Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Using Glympse to get your family in the race

After the start of the 2011 Urbanathlon in Chicago I could have hopped a plane from O’Hare to home in Saint Paul, flew back to O’Hare, mussed my clothes and showed up at the finish line 1:30 later and my family would have been none the wiser.

They made a savvy move to catch me mid-race on Balboa Drive and then again at the finish, but everything else was a wormhole, and in total they were engaged with my run for a whopping 30 seconds over the 1:30 haul. That’s largely the nature of the race beast, but in 2012 we can do better, even if just superficially.

I mentioned how in 2011 Men’s Health let people sign up for text alerts so that others got notified when you crossed a certain check point. That’s okay, and we’ll do this if available, but there are only about four check points on the course, so big-picture it gives you just a loose reference point of your progress and where you are on the course.

That’s where Glympse comes in.

Glympse is a free app for smartphones and tablets that shares your location in real-time (overlaid on a Google map). A nice wrinkle, the person viewing your Glympse doesn’t need the app (they can be on mobile, tablet or computer); when you send it out (via email, SMS, Facebook or Twitter) they just click the link and watch your location arrow move across the map (a lot like any GPS navigation tool you might use/see). When you send out a Glympse you indicate how long you want it to be ‘open’ (so they won’t track you indefinitely, or on their terms). Plus you can send it to multiple contacts at once. You can even set up a group Glympse, which could be fun among friends competing in the Urbanathlon.

Just an example I found on Google (my Evo screenshots acting wonky). Add your contact, set the duration, include a message if you want, then send. The map can zoom in and out, and can show satellite view, too.

Today I use the app if I’m running late from work (my commute is long) and it gives my wife an idea of where I am on the interstate parking lot and when I’ll be home (and how fast I’m traveling). I also set it up on my Sunday long runs so that my kids can check in over waffles and ponder things like, “why is dad up by the State Fairgrounds?” or “uh oh, he’s almost home and he’s gonna be sweaty and stinky.”

When I have Glympse, RunKeeper and Pandora churning simultaneously on Sundays it’s a major drain on my Evo’s battery, but during the Urbanathlon I’ll have just Glympse and RunKeeper going (I know RunKeeper has a similar GPS tracking/sharing feature, but only for Elite subscribers).

I have no affiliation with Glympse, and certainly no motive other than to help keep your family or friends engaged in your Urbanathlon experience.

For friends or family out of town I’m sure they can compare your Glympse against the Urbanathlon course map to see in real-time where you are, when you’re hitting an obstacle, and most important, if you make it out of Soldier Field.


Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Stay where you want

That I could roll out of bed at 5:00 a.m., grab a (moderately) hearty breakfast, and comfortably walk downtown to the Urbanathlon start with time to spare reflect just a few of many reasons Chicago is the perfect location for this race. And to boot, all of the pre- and post-race activities we did as a family were well within walking distance (or a short ride on the Metro) from our hotel, so as you think about where to plan your weekend stay the biggest difference from one hotel to the next in Downtown Chicago just may be budget. For a variety of reasons (in 2011) we chose Best Western River North, but let’s break down some of the considerations:


On foot our hotel was about 1.8 miles from the Urbanathlon start/finish, and about 1.2 miles from the Hard Rock Hotel, where we picked up our race packet the night before. Both well within walking distance for the whole family (the unseasonably nice weather helped). In fact, the brisk walk the morning of the race was a great distance to warm up. Perhaps this year I’ll hone my timing so that I run some instead of just walk, to better warm up (there was an inspiring Urbanathlete pilgrimage down Michigan Avenue, and I walked behind a relay team called Walker, Texas, Ranger; each had one name on the back of their shirt). In a later post I’ll explain the unintended adventure I had on the way, too. There probably is more than a baker’s dozen of hotels lining Michigan Avenue that are an Albert Pujols home run from Urbanathlon festivities, and several clusters within a mile or less in any direction, so walking to and from any related activities should be a breeze. This one’s a push, just pick your spot.

A quick update after seeing the 2012 course map from Men’s Health. The 2012 start / finish area has moved more than a mile down from its 2011 location (away from the Magnificant Mile area). This doesn’t impact accessibility (except for pack pickup, which has moved completely, now located at REI in the other direction), but puts a little more distance betwee the festival area and properties on the other side of the Chicago River.

The purple dot near the top reflects the 2011 start / finish, while the red dot reflects the start / finish in 2012. That’s more than a mile difference, which may influence some of your decision making.


