Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Delayed Gratification

After the 2012 Chicago Urbanathlon there was some grousing at the quality of finisher awards for the top age-group finishers. I didn’t raise a stink, but mentioned my relative disappointment once on this blog, and otherwise sucked it up and moved on (for those of you who remember, the top age-group finishers earned a gray Miller 64 T-shirt, shown below). For me, I think I just had high expectations for how the awards would go down, and the lack of spirit and recognition was simply an anticlimactic end to an otherwise otherworldly race experience.

Chicago Urbanathlon Finisher Award

Teddy is not impressed.

Fast forward to mid-March 2013 and arriving at my doorstep in what looked like a manila envelope stuffed with dirty drug money was a great big age-group top finisher medal. It looked quite similar to the finisher medal we received race day, just super sized and on an all black ribbon. Accompanying the medal was a brief letter citing a printing error of some sort which impacted race-day awards (I couldn’t really follow the rational), but alas, here is your bling.

Chicago Urbanathlon Medlas

You now have Teddy’s interest.

Chicago Urbanathlon 2012 Finisher Medals

A few obvious differences (and similarities). The larger medal is also stamped on both sides.

So Men’s Health makes good, I feel great about earning my first non-standard finisher medal medal, and I get a little hop in my step following a long, horrific winter of training which has brought nothing but snow, cold, ice, wind, slush, unexpectedly sore muscles, and probably a little weight gain (when the weather is this miserable this long a lot of food types get tossed into the ‘comfort food’ bucket).

I’m not sure what the deal is with top age-group finisher awards (I know in New York in 2011 there was a similar situation), but seems Men’s Health comes through eventually. So keep running and training, and let a job well done be your greatest reward. If you receive a suspicious looking package in the mail months later, well, even better.


Men’s Health Urbanathlon (New York!): Tips from a High-Performing Urbanathlete

From the moment my timing chip crossed the finish line in 2011 I had my eyes squarely set on a stronger 2012. At the time I didn’t know what ‘stronger’ really meant or looked like, or how’d I get there, but in the ensuing months I fumbled my way through enough routines until I hit my proverbial and literal stride, and then tried to pass along any useful nuggets so that you could maximize your Urbanathlon experience.

So it was super rewarding to hear from an Urbanathlete who participated in New York, posting a strong finish in 2011, and being flat-out otherworldly in 2012 (there’s something to be said for setting goals). She clearly brings perspective to the table that I don’t have, and I asked if she wouldn’t mind sharing some of her own 2012 Urbanathlon experience or tips, which she was more than happy to accommodate.

So with timing chips well past the 2012 race, and our gaze now locked in on 2013, here are a few remaining Urbanathlon thoughts as well as forward-looking training suggestions from one high-performing Urbanathlete:

(Note: I broke these out in paragraphs for the sake of readability on the blog, but her words are left nearly verbatim)

An amazing turnout in New York (photo courtesy @menshealthmag Instagram)

An amazing turnout in New York (photo courtesy @menshealthmag Instagram)

Training in the Months Ahead

“Speed and endurance training is the number one element to a successful Urbanathlon. For women especially, speed can be a tradeoff for strength. It took me a long time to get through certain obstacles that require upper body strength (the marine hurdles in New York came very cruelly around the 8 mile mark). I spent the entire race outrunning men who would catch and pass me at certain obstacles and then I would have to catch up again.”

“That being said, I did increase my strength training this year and recommend that people take a few boot camp classes (find a boot camp that has an obstacle course) to get the feel for climbing a wall, monkey bars, etc. By getting access to obstacles you can find what works best for you: for example, I know that to get over the walls I need to come to a complete stop at a wall, get close, and then jump as high as I can, placing one forearm flat on the top of the wall, and using the other hand to push up, similar to pulling yourself out of a pool.”

Prepare for beasts like marine hurdles and Citi Field. (photo courtesy @menshealthmag Instagram)

Speed and endurance give you your best shot at a top finish, but there are things you can do now to prepare for beasts like marine hurdles and Citi Field. (photo courtesy @menshealthmag Instagram)

Hydration Habits

“Another lesson I learned last year; you must stop and refuel. In 2011, I did not stop (the New York course is about 9.5 miles) because I didn’t want to waste the time. Subsequently, I suffered a terrible leg cramp around mile 9. It was debilitating and cost me minutes because I could only limp along.”

“In 2012 I ate a GU and had a long drink at the 6 mile mark; probably only cost me 20 seconds. This is especially important in advance of our two climbs; first running all of the spiral ramps at Arthur Ashe stadium and then for the full on stair climb at Citi Field. I spoke with a number of participants who told me they suffered leg cramps during the stair climb; it is critical to be hydrated at that point.”

