‘two-hand plant and swing your legs over’ method. These are high enough that you’ll otherwise have to kind of side hurdle them, which is more energy than you want to expend. Remember, above all, the running between obstacles is what’s going to carry you through this course and will make or break your time, so rely on good form and technique to not tax your legs too much on these smaller early obstacles. As for 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 and 2012 had no issues getting in and out. Also, take one tire at a time. Focus on your placement, and to the best you can take one at a time (which is the rule).

Things start out this way, by the book.

Things start out this way, by the book.

Anticipated difficulty
2 out of 5.

Anticipated mindset
Whoaboy. Navy Pier was pretty cool, but not so cool that I can ignore these burning lungs.

 



Run 4
About 0.8 miles

Obstacle 4: Fence Crawl and Jersey Barricades
Kudos to Men’s Health for removing the Subaru Crawl (was the Jeep Crawl in 2011). I realize there was a commitment to important sponsors, but it always felt like a contrived, throwaway obstacle, and I’m glad it’s been excluded this year from the course.

So, again with the ‘two-hand plant and swing your legs over’ on the Jersey Barricades. The crowd should be thinning by this point meaning you’ll have a bit more freedom to really swing those legs. The fence crawl is here just to mess with you. To break your upright stance and work those knees. Again, the ground should be pretty soft.

Anticipated difficulty
3 out of 5.

Anticipated mindset
Thank. God. An obstacle. I can kinda sorta rest for a second.



Run 5
About 1.6 miles

Obstacle 5: Soldier Field Stair Climb
Everything up to this point has been child’s play. Now, if you haven’t incorporated any type of hill repeats or stair climbs into your training stop reading right now and go run a hill. Just go! I’ll wait for you.

After a disastrous 2011 experience (we ran nearly a mile throughout the concourse alone and climbed probably every single step, twice, so it seemed) I braced for the worst in 2012, when in fact Men’s Health dialed it back and we pretty much ran straight into Soldier Field and to the stairs. I have no idea where their heads are at this year, but plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Again this year Soldier Field comes just past the halfway point, which is diabolical. An unexpected obstacle of sorts is that the ramp leading into Soldier Field is quite long and steep on its own, so by the time you get inside you’re already feeling the burn (the good news is that on your way out you run down this ramp).

On the actual steps, 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’s whatever the person(s) in front of you feels like doing. Conversely, if you plan to walk, be kind and stay alert to let others by you instead of creating a log jam. If I have the opportunity I will likely take these every other step. There is a rail, too, so if it feels good use it to your advantage to help you up (again, do all you can throughout the course to keep your legs fresh for the run portions).

Lastly, the stair climb is a timed obstacle on its own, and an award given out for the fastest climb, so if you want to go all out here there may be a sweet Tissot watch waiting for you at the award ceremony.

A lighter moment on the steps. If you start in a later wave it fills up quickly here.

A lighter moment on the steps. If you start in a later wave it fills up quickly here.

Single file, no matter how you slice it.

Single file, no matter how you slice it.

Anticipated difficulty
5 out of 5 if you run. 3 out of 5 if you walk.

Anticipated mindset
Crap, isn’t there supposed to be an obstacle somewhere around here, this stretch has been about 6 miles. And why is it so windy? Oh wait, there’s the next obstacle [looking at Soldier Field]

  



SIDE NOTE: As I pay more attention to the course this year Men’s Health seems to pack the second half of the course with its most difficult obstacles. Not sure if this is intentional, but from the time you hit the ramp to enter Soldier Field, to the time you scale the final wall at mile 10.8, it’s gonna be a grind.

The obstacles are mostly challenging, but it's here where you make up time. This stretch along Monroe Harbor is a long one!

The obstacles are mostly challenging, but it’s here on the runs where you make your time. This stretch along Monroe Harbor is a long (and windy) one! Don’t get lulled into a slower pace. Instead use the flat straightaway as your runway into Soldier Field.

 


Run 6
About 0.4 miles

Obstacle 6: Fiat Marine Hurdles, Balance Beam/Tire Carry, Police Barricades
Jeep, Subaru, you’re out. Fiat, you’re in. Welcome aboard. Things just got interesting. We’ll start with the Marine hurdles, since they come first. The Marine hurdles are tough because standing at about 5 feet it takes a combination of hops and upper body strength to get the leverage to hoist yourself up and throw a leg over (all while avoiding castration). The sides are off limits. Unlike the final wall where you can use the face of it to kick off from and boost yourself, here you’re just swinging at air. Secondly, the hurdles are pretty close after the other so once you scale the first one it’s not like you’re going to get a running start at the next one. You’ll see all kinds of form here, and the big thing to do is to somehow hook a leg over, because from there you can get the momentum and leverage you need to roll your body over (I bet 80 percent of scrapes, rashes and other injuries happen on this obstacle; even last year I bruised my left shin pretty good kicking my leg up and over). For some of you this won’t be a big deal, but remember you’ll have literally just finished the Stair Climb so you may not be totally coherent yet.