The Urbanathlon touted hotel deals/promo codes (through a third party), but while they technically may have been ‘discounts,’ when I ran the numbers I was hard pressed to find any true deals with listed properties. Your best plan of attack is to simply book early (I think I booked in early July last year and none of the ‘discounted’ properties could ever sniff the Best Western rate; I kept checking until race weekend). Cruise Groupon, too, or another deals/discount program that constantly cycles “Chicago Downtown Getaway” steals (I’ve seen some really good ones; just watch the restrictions). My 2012 money is still on Best Western, but we’ll see if Groupon comes through with a Godfather offer, or my Marriott Rewards points earns me a free night stay by October (which I expect might be the case). I have’t seen 2012 partner promos yet, but Hilton HHonors is a 2012 official sponsor, so maybe something will shake out there.

PRICE UPDATE (Chicago): For 2012, as part of the previously mention Hilton HHonors sponsorship, Men’s Health announced discounted rates at Hilton Chicago ($249/night plus tax) and Palmer House Hilton ($219/night plus tax). Get the details (including location in relation to race start/finish) on the official Urbanathlon page


Okay, aside from price, amenities probably make a huge difference to some. We just needed two beds, an indoor pool, and free Wi-Fi (check, check, and check). Free breakfast is always super high on my list, but I can overlook it when there are other options readily available, as they are in Chicago (McDonalds is across the street from Best Western River North so I fueled my run with coffee and sneaky good oatmeal). No frills was cool since we just needed a reliable home base (we’re mostly out and about anyway), but downtown you can run the gamut from unassumingly practical, to uber modern, to classically old school, with an equally rangy set of services/amenities. My only advice here is to assume nothing and make sure you understand what’s available to you. I’ve read frustrated reviews about quasi-shady $25 fitness center charges at some properties, upfront charges for incidentals, exorbitant parking fees (see below), etc. It’s maddening to lock in an affordable rate, only to get fleeced at check in.


This is one of the main reasons we chose to stay at Best Western River North: free on-site parking (this is a huge selling point for them, as they are the only Downtown hotel to offer this). Even though we never took the car out of the garage until it was time to head home, we still saved about $40/night, which is $40/day we could spend elsewhere (and we did). Nearly all of the hotels in the area have self-park garages (for a price), and valet, but wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a really good steak, a Ferris wheel ride at Navy Pier, or Museum of Science and Industry admission? If you have certain benefits or discounts through a hotel rewards program they could possibly negate whatever fee you might incur for parking. Just be aware.


Arriving in Chicago squarely during rush hour, we hit our downtown exit (after 7 hours on the road) and I noticed that traffic patrol along Ohio Street was out in force. Oddly so. Plus barricades were sort of discarded along the sidewalks (I thought maybe this is just how they roll on Fridays). Not 30 seconds after we park in the garage security goes into major lockdown mode, stopping all traffic (we just made it), closing down crosswalks, and yelling from one block to the other (the poor saps at the intersection one block down kept letting cars through and security at our end of the block nearly had a collective seizure trying to get them to get their heads in the game). Turns out the prime minister of South Korea was in town (not for the Urbanathlon, though) and was making the rounds down Ohio Street to wherever. Secret service and armed guards were hard core, to put it mildly, but the prime minister was all smiles and waves. A great way to kick off our weekend.

In the end:

My point is that in terms of proximity, you can’t go wrong. You can end up paying between $120ish – $300ish(+) a night downtown, depending on your penchant for basic or baller, so just stick to your comfort zone and do a little research to cobble together the best deal. Importantly, know that accessibility to the Urbanathlon from nearly any downtown hotel is a non-issue (and the morning walk down Michigan Avenue is pretty fun).

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Pulling myself up

No frills, and no excuses … get in and get it done

This is the pull-up bar hanging in my garage. It’s been there for almost three years. The bar is made of the no-longer-used rings from our backyard play set, a salvaged metal pipe from lord knows where, and of course duct tape (to keep the bar from sliding around, since others use it [play on it] from time to time and may not anticipate the movement). I don’t use it as often as I once did, but I’m prone to rep out a dozen pull ups at a clip when I’m tinkering in the garage or hanging out in the yard.

Most important, these days it largely represents a down-to-earth no-excuses philosophy. Get in and get it done. Life is busy, but there’s no reason I can’t rip off a handful of pushups, sit ups, dips, pull ups, lunges and a host of other exercises from time to time, all from the comfort of my home (or garage). Get in and get it done. 

And seeing the pull-up bar at least twice a day (to and from work) in all its tattered glory, it finally struck me that I’m probably not doing all I should to make the kind of push at the 2012 Urbanathlon that I’ve been preoccupied with since the 2011 race ended.

Don’t get me wrong, hands down I know I’m a better runner today. Stronger, too. My weight hovers at 195 (haven’t seen that since Clinton was playing sax on the Arsenio Hall show). I’ve run with consistency and am getting more race-day reps under my belt with local 5Ks, 8Ks, and other events. All positive stuff, and I feel great.  No question if the race was held today I’d fair better.

