Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Recap and Observations

What a difference the sun makes. Men’s Health couldn’t have asked for a better morning to host the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago, and the cool-but-not-cold temperature made for ideal running conditions, while the persistent sun and blue sky made for a deservedly raucous post-race festival. I’ll talk more about my individual performance and experience in an upcoming post, but before we dive into that I just wanted to share a few immediate observations about the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago.

Here they are, somewhat organized but in no particular order:

Hotel partner
I was thrilled having stayed at Hyatt Regency McCormick place. A modern, well-appointed hotel off the beaten Magnificent Mile path in South Loop, but most importantly, a breezy 15-minute walk to the Festival area.  After the race there was a limping pilgrimage back to hotel, which was kind of funny. Also after the race I swam with my kids in the pool (a 4-foot deep lap pool, but plenty long) and I can’t tell you how many spent Urbanathletes walked into the pool area desperately in search of a hot tub, only Hyatt doesn’t have one. The incredulous reactions were priceless. I guess that’d be the one universal gripe. The Daily Grind coffee shop area was open 24 hours, and when I hit it at 4:30 a.m. (to use their microwave), runners were already lining up for coffee, fruit, energy bars, and other kick starters. I’d stay here again if a comparable deal is inked next year.

By 4:30 a.m. runners were fueling up on site.

By 4:30 a.m. runners were fueling up at the hotel. This was very nice to have on site.


No in-room microwaves, but no worries, one was available at The Daily Grind.

Well fueled by 4:30 with a sweet potato and hard boiled egg.

Well fueled by 4:30 a.m. with a sweet potato and hard boiled egg (which I bought Friday afternoon at Whole Foods … I cooked the sweet potato at the coffee shop Friday as well, and then just warmed up in the microwave Saturday morning).

Packet pickup
Connected by skyway from the hotel, packet pickup was care free. I handled mine pretty early on Friday, so there were no lines. I gave the gentleman my ID, got my bib, and then moved down the line for a plastic bag and T-shirt. Fiat was the only sponsor there, I think, and had a fun booth where you’d complete a survey and then do a scratch game on an iPad. I won a wearable black Fiat hat, and my wife orange and black sunglasses for the family. The last two years we had to make an effort to get to packet pickup, and this year couldn’t have been easier (if you were staying at the Hyatt, I should add).

A tame, well organized scene

A tame, well organized scene for packet  pick up.

Minimalist bag

A pretty thin bag, but I liked the winning shirt design this year.

Pre-race activities
I arrived plenty early at around 5:45 a.m. and a steady stream of Urbanathletes were filing in. The emcee for the day was already in warp drive (during the award ceremony I turned to my wife and said, ‘my God, he’s been talking non-stop since 5 a.m., how does he do it?’). I hit the bag drop before things got nutty and spent the bulk of my time running and stretching (and using the port-o-potties, which were always available) before finally entering the start corral at about 6:40 a.m. I stepped out of line momentarily because one of the fitness trainers was leading the group warm-up activities, and I had already went through my comfortable routine (this year, though, the group warm-up was improved because they just gathered runners at the start and worked it from there, rather than trying to herd everyone in another area to do it).

Things starting to come alive by 5:45 a.m.

Quiet, but things starting to come alive at 5:45 a.m.

Visualizing a strong finish

Visualizing a strong finish. That’s our hotel in the background.

Celebrity participation
This year Men’s Health called on high-profile sports performance and conditioning coach, David Jack, to serve as celebrity in residence. A seemingly likable guy who performed in his role exceptionally well. At the start of the race he said just a few meaningful words before counting us down. During the race he stood atop the bus near the finish line and encouraged those making the climb. And at the award ceremony he shared his final sincere take in less than 60 seconds. He didn’t try to milk the moment or go nuts with ‘you’re gonna wanna die out there but don’t you quit!!!’ hyperbole. Well done.