The Balance Beam Tire Carry is a new obstacle, and one I give the stamp of approval to. Grab a car tire in either hand and then traverse a very nonlinear elevated beam and drop the tires off at a designated area. The tires can’t weigh too much, but if you grab mismatched tires your balance will be off, adding to the difficulty. If you fall I assume you have to start over. Balancing this way requires some tension in your calves, so you’ll fatigue your muscles more than you anticipate.

This is your third look at the police barricades, so just do your thing.

This  is what you want. Hoist your self up, lock arms, swing legs.

This is what you want. Hoist your self up, lock arms, swing legs.

This is how I bruised my shin. Lost steam on this last one and didn't get over cleanly.

Me in 2012, this is how I bruised my shin. Lost steam on this last one and didn’t get over cleanly.

Anticipated difficulty
 4 out of 5 if you run. The Marine hurdles are tough, and if you fall off the balance beam you’ll lose precious minutes waiting your turn to retry.

Anticipated mindset
I made it out of Soldier Field and I can feel my face and still count to at least four. Damn, is that ANOTHER obstacle?



Run 7
About 0.0 miles. [it looks like obstacles 6 and 7 are pretty much right by one another]

Obstacle 7: Monkey Bars and Parallel Bars Combo.
Monkey Bars and Parallel Bars are by far my favorite. I think because it’s the only true strength element, and I always envision more of this kind of stuff along the route (instead of three looks at the police barricades, for example).  This looks to be in the same location as 2012, and if so this combo is set in a Cheer Zone of sorts, so you get a nice boost before getting sent off to the back nine of the course.

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 (I wore receive gloves last year and tore through the monkey bars). I always say it, that you don’t NEED gloves, but they sure help.

How you tackle the parallel bars is a personal decision.  Alternating left-right and hand walking this out is quite common but also difficult and disjointed for me. 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 8 feet long, and you can traverse these in about 4-5 quick hops. Like the monkey bars, if you stop midway you’ll have a tough time regaining momentum so try to keep moving. They really aren’t that long.

It's only about 8 feet from point A to B, but it can be an awkward 8 feet unless you find your rhythm

It’s only about 8 feet from point A to B, but it can be an awkward 8 feet unless you find your rhythm. Keep those arms locked.

Lots of room, so take your time but try to keep moving forward

Lots of room, so take your time but try to keep moving forward

Anticipated difficulty
3 out of 5. These are not difficult, but if you’re not used to the shoulder and lat strength these could get dicey. Add a layer of hand sweat, and possibly rain, and this could turn into a bad scene. Whatever you do, try to keep moving.

Anticipated mindset
This winter I’m totally going to do 100 pull ups a day so that I’m ready for this next year. That sucked.



**Run 8
About 1.3 miles. (I can’t tell if obstacles 8 and 9 are together, or if you hit 8 and after a longer run loop back to this spot for obstacle 9 … for the sake of this post we’ll assume the latter)

Obstacle 8: Tires and Pallets
 Again with the tires, and they won’t be much of an issue here. They are a little sneaky in that getting your knees up this deep into the race is tougher than you’d expect. The pallet stacks also bring some deceptive challenges. They are low enough that you’ll want to just leap in stride to the top, but after the first one you’ll realize taking it head may not be the best move, at which point I encourage you to simply lean forward on them, push yourself up while swinging a leg up, run across the top, and repeat. There should only be about three stacks to get over. Not too high that you have to climb, but not so low you can plow through these, either.

Knees up, head down.

Knees up, head down.

Lots of techniques here. Some vaulting, some jumping, some rolling. Do what ya gotta do to get over.

Lots of techniques here. Some vaulting, some jumping, some rolling. Do what ya gotta do to get over.

Anticipated difficulty
3 out of 5.

Anticipated mindset
I don’t know if the worst is behind me or still ahead of me, but my legs are caked in concrete and I feel like I just inhaled a pack of Marlboro Reds.
 



**Run 9
About 1.8 miles. (again, assuming after you hit 8 and after a longer run loop back to this spot for obstacle 9)

Obstacle 9: Over, Under, Through
I loved this new obstacle last year and can’t wait to get at it again. In 2012 it was placed on the beach, so when you went under you went down into a sand trench and then had to snake back up. It was tough. I read a number of posts after the race bemoaning sand in running shoes, but it didn’t bother me and the brief running on the beach was a welcome challenge (was like running in slow motion).