A New York-centric tip for 2013

“If there is a “crawling” obstacle near the pond (which there has been the past two years) wear gloves that you can then take off or throw away. The weather can be perfect and dry but the ground around the pond is always wet and muddy. I wore gloves for the crawl and I was happy I did, my hands were then clean and dry for the monkey bars.”

The Urbanathlon Spirit

“My final advice is to just have fun and not take it so seriously. Around mile 8 a person I had been chasing the entire time started to wane. I came up on him and told him he had been inspiring me to run faster and he could not slow down now and that we were all in it together. A few people running close by heard me say this and it unleashed a torrent of camaraderie and support. From then on we all started shouting encouragements to each other for the rest of the race, and there was genuine goodwill and congratulations amongst this group at the finish line.”

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

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

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

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

Bib assignments …very efficient.

T-shirts …

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

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

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

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

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

My Urbanathlon pre-race ritual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My gloves for 2012

My gloves before the race …

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

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

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

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

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

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

My crew enjoying the post-race activities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 2012 Results

I’ll get into the gritty details in an upcoming post, along with some nuggets that may help runners in New York and San Francisco. Last year I finished 53rd in my age group and 853rd overall. So after a year of training, climbing stairs, learning how to run intervals, eating right, running in the snow, and in general just staying focused, I was pleased with the following results (but still room to grow!) (note: you can see and sort all Chicago results here

My 2012 Chicago Urbanathlon results.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): What to Wear in 2012

As Midwesterners, we’re a hardy lot, so we’ll take the weather as it comes. But still, I like being prepared, which is why I have put some thought into what I’ll wear during the 2012 Urbanathlon in Chicago.

It’s not like I have many options, anyway, so my game-day gear is pretty straight forward.

At race time on Saturday, temps should hover around 50 degrees, with mostly gray skies (and rain later in the afternoon). In 2011 we were gifted a miraculously sunny day, and by all accounts Friday will give us just that. But this year, while still decent by October standards, Saturday will be the turd in the punchbowl of autumn days. That’s okay; I like punch.

A look at Saturday’s forecast (I tossed Friday in there just to piss you off)

Here’s how my gear will shake out:

Headband: In 2011, somewhere in the depths of Soldier Field, I snapped by headband against my forehead (to kind of wake me up) and I couldn’t have been more sickened by how much sweat that thing was retaining. I’m generous with my sweat, and without a headband my eyes will be drinking it in by the gallon and on fire by mile 2. For 2012 I considered a knit skull cap of sorts, but it may be overkill on a 50-degree run, so the headband is in.

Compression tank top: There was a time I quietly mocked guys who ran shirtless about the streets. Just seemed a little excessive and self-aggrandizing. But one day this summer, a sweat sucking polyester/cotton blend shirt I bought for $1 at a surplus store forced my hand. Off it went. It was glorious and liberating. The sleeveless compression top is the closest thing that comes to prancing shirtless on the course.  

Compression arm sleeves: I ran in these last year for the first time and they provide some nice warmth and comfort. Sure, I could just wear a long-sleeve compression top, but even that in comparison to the tank top/sleeves combo feels heavy and in the way. I’ll bring one as a backup. Conversely, if it’s warmer than I anticipate I’ll leave these in my bag and not wear them.

Shorts: Just shorts. Sweatpants are too cumbersome, and running leggings I have, but it’s not that cold.

Wide receiver gloves:

My gloves for 2012

My gloves for 2012

I plan on making light work of the monkey bars. You?

Switching sports in 2012 from baseball to football, since my ravenous dog ate the thumb off the batting gloves I wore last year. I got this new pair handed down from a buddy, who got them a few times removed from someone else, and my only worry is that I’ll grab the first rung of the monkey bars and will be stuck indefinitely. These things are Lester Hayes grippy. Here’s why I’m encouraging you to wear gloves, too:

  1. Weather. If the wind is biting off the lake, you don’t want cold hands as a distraction.
  2. Grip (or as Adam Carolla would say, “Gription”). Gloved hands pay huge dividends on the parallel bars, monkey bars, marine hurdles and the final wall, and I imagine on the new over/under/through obstacle. Do you NEED them? Of course not. But I watched enough people lose their grip last year to make this discussion a moot point for me (it was only a few, but still). Wear them.
  3. Mud. Not a huge issue, but with the periodic crawling in what is likely to be wet, slightly muddy sod, it doesn’t hurt to protect your hands.