‘Let ‘em go, they’ll flame out later on’
This I overheard from over my right shoulder when we all shot out of the start. The lead pack did go out hard, but tamping down your enthusiasm is hard enough at the start of a race, and tamping down your enthusiasm at the Urbanathlon is unheard of. Not sure who flamed out, and who didn’t, but the start was like the running of the bulls.

‘I don’t recall this being so difficult’
This was my first thought coming out of the opening obstacle (a modest Jersey Barricade and Police Barricade combo platter). Throughout the course even these rudimentary obstacles were draining and it took some time to get my legs back after each. I was surprised by this, and in the moment I was a bit concerned (that maybe I hadn’t prepared enough with my strength training).

The course
This year I ran with a GPS watch and it looks like Soldier Field is included in the 10.8 mile calculation (I always forget to turn off my watch so by the time I checked it was reading 10.96 miles). The start was cool in that we took off in the opposite direction this year and ran through a narrow shoot on the outskirts of the festival area before bending back toward the start and running through an uplifting tunnel of Urabanathletes and spectators. Visually, everything was stunning, set off in large part by the clear blue sky and bright sun. Less stunning was the copious amount of goose crap along Monroe Harbor. ‘I’ll burn my shoes later,’ I figured.

As expected, most of the spectators were positioned at Soldier Field where much of the action went down. If you camped at the approach (North End) runners would pass you coming and going (great spot), spectators also hung out at the stair climb entrance, and then coming out of Soldier Field was electric because you could see the shadow of a huge crowd (despite running smack into the Marine Hurdles and Tissot Tire Carry on your exit), and then the Monkey Bars / Parallel Bars combo was well lined. Not a lot of on-course spectators.

Soldier Field

I took this photo Friday morning. Runners exit Soldier Field here and turn smack into the Marine Hurdles. No time for recovery!

Most diabolical course change
Somehow, Men’s Health was able to find a few hidden staircases along the route and proudly assimilated them into the race. These were demoralizing salt-in-the-wound mini obstacles. ‘Up the stairs and down the ramp’ would instruct an on-course volunteer, to which I’d think, ‘Stairs? What frick’n stairs?’ And sure enough, there they were. Well played, Men’s Health (New York and San Francisco, you’ve been warned).

Most appreciated course change
I may be the only one, but I really loved how they changed the final stretch of this race, essentially bringing you into the festival area but running you along the outer banks before hooking a sharp right turn into the final obstacles (really you just re-run the first 200 yards of the race start, but instead of curling left to head back through the start area you just keep running the curve to the right, like a track, then run a looong straightaway, and then bank hard right to hit the taxis). It was a much tamer version of the Olympic marathon when runners triumphantly enter the stadium and do some time on the track before the finish. It was JUST like that. Very cool.

This is actually the back of the start corral, but the final stretch of the race brings you in near the start and then you run along the white fence until you curl into the final obstacles. Very nice.

This is actually the back of the start corral, but the final stretch of the race brings you in near the start and then you run along the white fence until you curl into the final obstacles. Very nice.

My take on the new obstacle
This year featured the Fiat Tire Carry just on the heels of the Marine hurdles. I have to imagine that later waves had some serious log jams here, only because of the logistics of keeping the tires fully stocked, but when I arrived there was an open beam to the far left so I grabbed two tires and hit it. The tires are all the same (I thought they might be different, to mess up your balance), and the beam had some grit to it so that it wasn’t slippery. I didn’t see anyone fall, but we all did that teeter-totter thing to maintain our balance at some point (you have to walk up an incline, take some turns, and then hit the decline). It’s not very high. Drop off the tires to the side, then run to the monkey bars. I really liked this obstacle because it wasn’t taxing, but required great focus, and falling off is probably easier than staying on. I’m curious how this went for others. And it was a huge, HUGE improvement over the Jeep and Subaru crawls from the previous two years.