At this point you should be pretty fried, so the degree of difficulty goes through the roof. If you can hop a chain link fence in the sand you can do the ‘Over’ portion just fine. It’s just a sturdy wooden ‘fence’ about four feet high. I touched on ‘Under’, and ‘Through’ is more difficult than it sounds because you don’t get a wide berth to catapult your body through (think Dukes of Hazard hoping into the General Lee). So you really have to line up your body and shimmy through. Diving through heads and hands first seems like a sure way to inflict pain and suffering. For bigger or less limber competitors, ‘Under’ and ‘Through’ could be really tough. There are two sets of ‘Over, Under, Through’ to keep things fun.

Over

Over!

Under!

Under!

Through!

Through!

Anticipated difficulty
4 out of 5. Sneaky challenging. From the course map it doesn’t look like this will be on the beach this year, but you never know.

Anticipated mindset
Just keep running. Just keep running. Just keep running.
 



Run 10
About 1.2 miles.

Obstacle 10: Taxis & Buses to Chain Link Crawl to Wall Finish.
I don’t see the Tissot 40-yard Dash this year, which is a bummer, because I thought it was a great way to push yourself in that final stretch and then hit the finish sequence. In any event this is solid finale. As I’ve said before, there are three core methods runners 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’ve done this before and it works well),  2.) slide across the trunk or hood (I’ve done this, too, and because they’re wet from either sweat or rain/dew you can slip-and-slide your way pretty easily) or 3.) go high and slide across the very top of the car (not a common route). Just be careful and watch your footing because it does get slippery here (another reason to slide across the trunk/hood and not try to walk the bumpers)

The cargo net seems like it should be easy but it’s like when you have a dream and your running only you can only run in super slow-mo. It’s just loopy and loose so you won’t go as quickly as you think, and be sure to watch your footing more than anything.

The fence crawl is straight forward. Crawl. Get dirty.

The wall I love. It’s about 8 feet high. If you are so inclined you’ll be able to test it out before the race, but after 10.8 miles it’ll be a much different experience. Anyway, the broad strokes to consider:

  • There is a lot happening at the wall. People gathering themselves, people dangling, people running back an fourth between failed attempts, volunteers hanging over the top, and so on. Pick your spot as you come out of the fence crawl and hit it.
  • A change last year, which I’d expect them to carry forward, is that they had the ropes going all the way up and over the wall (instead of just three quarters of the way up) so you can actually use them with success. I can’t tell enough what an upgrade that is.
  • 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.
  • Don’t give up. Look, we’re all tired, and 8 feet becomes 20 feet after a race like this, but take as many attempts as you need to get over. It’s a very supportive environment.
  • For those of you with any degree of hops you will easily get both hands on the top in one jump and rep out a single pull-up to get up and over. In fact, I encourage you to do some palms down pull ups between now and the event to start activating those muscles.
Some of you will crawl, others just hunch over. Kind of roomy under there.

Some of you will crawl, others just hunch over. Kind of roomy under there.

If you run on the taxis, please just be careful because you'll lose traction on any moisture.

If you run on the taxis, please be careful because you’ll lose traction on any moisture. Here he’s staying low and using the windshield to his advantage. A nice hip slip-and-slide across is another way to go

Just watch your footing on the Cargo Net. When you reach the top, turn and back down the other side.

Easy enough and a little soupy, so watch your footing on the Cargo Net. When you reach the top, turn and back down the other side.

I think most people can find their way over, but it's grabbing that top ledge that's tough, unless you are little taller like this guy.

I think most people can find their way over, but it’s grabbing that top ledge that’s tough, unless you are little taller like this guy in the middle.

Me at the final wall using the same technique as with the Marine Hurdles.

Me at the final wall using the same technique as with the Marine Hurdles.

Anticipated difficulty
4 out of 5, thanks to the wall.

Anticipated mindset
Let’s do it again! Wait, there’s free beer? Where?
 


Good luck to all participants in all of the events in the series (looking at you New York and San Francisco). If you have specific questions about the race or what to expect let me know!

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2 thoughts on “Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Let’s Break This Down Start to Finish

  1. I just found your blog today, trying to find more information on the tire carry addition to the course this year. It sounds like we’ve been running the course the same 3 years, though your improvement last year was quite a bit better than mine. I upped my training even more this year, and hopefully I shave off a minute per mile off my time. Thanks for going to the effort to document some of this stuff since it’s not easy to find that much detail out there.

    • Thanks, Dave. I’ve been interested in seeing more about the new obstacle as well, but MH has been pretty close to the vest with details (they just kind of added it without much fanfare). Perhaps as the race grows near. If I hear anything I will certainly talk about it here. And congratulations on another year in the Urbanathlon! With the training you put in, along with your previous race-day experience, I think you’ll destroy your goal (setting that goal is half the battle). My training has suffered, but I’m looking forward to it.

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