But running with consistency and running with purpose are two different things. To add purpose to the consistency cocktail I finally decided to articulate and measure against a formal training plan. Plan your work and work your plan, as they say.

Below are the broad strokes of my routine for at least the next four weeks (as of this post there are nearly 17 weeks until the 2012 Urbanathlon). I’ll assess in a month where I need to make tweaks. Endurance, strength and speed are the end game.

Full transparency: I have to remain flexible and adaptive about all of this. This schedule is a best-case scenario and one I’ll work hard to maintain. Like with you, life is busy and things come up routinely (a timely example: this morning I awoke at 5 a.m. to get out early for my stair routine and outside was a rain/lightening storm with 60-mile-an-hour winds … no thank you). These are guardrails for an ideal week, and while I don’t delight in missing a planned workout, I’ll take it in stride when it happens and figure out how to do something active in its place. This should be fun and fulfilling.


  • Rest. A respite after my Sunday long run.


  • Stair climb (178 steps, 6 reps [1,068 steps total]). I’ll do this early before work. I run these.
  • Cross train. Mostly core, arms, shoulders, chest. I do this at the fitness center at work, so as long as meetings don’t get in the way, which they do on occasion, I’m here.


  • 5-6 mile run at a 7:30-8 minute pace.


  • Cross train. Mostly core, arms, shoulders, chest (I’ll rest my legs here). Again, lunch-hour fitness routine.


  • Stair climb/run (178 steps, 6 reps [1,068 steps total]). I’ll do this early before work.
  • Easy run. 3-6 miles at an 8-9 minute pace. This is with a run club at work, and participation is wildly inconsistent, so distance and pace vary depending on who’s there. The summer has been especially slow, in terms of participation, so at times I just run solo. In those cases I’ll do 6 easy miles.


  • Speed work. 8X400. I’ll do this early before the house wakes up.
  • Optional cross train, shortly after speed work. On Saturday mornings, when it works out, I train with a few friends and a personal trainer (kind of a standing meeting we have). Our workouts vary week to week, but it’s a total body workout in the worst way (kettle bells, medicine balls, dumbbells, resistance bands, hills, you name it).
  • More wiggle room on Saturdays. Sometimes things get hectic right out of the gate on Saturday, so I’m not always able to train in the morning, but in those instances later on I try to fill in the day with lap swimming at the YMCA or a free-for-all with pushups, pull ups and other Rocky IV type exercises. Just do something.


  • ‘Long’ run. 10 miles at an 8-9 minute pace.

I’ll see how well this routine holds up (meaning, how well I hold up). I don’t want to over train, but I do want to dial up the focus on specific speed, strength, and endurance drills, while maintaining some of the total body fitness work that rounds me out.

Curious where you have found the most training success (and what your proverbial ‘pull up bar in the garage’ is).

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Step up your game

On balance, I felt pretty good about my 2011 Urbanathlon performance (I could at least hold my head high). But on the evening following the race, in the hotel room as I obsessed over the race results on the laptop (sorting them every which way), I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in my gut about my stadium splits. 18:08. This was far and away the slowest climb in the cluster of racers in my age group who finished ahead of me and quite a few places behind me.

I refreshed the browser and highlighted the row on the screen to make sure I was looking at my line, but the data wouldn’t change. I knew while chugging through the stadium that I wasn’t at my best (meaning, I was tired). But 18:08 tired (why not 15:43 tired)?

(Click to enlarge) Look at the disparity on the climb, shown in the red column. The three previous columns are Leg 1, Leg 2, Leg 3

So after a good swim with my kids at the hotel, a pound of Maggiano’s pasta swollen in my belly, feet firmly propped up on the queen-sized bed, and the laptop jettisoned to the floor, I vowed that I would take back Soldier Field in 2012.

That was then.

My running the last few months has been going okay, but I only recently stepped up my game on the stairs (no pun intended). There are plenty of training options and hills in and around the Twin Cities to consider, but I had four things on my list of must-haves before locking in on a location:

  1. Safety. Figuring some of my training would come early in the morning or later at night, I needed to feel safe, and the physical environment itself structurally sound.
  2. Privacy. I didn’t want to make a scene, so popular venues with a lot of upside, like the State Capitol or History Center, wouldn’t cut it because of the general foot traffic and openness.
  3. Proximity: I prefer training closer to home, for various reasons. Plus, I’d love to incorporate the stairs into my run, so they’d have to be in reach of my house.
  4. Stairs. Lots of ‘em. Men’s Health is claiming 459 stairs at Soldier Field, and it’s important I be able to simulate that experience as true as possible.

I landed on beautiful Summit Avenue at the James J. Hill mansion. 187 steps, accessible yet discrete, and seemingly plucked straight from Soldier Field and hand delivered to Saint Paul. The steps run along the side of the mansion and down a hill leading into downtown Saint Paul.