A new approach to an old obstacle
When we hit the blue police barricades a woman next to me just started rolling beneath them, taking a whole set of three or so in a few quick rotations. ‘Hmmm,’ I thought. ‘I guess that does make sense.’ Now, I get crazy dizzy on those kiddie Tea Cup rides, so I knew I couldn’t just roll and be good with it, but deeper into the course I crawled to the barricade and then did one roll, and then crawled and then did one roll, and so on, and it actually went pretty well. It beat just crawling the entire way.

Friday morning during a slow jog I got a closer look at another standby, the monkey bars.

Friday morning during a slow jog I got a closer look at another old standby, the monkey bars.

Soldier Field will crush your soul every time
Running in the first wave I was eager to get a legitimate crack at Soldier Field this year. The last two years I lamented about being stuck behind a slower moving herd hell bent on not letting anyone pass. This year I approached Soldier Field with just one running companion (others were on the stairs, we just happen to enter at the same time), and after a labored ascent up the long entrance ramp I hit the concourse, flew up the dozen or so steps on the upper deck entry, looked up at a baron runway and flew up one step, flew up a second, and then screeeeeeech. That’s all she wrote. It was physically impossible for me to run up the steps. I had no issue devouring all of the mini stair climbs inserted throughout the race, but the pitch on Soldier Field is just too great. I was being punked by gravity in a major way. I nearly broke down at the thought of having to go four up, four down.

I used the hand rail to help hoist myself up, and at the top would jog across to the descending flight, and then regain my legs on the quick-step down. I talked a lot of smack the last few years, but funny how I was so quickly humbled. On the bright side, coming down the steps, if you take a moment to gaze out at the playing field it is remarkable.

Side note: While I couldn’t run, I was at least able to go two steps at a time, and when you experience those aforementioned ‘slower moving herd’ log jams you can only go one step at a time, which is frustrating.

Men’s Health covered off on the standard award categories; top male finisher, top female finisher, top male relay team, top female relay team, top agency relay team (new this year), top co-ed relay team, fastest stair climb, and then top finishers (male and female) in the standard age groups. A significant change is that in the overall and age group awards they stopped at the top finishers (first place). Second and third place were not recognized and did not receive awards. Not heartbreaking, but a letdown. Especially since previous years they awarded for the top three spots in each age group, and it feels like an easy award to pull off for a race of this scope.

I was so looking forward to restocking my stash of Gillette body wash and Hugo Boss cologne samples, but sponsors didn’t quite go as nuts this year. Equinox (I think it was them) had all hands on deck to stretch out spent runners, Emergen-C had their usual endless amounts of packets, TRX had a spot to stretch out with their resistance bands, you could nab some protein items from Six Star Pro Nutrition, and this year Hugo Boss ran the coveted Men’s Health Magazine cover photo booth, and Tissot had a super fun but wildly erratic photo booth, but overall sponsorship felt light. A not surprising sign of the times of corporate belt tightening, perhaps. I also missed Chipotle with their chips and guacamole, replaced this year by three food trucks.

Food Trucks

A few interesting food trucks provided post-race eats. This one had some pretty yummy looking grilled cheese sandwiches, another had Chicago dogs, and another donuts and coffee.

Food Trucks 2

These little donuts were delightful, but the $5 coffee that we bought with them was only half full. It was too nutty to try and straighten it out.

Post-race festival
I think this year there were fewer things to do (like no push-up challenge, for those so inclined), and maybe a little less sponsor activity, but everywhere I looked people seemed to be having a great time. No in-person DJ this year, but a playlist was being aired from somewhere with a good mix of old school and contemporary hip hop along with some other genres. A lot of Urabanathletes took fun photos on the award stage because of the official race backdrop, but Men’s Health had a second backdrop just off the race finish for those who wanted to do the photo thing. I though that was a nice touch. The Michelob Ultra beer tent was pretty tame. I stood in a short line with my beer ticket, but then we got instructed to stand in a different line so that we could first get a wrist band. I went with my girls to the wall climb instead. Most people hung out until about 11 a.m.  when the awards wrapped, and the festival officially went until 2 p.m., but I have to imagine it gets pretty sparse by noon (but again, the weather really held up, so maybe more people stuck around to empty the kegs and compare wounds).