Just about any inexpensive glove will do, be it batting gloves, receiver gloves, or a pair of mechanic or garden gloves (as long as there is some grip/gription on the palm). You’ll be glad you had them.


Asics get the nod

Substance over style. Asics get the nod.

I’m going in with my Asics Gel-Neo33. It’s been a jump ball between these and my Nike Lunar Forever, but where my Nike are light and airy (good for obstacles and steps), my Asics are sturdy and supportive (best for the run). I feel like the long haul of this race requires the more demanding shoe. Full point, Asics.

Put it all together:

Me at Chicago Urbanathlon 2011

This is me at the 2011 Urbanathlon in Chicago. I’ll basically wear the same thing in 2012. Different color headband, sleeveless top instead of T-shirt, same compression sleeves and shorts (yep, same ones), similar gloves, I’ll skip the knee band (didn’t get twisted up until the final crawl), and I’ll wear my Asics similar to these Nikes. By the way, this Urbanathlon race photo was only $10, so watch for those a few weeks after your race (can’t beat that price).

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 2012 Obstacle Course Breakdown

Recently I broke down the 10.8 mile running portion of the 2012 Chicago Urbanathlon, and you can reconcile that post with the following obstacle overview to map out your complete plan.  

Note: this is based on my perspective, strengths, and weaknesses. Your experience will vary, but this gives you a good baseline for what to expect, and that’s all I want. For official course and obstacle details and images, go to

OBSTACLE 1: Plastic Barricades and Police Barricade Combo. 
In 2011 the plastic barricades came deeper into the race, and I have a feeling that as the first obstacle runners will take these more aggressively than they probably should. In truth, it comes down to form over speed. I suggest rather than hurdle or jump (there are a lot of these and your quads will betray you), resort to a two-hand plant and swing your legs over (like jumping a chain link fence). Especially with the third/last set of barricades, which are quite long, where you can develop a smooth rhythm (last year I unwittingly fell into a hand plant / swing over / two-hop repeat motion that worked swimmingly (and fast). As for the police barricades, as I mentioned before about 2011, everyone went OVER these, not under. I’m guilty as charged, too, but in the flow of everyone hurdling these I just figured that was the rule (even watch the videos on the Urbanathlon site and people are bounding these things).

Anticipated difficulty: 2 out of 5. Use good form, otherwise this will become a 4, and make the rest of the race miserable. 

OBSTACLE 2: Cargo Net and Traffic Cones with Poles Combo.
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. I tried the bear crawl in 2011 and it was more cumbersome and awkward than I expected so dropped to all fours and plowed through. You won’t win or lose the race here so get through with minimal damage (to your knees or head). The traffic cones are a gimme. They are pretty low to the ground, and more than anything there spacing makes it hard to find a rhythm between each one.

Anticipated difficulty:  1 out of 5.  

OBSTACLE 3: Police Barricades and Tire Stutter Step Combo.
Again with the police barricades, and again, go UNDER, not over. Keep in mind that course volunteers, while extremely supportive and helpful, are not task masters and will not flag you down and demand that you start the obstacle over if doing it incorrectly. It’s more reliant on the honor system, so just do what you know is right. On 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 had no issues getting in and out. Also, take one tire at a time. They were more staggered last year, so you hopped more diagonal than straight ahead, so focus on your placement, and to the best you can take one at a time (which is the rule).  Last year I saw runners skip tires and I was just waiting for course karma to deliver sweet justice later in the race.

Anticipated difficulty:  2 out of 5.  Now that we’re nearly 4 miles in, everything requires just a bit more effort. In 2011 the tires and barricades were the first obstacle.

OBSTACLE  4: Subaru Crawl, Marine Hurdles and Police Barricade Combo.
The marine hurdles are undoubtedly one of the more challenging obstacles, due largely to their height and upper-body strength requirement (finally). As I wrote in 2011:

Post race I read a handful of Tweets about nursing bruises, and I think the marine hurdles can be attributed to that. 5 or so feet of hardwood planks that you have to climb over, and because of their height I think a number of runners would get an arm hooked over the top, than a leg, and then scrape a rib or 3 slinking down the other side. This is where my height, (modest) upper body strength, and hops paid the most dividends. It didn’t take much for me to hop up to nearly belly button high, plant my (gloved) hands on the top of the hurdle, push up and get a foot up as well, and then hop over (more than anything I was most concerned about tweaking my suspect ankle on the long jump down).”

I recall doing 6 of these in 2011, and the 2012 course map shows 3. There is enough room for two people to go at the same time, but careful that you don’t catch a mouthful of shoe (there is a lot of flailing about on these). Look around as you go and give someone a hand if they need it. I think everyone in my pass made it over, with varying degrees of difficulty, but overwhelmingly I think competitors struggled here.