James J Hill, the locally revered railroad magnate of the late 1800s, not only made a lasting impression on Minnesotans, but will soon have a vital role in the Urbanathlon.

On my first training day I finished just 5 sets. The first two at slow clip, one step at a time, the next two at 1:31.8 and 1:35.8, and on the fifth one my legs felt like they were filled with quick sand and set on fire (I don’t have a time for the last set because I inadvertently stopped my watch at 7 seconds, but I’m guessing 1:45 would have been a generous spot). That was enough for one day.

My goal right now is simply 1,000 steps/week (loosely translates to 6 sets once a week at JJ Hill mansion). Prior to the 2011 Urbanathlon I partly committed myself to running hills along my normal running route, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. I’ll commit to this routine for a few weeks, and then ramp up (without burning out) and finally incorporate it into my actual running.

My course starts on the mean streets of downtown Saint Paul (Smith Avenue) approaching the Interstate 35E overpass (note, there are two more blocks of steps like this below, which were blocked for repair the day I took this photo).

The Interstate 35E overpass provides a nice 40-yard sprint to the start of the climb (again, important to mimicking Soldier Field, which involves more running than steps).

The first few blocks of steps are easy peasy, but then the burn sets in.

At the very top there is another 50-yard dash leading up to the final block of about 16 steps, which spills you out onto Summit Avenue. Recovering from the climb while running to the final steps is a good simulation of the overall obstacle-to-run Urbanathlon experience.

Another look at the last run and climb. After the steps, the Cathedral is a Tiger Woods 7 iron to the right, and is a magnificent view while you’re barfing up a lung. The State Capitol is in view just beyond that.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Hitting the wall

Amid the chaotic processional of runners, that my wife could predict my entrance, pick me out (in my all black), and be ready with the video camera on her phone, well, it’s more heroic than my completing the race. I can’t say enough.

Thanks to her keen sense of timing I have the clip below to share. I’ve edited it to show you just the last 50 seconds of the race, which begins with me falling on my ass at the bottom of the bus climb (I explained this earlier), and wraps when I triumphantly scale the wall.

Beyond mocking my rope-climbing prowess, I’m sharing this clip because it demonstrates all of the different ways you can get over that final wall. So watch it several times, focusing on all of the action along the wall. You’ll see people hopelessly dangling, some swinging back and forth for momentum, others climbing on backs, a few getting pulled up, others straight up scaling it, some curiously attempting the rope climb, and just about every other maneuver a tired person might try when confronted with an eight-foot wall.

Prior to the race I felt like the wall held a great deal of mystery for runners (evidenced by all of the pre-race practice climbs and casual sizing up), but the reality is that all bets are off after 10 miles and you do whatever you can at the time. See wall. Climb wall.

On a lighter note, I didn’t realize it until editing this video but at the 40-second mark there is a guy to my right in a blue shirt, already dangling on the wall and swinging left to right like a pendulum, and just as I make my move and grab the top of the wall he swings hard left and nearly knocks me out (which partly influenced my choice of background music in the clip). I’m being dramatic, but it could have ended badly nonetheless.

More than anything, just know that there’s more than one way to get over the wall, and you’ll find yours.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Fun for the family, too

I have but a few pet peeves in life, and being late is one of them. I’m just wired that way. So no surprise that I was up at around 5:00 a.m. to slink across the street to McDonalds for breakfast before hoofing it to the pre-race activities. Meanwhile my family stayed behind and approached their preparation like normal citizens.

And because I checked in my ‘race bag’ (with phone) plenty early (at the race), I couldn’t pass along any insight to help them navigate the scene when they actually arrived. Had I taken my time, drank in the environment, and relayed some logistics, here is some of what I would have said (along with a mix of what they actually experienced throughout the day):

  • Earlier we addressed transportation to the actual event. My family walked the seven or so blocks from our hotel to Michigan Avenue and then took a Metro to the start. Shrewd move.
  • A modest amount of freebies to be had, if you want them, so have your spouse/friend bring a small bag. I walked away with nearly 12 gallons of Gillette body wash (good stuff, by the way). You can dump goodies in your race backpack afterward, too, but if your family plans to mingle while the race is going on then they may want their own bag to hold a gallon or two of body wash, Gatorade stuff, and other light swag.