Look at that sky. The festival had a good post-race party vibe.

Look at that sky. The festival had a good post-race party vibe.

My girls had fun on the rock climb, and got plenty of reps.

My girls had fun on the rock climb, and got plenty of reps.

Everyone took a turn in front of one of the backdrops.

Everyone took a turn in front of one of the backdrops.

My crew hung in there and had a good time.

My crew hung in there and had a good time.

About 5 Urbanathletes from the Challenged Athletes Foundation participated, and crushed it.

About 5 Urbanathletes from the Challenged Athletes Foundation participated, and crushed it.

I somehow missed this photo opportunity in 2012, but not this year! One of the greatest things ever.

I somehow missed this photo opportunity in 2012, but not this year! One of the greatest things ever.

Participant medals
I can’t tell if this is an improvement, a downgrade, or just a lateral move, but the medals are at least different from the last two years. I love the solid yellow ribbon with the city and date in black, but the small, bright nickel-plated medal itself seemed a little chintzy. More importantly, though, when I crossed the finish line I was spent, and a woman draped in medals came after me, holding the ribbon open so that she could place it over my head and drop it on my neck, and excitedly say ‘congratulations!’ I thought that was nice.

Not the best photo, but a look at the participant medal.

Not the best photo, but a look at the participant medal. Love the ribbon, luke warm on the medal.

Overall grade
B+. I think the overall experience was exceptional, punctuated by an unseasonably sunny morning. And I like that Men’s Health finds just enough tweaks each year to make it a little different from the year before, and not just cookie cutter this thing over and over. Participation was up considerably from last year, too. It did feel like Men’s Health maybe had to (or simply decided to) cut back on a few things this year, which didn’t sabotage anything per se, but took off just a hint of luster from the day. Bottom line, we had a great time and will be back.

Congratulations to everyone who competed and gave it their all. And best wishes to those of you in New York and San Francisco getting ready to do your thing. If you have thoughts or observations about those races let me know; I’d love to share them here.


7 thoughts on “Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Recap and Observations

  1. I ran with wave 5. I didn’t notice the speed of the wave 1 start, but did notice wave 2-4 seemed like they were going noticably slow. I confirmed that with my brother when our wave took off, and we were in the top 5 of the wave. Within the first half mile, we were catching up with the tail of the previous wave. He said dodging them noticeably slowed him down on the paths, but not so much in the obstacles. I didn’t feel much slowed down in either path or obstacle, mostly. In fact, passing other runners the entire race was pretty awesome feeling, and using the times I was passed as a motivator once it started happening around mile 5 was way easier since it was spaced out enough from the waves behind me. Do you think running in wave 1 helped you be faster without people in the way?

    Soldier Field was the beast that it always is, and I was happy to have people in front of me as an excuse to not be leaping up the stairs. Though I still did better than last year on the stairs by a minute or so.

    And the tire carry was more of a hassle — there weren’t enough tires for the number of competitors, and it was slow waiting for them to bring tires from the end of the obstacle to the beginning.

    Still, more training this year meant I improved my time by 13 minutes, and went from a top 1/3 finish to a top 10% finish, and I beat my brother on the stair climb portion of the race.

    • Another thing I forgot — I started working and living downtown this last year, so one of the huge benefits I got was that running along the lakefront is like running on my home course. I’ve run over that bridge by Navy Pier, and up and down that evil sled hill they had us go up after Soldier field hundreds of times by the point we ran the urbanathlon, so I knew exactly what to expect for the entire race except where the turn-around down south of McCormick place would exactly be. That’s a pretty comforting feeling to know where I’m going and what to expect.