We’ve already addressed the police barricades, and the Subaru crawl is a necessary sponsorship evil (I like you, Subaru, a lot, but maybe in 2013 we have to chase you down, not crawl under you).

Anticipated difficulty:  4 out of 5.  If you can make it up and over the marine hurdles with little effort, you can feel good about the remaining obstacles to come, as they are all inferior.

OBSTACLE 5: Soldier Field Stair Climb.
I’ve written at length about the stair climb, so I won’t get too detailed here. It’s a miserable, miserable thing. The interesting thing in 2012 is that Soldier Field comes early in the course. Here are the broad strokes of what you can expect.

  • The amount of running in the concourse, coupled with the many mini stair climbs and incline ramp runs, and the final two-up two-down climbs is intense and difficult for everyone.
  • Expect to run, A LOT. You will improve your time if you stay focused on your run for a good portion of Soldier Field. In 2011 I just kept expecting we’d be at the stair climb, and it didn’t come for a long time.
  • The final climb is really steep (two up, two down)
  • 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 was a mix of both. In 2012 I hope Men’s Health has a handle on this, because it seemed to be the only consistent gripe for runners. You’ll be able to pick up steam on your first decent and then on the quick run over to the second set of stairs.

OBSTACLE 6: Monkey Bars and Parallel Bars Combo.
Now we’re talk’n!  As in 2011, probably the most anticipated obstacle for me, since it’s one of the only obstacles to require a modest helping of upper body strength. 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 (any inexpensive batting gloves will do). You don’t NEED them, but they sure help.

The parallel bars are more awkward than you think.  You can alternate left-right and hand walk this out, but it’s not very fluid. 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 7 feet long, and you can traverse these in about 4-5 quick hops.

Anticipated difficulty:  3 out of 5. These are not difficult, but if you are someone who has a hard time with monkey bars, which many people do, then these will be a handful for you.

OBSTACLE 7: Traffic Jam.
This is a new obstacle that Men’s Health is trying to get their arms around, so no real info about it yet. It was the winning entry in the Urbanathlon Design an Obstacle contest (Note: my ‘pole crossing’ earned runner-up status in this contest!). I’m bitter less about losing (just less bitter, but you can bet I’m still bitter) and more that this seems like a bad idea (for this race). There is no strength or endurance element and is there mainly to interrupt your flow. With some of the other lesser obstacles, like police barricades and traffic cones, at least you’re plowing ahead. We’ll see how long Men’s Health decides to make it, or if they put their own twist to it, but I’m not super excited about it.

Anticipated difficulty:  1 out of 5. 
Anticipated bitterness:  5 out of 5. 

OBSTACLE 8: Kumho Tire Stutter Step and Plastic Barricade Combo.
Hmmm, a mish-mash of previous obstacles.  We’ve tackled both earlier in this post. More than anything I think this is a gimme before you get ready to bring this thing home the last two miles.

Anticipated difficulty:  2 out of 5. Should be a 1, but now that you’re in over 8 miles, getting those knees up isn’t as easy as it was in mile 3.

OBSTACLE 9: Over, Under, Through NEW 2012 Obstacle
A little Urbanathlon intrigue. You’ll want to click over the Chicago Urbanathlon website to view a photo of this one. The obstacle title actually does a good job of explaining what it is. There are six walls (one in front of the other, several feet apart) constructed of lumber, and the first one you climb over (looks to be about as high as the marine hurdles, so not so tall that you’ll struggle too mightily, but not so short that you can dance over it without thought), hit the ground and crawl under the next wall, and then sort of jump/climb through window-like cutouts on the next wall. Over, under, through. There are two sets three walls, so six in all. I actually really like this idea, which combines some strength and agility (no sleepwalking through this one), and coming after 9 miles of running it’ll be THAT much more challenging.

Anticipated difficulty:  3 out of 5. The first and third walls will come as a challenge because of the height and required agility.

OBSTACLE 10: Tissot 40-Yard Dash NEW Obstacle 2012
Again, click over the Chicago Urbanathlon website to see an image of this obstacle. I’m not entirely sure how this will play out, but from the looks of it there is section near the finish area where for 40 yards you simply haul ass. It appears there is a chip reader at the start and finish of this dash area to record your time, and maybe there will be awards for fastest 40-yard dash. I don’t know. I’m also assuming that when you hit the dash area you just get on your horse and go (so start your dash a few yards early so you hit it at max speed). I love the idea of this obstacle. Some runners have a strong kick, and will do well here (after more than 10 miles of running!). In 2011 I would have stunk this up, but feel I’ll have something in the tank to give this obstacle a fair shake. Even better, if you go all out here the final obstacle is just ahead, so you’ll hit the taxis / bus climb / fence crawl / wall climb gassed and exerted. I love it.