It’s been six months since the 2011 Urbanathlon and it’s still raining Gillette Body Wash
  • The start area is really informal (and in the back with the 40+ crowd, it’s quite tame and self-deprecating), and it’s cool for family and friends to hang out with you. As I bobbed around in place like a pre-fight prize fighter, a guy behind me had his wife taking all sorts of pictures as he warmed up and surveyed the crowd, and I thought at the time, ‘oh yeah, he’s going to have some sweet pictures when this is all done.’ This kind of scene played out in a lot of ways, with runners and family/friends just kind of lingering about the start area and keeping it light. Other family members just relaxed on the boulevard and sent their runner off with a hearty cheer.
  • If as an observer you don’t want to get caught up in all of the pre-race hype, the first half mile is a great place to watch from. The runners are excited, there is more than enough room on either side for onlookers (surprisingly so), and it’s close to base camp if you don’t want to wander too far away. Running past loud cheers and fun signs I made a mental note to tell my crew about this spot for 2012.
  • I didn’t do this in 2011, but will in 2012, and that is sign up for in-race text updates for my wife. That way she will receive text alerts when I hit certain check points and can better gauge just where the hell I am. They probably spent a lot of time sitting and waiting, mixed with annoying ‘wait is that him… no, wait there he is… no, is that him… no, I see him… no,’ moments.
  • I think Men’s Health recommends a few key viewing areas along the course, but it’s safe to say that, save for blocking a stairway, you can watch comfortably from pretty much any location. The Lake Shore Drive stretch, not surprising, seemed to be the most popular section with small pockets of onlookers peppered throughout. I met up with my family on East Balboa (again, a shrewd move on their part), which is just a block or so off of the start/finish, and a good 4.5 miles into the run (which gave me a much needed morale boost). They then walked back to the finish area, found a spot in the bleachers, and waited (can’t underscore enough how useful the text alerts would have been here).
  • If you cheer, we will hear. At the final obstacles I cleared the cabs and started to ascend the bus when I clearly heard ‘Go Dad!’ I looked to the left at the bleachers and immediately spotted my crew. What fun. I gave them a wave (perhaps my assurance to them that I’d actually make it) and then finished strong. The bleachers aren’t massive, but with people coming and going as their runners finished, there is a fresh revolving door of seats to be had. There is also space to stand along the fence between the bus climb and the final wall, as well as 20 yards between the wall and the finish line.
  • While I overheard a few people complain ‘why are they serving Miller Lite, man, this sucks?’ to me it was more an atmosphere of fun than being served chilled pints of Goose Island IPA. Relax people. Having said that, the line for free Miller Lite was long (took us about 20 minutes to get through), and most people coming the opposite way were balancing 4 very full cups, so there’s a good chance you’ll get some collateral suds. Because of an unplanned bathroom break with my 10 year old, I had my 12 year old with me in line. It’s a tame group under the beer tent, but it’s crowded, and there is a lot of beer inadvertently spilling, and a lot of people bumping into people, and it’s slow going, so we’ll approach this differently in 2012.


Team Bunker drinking in the post Urbanathlon atmosphere
  • Think about having $7 per person on hand. There was free post-race grub (bananas, water, and bagels), but for $2 a bowl you could nab some tasty (and warm) soup from Chipotle (very hardy, and reaaaaaly good), and there were at least three food trucks offering hot food and desserts, so having a few extra dollars on hand just gives you some flexibility if you want to expand beyond the free Miller Lite and bagels. I can’t say what food options will be available in 2012, but you can probably bet on having a combo of light free snacks, a sponsored booth with small portions for a small price, and hopefully more foods truck. Bring a bottle of water while you’re at it.
  • If you are keeping score on where to watch, while having the most fun, I recommend being a part of the start (either in or around the start of the wave until the wave is on deck to run, or along the first quarter mile), then walking a few blocks to Lake Shore Drive (just cop a spot) for a mid-run cheer, and then saunter back and hang out in the festival area or lock down a spot on the bleachers. You’ll catch the most amount of race while covering the least amount of ground.


After the race their is a lot of this going on (and if you expand the photo you’ll see people in the far back posing on the wall).
  • The post-race festival was kind of nebulous. There is a live band (80’s classics in 2011, much to my delight, and they had great costumes that my kids loved), but it’s mostly just time spent mingling about until the awards are announced. I didn’t really want to leave, yet, I wouldn’t have missed anything had we bolted right away. My kids climbed the two climbing walls available, and the lines were pretty quick. The emcee constantly worked the mike. An odd Jeep exercise demo went off every so often. We snacked on Chipotle soup, my wife and I swilled the four Miller Lites we had vouchers for, we kind of sat around for 40 minutes, watched the awards announcements, and then caught a Metro a half block away on Michigan Avenue to Navy Pier and took on the rest of the day.

    Short lines at the wall made for an enjoyable climb

    Short lines at the wall made for an enjoyable climb

Overall ranking for family involvement: B-. Plenty of viewing options, easy to catch a few different on-course spots of the race, just enough food options to quiet any immediate pangs, and a general air of unorganized fun (so you can kind of do what you want and not feel locked in to a formal program of sorts).

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2011 (Chicago): The Running Man

Lest you forget, this is a runner’s race.