    • First off, kudos on well-earned brotherly bragging rights over Soldier Field (milk that thing all year)! Second, major kudos on shaving off 13 minutes from your previous time (insane). That’s incredible. Ya know, running from behind (later waves) has its ups and downs, like you mentioned. I ran in wave 9 last year and spent the entire race playing Frogger, which is uplifting when it feels like you’re running downhill passing people, but inevitably I know I burned a ton of calories dodging back and forth or getting caught behind walls of friends. Making the leap to Wave 1 this year was huge for me. First, there was no clutter AT ALL. And in fact there were stretches where there wasn’t anyone in front or behind me for like 20 yards (eerie). Secondly, it was great to pace with some speedy people who really helped push me. Lastly, I really, really wanted an open shot at Soldier Field, and even though I didn’t attack it like I wanted, I was still able to go much quicker than the single-step log jams of later waves. It was worth it. You could shave off even more time.

      I’ve also read some early comments that the Fiat Tire Carry was a mess (I knew it would be once we hit it early and there were only like 16 tires). Some people had to bypass it completely. Frustrating. Hopefully they’ll have the kinks worked out.

      When I went for a jog Friday morning I thought how amazing it would be to have that path at my disposal every day. Just phenomenal. Enjoy it! And having it double as a true training ground for the Urbanathlon is icing on the cake. I take it you’re in for 2014?!

  2. I’m actually thinking about doing the Chicago Marathon in 2014. With it only a week ahead of the urbanathlon, that feels like not enough recovery time. It was only something like yesterday that my calves stopped feeling tight all the time from the stairs.

    • I’ve taken this week as a solid week of rest, and yeah, I’m just now feeling like myself again. Ya know, I really want to run my first marathon next year, and it would be the Twin Cities Marathon, which like Chicago usually happens the week before the Urbanathon (was 2 weeks this year, though). The marathon training will go a long way to helping strength and endurance at the Urbanathlon, and I think I’ll more so ‘run’ the marathon as opposed to ‘race’ (find my pace and just dig in for the long haul), so maaaaaybe I’ll have my legs under me a week later. I say go for it! And the Chicago Marathon seems like a transformative experience.

  3. Just wanted to thank you for all the information from an experienced racer’s perspective. As a first timer, it was really helpful getting prepared both from a training perspective as well as logistics and gear. I think Men’s Health does a great job with the Urbanathlon, but honestly the advice you give is helpful, as you answer questions that a first timer may not even think of.

    A couple observations from my experience.

    First, don’t take training lightly. This race is challenging, especially if you are pushing yourself. The running portion truly will define your finish time.

    Second, don’t let the crowd of runners take you out of your pace, I got caught in bad traffic at the start, and my first mile was off pace, and I felt like I was fighting for running room longer than I would have liked. Get towards the front of your wave if you plan to be faster than average and save yourself some effort passing groups running four wide.

    Lastly, enjoy the race. The lakefront is beautiful, and it is amazing how quickly miles tick away at times. I was shocked how quickly we got to Soldier Field, and that was every bit as difficult as I imagined, with the predictable log jams slowing down an already challenging obstacle.

    One note to the course organizers: The tire balance beam obstacle sounds great on paper, but did not work. The 5 minute wait for tires and line cutting and general overcrowding made for a total mess, and actually messed up the marine hurdle obstacle also, as people couldn’t proceed away from the last hurdle due to the log jam.

    Otherwise, a great event, and I hope it returns to Chicago again next year, I am already planing on it.

    • Thanks for commenting, Steve. Congrats on your first Urbanathlon. Getting the first one under your belt is great, and going into it a second year you just have better perspective and you’ll find you’ll chop off minutes just on that experience alone (avoiding the pitfalls you mentioned). You had some great thoughts, and I’d love to be able to share them here in a future post for other first-time participants. I’m betting that MH learned from the tire carry debacle and will rework it next year (perhaps even fixed it for NY today). I really liked that obstacle, but knew that it would eventually get hosed. Keep up your running this winter, and I’d be interested to hear how it’s going.

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