Anticipated difficulty:  1-4 out of 5. The difficulty depends mostly on how hard you’ll take this on. If you just run though it at your current race pace, then yeah, it’s probably a 1, but if you make an effort to really run it hard and indeed ‘dash,’ then we’re looking at a 4 (based on where this comes in the race, what it requires from you, and how it leaves you for the final obstacle just ahead).

OBSTACLE 11: Taxis & Buses to Chain Link Crawl to Wall Finish.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A great Urbanathlon finale. There are really three ways you can 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 did this in 2011 on the first set and it was easy but slow because of the person in front of me),
  2. Take the road less traveled and slide across the trunk or hood (I did this in 2011 on the second set and it was a good way to get over quickly).
  3. Go high and slide across the very top of the car (I won’t be doing this unless I’m shot out of a canon).

The cargo net and fence are straight forward. Climb and crawl.

I think a lot of runners are intimidated by the final wall (8 feet high!). In fact, before the race you’ll see people hanging all over this thing to size it up. I’ve talked specifically about the wall in a previous post, and I’ll recap it here:

  • The wall is a beehive of activity (and flailing legs). Pick your spot early as you come out of the fence.
  • Avoid the ropes. They seem like a good idea, but since they go up the wall only part way you have a better chance of getting stuck up two-thirds of the way. For shorter runners the ropes may be your best option to get started, though, unless you go for the next option …
  • 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.
  • Take your time. A lot of runners take 3 and 4 stabs at this thing before getting over.
  • I suggest you avoid trying to run to the wall, jump into the wall and plant a foot against it, and try to springboard to grab the top. The wall is too slick for this to work without you ending up on YouTube outtakes.
  • If you channel your inner Michael Jordan and can get both hands on the top in one jump, it’s just a single pull-up to get up and over.

Anticipated difficulty:  4 out of 5 (because of the wall). It’s more a 3, but if you don’t have the hops to get both hands to the top of the wall you’ll need to be more resourceful or dogged. Just know that it’s not as tough as you may think.

It’s now in your hands. If you have specific questions leave a comment. See you in chicago.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): 10.8 miles by the numbers; reframe your approach to the run

What’s the saying? All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon? I’m reminded of this when I think about the Urbanathlon, in the context that ‘all runners can conquer the Urbanathlon but not all Urbanathletes can conquer the run’ … uhhh, it makes sense in my head anyway.

The point is this, and I’ve said it before in this space, but at the Urbanathlon, to the runner go the spoils. Historically (and by that I mean ‘last year’), I don’t know that the obstacles have been enough of a playing field leveler, and in the end, if you can’t do an obstacle you step aside and rep out a handful of pushups and move on. You can’t skirt the run. Nor would we want to.

This guy could definitely win the Urbanathlon. Endurance and speed, your biggest competitive advantage.

10.8 miles, at face value, is a handful. But with an impressive 11 obstacles this year (at least in Chicago), there are plenty of starts and stops, which we should use as an opportunity to reframe our approach to the run and put us in the proper mindset to dominate the course.

Let’s look more closely at the splits between each obstacle and maybe you’ll get new perspective:

(These are my close approximations based on the course map; actual distance will vary slightly. And while they reflect the Chicago course, you can apply the math/approach to San Francisco and New York, too)

1.6 miles
Water / Obstacle 1
0.6 miles
Obstacle 2
2.0 miles
Water / Obstacle 3 / Transition area for relays
1.3 miles
Obstacle 4
1.5 miles
Obstacle 5 Soldier Field Stair Climb
0.4 miles
Water / Obstacle 6 / Transition area for relays
0.3 miles
Obstacle 7
0.7 miles
Obstacle 8
1.0 miles
Water / Obstacle 9
1.4 miles
Obstacle 10
Obstacle 11

Not so daunting when put in this context, I think. As I’ve gotten more serious about running this past year, I’ve become keen on the many neophyte mind games to push me through badgering pain and aerobic thresholds. Chiefly, that ‘you can do anything for one mile.’ I repeat this often, and it helps.

As you look back on these splits, most of which are less than or hovering right around a mile, trust that ‘you can do anything for one mile.’ So run hard. Push yourself. Attack the course. Take advantage of those shorter splits. Get in the proper mindset.

You can do anything for a mile.