Going in I anticipated the obstacles as a great equalizer, leveling the brawny to scrawny playing field. But with the first tire climb, late-stage marine hurdles, and final wall representing the only true physically demanding road blocks, most of the on-course crawling and hopping served only as modest speed bumps for the fleet of foot.

I became attuned to this deep into the first running leg when a smallish, older competitor in baggy red cotton sweat pants and mesh tank top flew passed me at around mile 2 just prior to Navy Pier and the first obstacle course. The awaiting log jam at the tire climb brought us even, and I eclipsed him over the tires and through the course, only to see him flutter past me 45 seconds into the post-obstacle run. I didn’t see him again. To the runner go the spoils.

Now completely hip to the run-to-obstacle math, a central part of my focus between now and October is to, in short, become a stronger runner. More strength. Increased speed. Better endurance (all easier said than done). In future posts I’ll talk more about how I’m working to accomplish all of that, but today want to share the 7 running stages of the Urbanathlon so that you can devise your own plan for 2012 (the official Urbanatholn map shows 3 legs, which jives with the relay team transitions, but here I’m talking about all of the between-obstacle runs, of which there are 7).

*Mile marks are close approximations, not an exact science.

LEG 1: 2.5 miles

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Wide lanes, a lot of road ahead. Start strong. Photo by Ray Maker

The longest uninterrupted run of the race. A beautiful straightaway down Columbus Avenue in wide lanes past cheering friends and families, and a few curious onlookers. As is the case with most races (I imagine), the start was bunchy and herky jerky, with runners battling nerves and excitement, and dialing into their pace. I stayed to the left where I could comfortably pass when I could, and several runners joined me. Columbus Avenue and Lake Shore Drive provide the widest, straightest lanes, so use them as you see fit; the remainder of the course is more narrow and passing is sometimes difficult.

Running over the Chicago River (on that metal BBQ grate of a surface) you get your first glimpse of the wave before you as they exit the first obstacle course and head back over the river (you don’t see the course from here, though, just flushed runners). Winding into Navy Pier the course begins to narrow (and you look directly into the sun) as you transition from open street to grassy paths and boulevards. If you want to hit the first hydration station here I’d encourage you to hang to the right. I couldn’t reasonably get over, and because it was so early in the race, and hydration stations abound elsewhere, I bypassed it. No regrets.

It was interesting running around the back of Navy Pier, in through a small tunnel, and then out into the touristy front lakeside area (it was still closed to the public). Coming out of Navy Pier is your first obstacle, and since the course here momentarily widens again, and is a straight shot, I recommend you give it a little gas and hustle to the first waiting obstacle course.

Obstacle transition:
Vertical tires, followed by alternating sets of police barricades and flat tires

How I did in 2011:
New to running, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel, so I ran at a comfortably brisk pace (for me), meaning about a 7:30 mile split, and stayed on the fringes to avoid the clumping in the middle of the road.

What I’ll do different in 2012:

  • Because of a last-minute decision to use the port-a-potty, I ended up relinquishing my coveted spot up front and had to settle in the back row of my wave (the second to the last wave at that), meaning I had to tap dance and frogger the first half mile or so, burning energy I didn’t need to burn. I’ll hit the bathroom early in 2012.
  • Most importantly, I expect I’ll push myself much harder on this first leg and establish a faster pace (I ran comfortably in 2011, and in 2012 I’ll be more aggressive in terms of speed). Because it’s so open, and it’s the longest running leg (but still just 2.5 miles), I’m hoping with a little effort I will shave at least a minute off this portion.

LEG 2: 1 mile (3.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A scenic lakefront path, just like your run at home, right? Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 2 comes as you start this leg.

One of the first things you do transitioning out of the first obstacle course and back into your run is climb a flight of stairs to go back over the Chicago River. While it’s a small flight (about 15 steps), it was unexpected, and coming so quickly after the tire run it just worked my quads that much more and hampered my recovery.

Surprisingly, this was the point where we started to catch up to the wave just before us. This was refreshing, but also crowded (especially on the now narrower running paths). A few times heading back on Lake Shore Drive and on the bridge I dipped off of the walkway and into the street to pass, as did others.

Not to discount it, but this stretch is just a mile, goes by quickly, and leads into a not-so-demanding obstacle course (alternating police barricades and cargo net).

Obstacle transition:
Alternating police barricades and cargo net

How I did in 2011:
While steady and something I can be proud of, my pace on this leg was noticeably slower (probably close to 8:15/mile). If I beat it into my head that it’s just a mile, perhaps I could have given more effort.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
I’m horrible in math, and thought by keeping time on my watch’s stopwatch and running the numbers in my head to calculate my splits, I’d not only know my pace, but I’d occupy my mind with something other than the endless concrete ahead of me. No dice. I had the numbers all jumbled at this point and didn’t have an inkling of pace. By the time the 2012 race rolls around I hope to have a GPS watch to help keep me on track (I don’t know that I can press or pull back just on feel alone).

LEG 3: 1.5 miles (5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A beautiful shoreline stretch that felt much longer than it was. Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 3 kicks off this leg. Do not miss this one.

Bar none the most beautiful stretch, hitting the run paths along a perfectly scripted shore line. Still feeling strong, I thought, “hey, I can totally do this” and just sort of settled in for the haul, knowing I’d make it through. The congestion became more pronounced with previous waves now mingling into porous clusters with other waves, and groups of runners partnered up side-by-side keeping a conversational pace (I didn’t mind the buddy system at all and thought it to be a cool outing with a friend). This meant occasionally dodging onto the grass to maintain speed, or worse, lingering behind them, lulled into a slower gallup.

It was at about mile 3.5 when I felt a sharp pain in my left side. Not like a side stich, but more like getting poked really hard in my chest with a popsicle stick. It wasn’t crippling, but present, and of course now I’m thinking, “do I stop and let it subside,” “do I run through it and hope it goes away,” “how stupid will I feel if my wife and kids have to scoop me up off the boulevard and drag me to the ER, and worse yet, that I’m not smart enough to listen to my body to know that I’m having a heart attack?” As I contemplated all of this, passing East Balbo Drive, I saw the handmade signs from my kids, and my wife working the camera phone (which ended up not working here), and I eased up, pulled to the right, high-fived the team and found a new hop in my step. I ran through the popsicle stick mauling and made it pain-free the rest of the way.

As you approach Shed Aquarium it’s important to note that you start to cross paths in the opposite direction with runners who are descending into the final mile of the race, so it’s nearly single file around the quarter mile or so of path, and volunteers will demand you move over and hug the wall (this is the only time volunteers get on you, understandably). You can easily get stuck behind a line of 3 or 4 people that you want to pass, and if it’s open to the right you can take it (do it quickly, though), but depending on the runners coming the other way (and they come fast and slightly down hill) you may not have that opportunity.

Obstacle transition:
Police tape followed by pallet stacks

How I did in 2011:
Shortly after seeing my family, I thought, “WTF, shouldn’t there be another obstacle by now?” Felt like 10 miles if it was an inch; it certainly felt longer than the first leg. Maybe because it’s the straightest leg it just felt unending. Anyway, because I kept thinking an obstacle was just up ahead, I didn’t run the last half as well as I should have (and there are stairs near the end of this leg, to boot), and well, I was tiring. A slow but steady leg for me that I can only describe as “plodding.”

What I’ll do different in 2012:
Aside from the view there’s nothing magical here. With some newfound experience, endurance and strength I’ll run this leg more deliberately from start to finish, knowing it’s a long, straight haul, and knowing I have the endurance to do it.

LEG 4: 1.5 mile (6.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

A few unexpected, but manageable course curve balls. Photo by mexicomacabro

Hydration station number 4. Drink up. Water and Gatorade as usual.

Still hugging the shoreline, I recall this leg as being choppier than much of the rest of the course. Tighter running lanes, more transitions from paths to walkways to corridors, mini stair climbs, and overall just a more dense landscape (mainly in the McCormick Place vicinity). The running field really loosened at this point, though, giving you the freedom to roam at your own pace.

Plodding as well as ever, I felt good enough to maintain my pace, but never felt like, “sweet, I’ve got another two gears to kick it into come the final leg,” Nope. This was it. At this point in the race I was at the threshold of my running wheelhouse, meaning much of my training was in the 5-mile variety, so we’re playing with house money from here out. I could tell I had the endurance, but my legs started to feel like I was wearing tight weighted pants.

I think for many of the runners this marked the ‘things are about to get interesting’ stage, with several miles behind us and a few of the more difficult obstacles coming up, followed by Soldier Field, and the final wall.

Obstacle transition:
Alternating parallel bars and monkey bars

How I did in 2011:
I knew that the monkey bars were coming at the end of this leg, and after all of the climbing and hurdling I really looked forward to this particular upper-body-strength obstacle, and ran with a little more urgency and gusto. I wasn’t swift by any measure, but steady.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
While this mile marker was in my sweet spot in 2011, in 2012 I hope to have much fresher legs and a few gears in reserve that I didn’t have before.

LEG 5: 1 mile (7.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Have a field day after the monkey bars, then grab a Gatorade. Photo by mexicomacabro

There is a hydration station coming out of the monkey bars, and you should hit it. No chance you’ll miss it since the obstacle course finishes in a large open field, giving you a grassy 60-yard dash before you transition back into a more defined path. The field was an unchaotic free for all, as runners shook the feeling back into their hands and arms, hydrated, and moved on.

The cool thing about McCormick Place is that you don’t run around it, you run beneath it. The tunnel is wide and well lit. My heavy footsteps sounded like I was running on an oversized bass drum. My key driving force at this juncture was mental-noting the other race bib colors, and feeling fleeting satisfaction being in the mix of some of the earliest waves (not a completely fair comparison, since we’re grouped by age, not skill, save for the elite first wave). Each red, orange, purple or green bib I passed was simple motivation to keep moving, keep pressing (my bib was khaki).

I should also mention that this is the leg that turns you back into downtown toward the finish (at least heading that direction), shifting your thinking from “I need to pace” to “let’s bring this thing home and finish strong.”

Obstacle transition:
Marine hurdles and Jeep thingy, and then into Soldier Field

How I did in 2011:
I actually ran this leg pretty strong, possibly buoyed by a decent showing on the monkey bars. Running beneath McCormick Place was also unique, which maintained an element of fun.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
If all I do differently in 2012 is run faster, than I’ve done my job. It’s a pretty short distance leading into the Marine Hurdles (where I excelled), and then Soldier Field (where I bombed), so a real opportunity to shave up to a minute off my time.

LEG 6: .5 miles Soldier Field (8 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Prepare for a lot of this. Photo by Ray Maker

Hydration station number 6 comes just before this leg. Drink, or else.

I’ve awarded Soldier Field its own unofficial running leg (as well as an obstacle course) because you put in a good half mile in the stadium before you sniff the vaunted stair climb, and it’s worth noting because nothing I read prior to the race prepared me for that little nugget. It’s a mix of concourse running, small ramps (up), and flights of 8 or so stairs at a clip before you settle into THE stairs.

The concourse was wide open, and the zigzag nature of the path was a little jarring. The small stairs on the other hand squeezed into near single-file lanes, and with some people walking, some jogging, some clinging to the rails, and others more aggressively slithering up between the masses, they were in general slow going. So lots of “run fast,” “now turn around and run fast,” “now slow down and wait,” “now run again, fast, and turn,” “now slow up.”

Regrettably, I walked a few stairs (before THE stairs), which I didn’t want to do, but I was blindsided by the amount of running here, naïve that we’d hit Soldier Field, run the mythical steps, and be done. Lesson learned.

How I did in 2011:
I’m saving the gory Soldier Field details for a future post, but I will say I have a huge opportunity to improve here.

What I’ll do different in 2012:
Descending the stairs, and drinking in the amazing view of the field, I wanted to scream “Go Vikings!” (especially since the Vikings were playing there the following day), but I wasn’t in the mood to take unnecessary grief for my allegiance and simply (and quietly) enjoyed the view. Next year, with hopefully a few more notches in the win column, I’ll give the Vikings a shout.

LEG 7: 1.5 miles (9.5 total)

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago)

Depending on your direction this will be either mile 5ish or mile 9ish … Photo by mexicomacabro

Hydration station number 7 (last one). Finish strong.

“Only about a mile to go, the finish line is close, it’s close” was the volunteers’ mantra as you exit out of Soldier Field (greeted by a sparse but raucous group of supporters) and wind your way back past Field Museum and Shed Aquarium. At the aquarium, momentarily, it’s back to near-single file because runners are still coming the other way. You see the “Mile 9” marker here and it feels great.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was in no man’s land here, in terms of distance. All of my previous training capped at about 8 miles, so all of these feelings (sluggishness, self-loathing, betrayal, confusion) were new (and annoying).

Between Shed Aquarium and the Columbus Drive home stretch I don’t know that I passed more than a few people, nor was I taken over by many, but a few runners clearly had the other gear I sorely lacked and they nearly sprinted the final 1200/800 meters.

The running was quite open along wide paths through the park, and visually it was stunning scenery. The majority of us just paced in a slow moving herd (again, not a lot of passing at this point), and I think we were just waiting for the end to open up into the final obstacle course. On Columbus Drive, before you turn back into the park, I really did try to eke out one small kick (just for the sake of momentum), but it was undetected even to the trained eye.

Herding into the final obstacle course was phenomenal, and spiritually energizing, with small crowds lining your runway, a super-pumped up emcee on the mike, and the end about 120 seconds away.

Obstacle transition:
Taxi cabs, bus climb, cargo net, wall.

How I did in 2011:
I made it, and that was enough for me (at the time). Carried mostly by good vibes, I was as tired as I’d ever been (while running), and no matter what my mind told my legs to do, my legs responded with resolute consistency; “!&#* you.’

What I’ll do different in 2012:
That elusive extra gear I keep mentioning, this is where I’ll use it. We’ll see if my 2012 training pays off.

After the race, hang out at the finish and stage some photos like these guys. I forgot to.