Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014: Stairway to Heaving

If I know one thing about the Men’s Health Urbanathlon it’s that it will expose your weakness. Swiftly.

You might rip through 5:45 mile splits, but the Marine hurdles or monkey bars will exploit those long forgotten about biceps and shoulders. Maybe you eat parallel bars for lunch and wash ’em down with police barricades, but three miles in to a 10-plus mile run and you’ll think you inhaled a carton of Marlboro Reds at the last water stop. And if you do find that rarefied balance of speed and strength, the stadium steps will set you straight.

In that regard it’s almost the perfect race. Pick your poison.

I’ve experienced varying levels of those scenarios in my three Chicago attempts. And in real time out on the course it’s devastating. Physically and mentally.

In 2011 I had a field day throughout the obstacles, but was reduced to the Ickey Shuffle by mile 7 and had to gather myself for an eight-count before attempting the final wall. 2012 my running endurance was strong, as was my obstacle fitness, but I got log-jammed at the stadium. Feeling shafted by the crowd the previous year I ran with wave 1 in 2013 and declared it ‘my time’ at Soldier Field. I set up the table nicely with a smartly run first half and nothing but open steps when we arrived in Soldier Field. Stopped in my tracks by step 4. Weakness exposed.

I’ve said it before, the pitch and volume of the Soldier field upper deck stairs are otherworldly. And if you go in to the event not having put in the training on actual stairs a world of hurt awaits. I imagine this holds for Citi Field and AT&T Park, too.

That I missed first place in my age group in 2013 by a scant 23 seconds, well, if there are 23 seconds along the course to be had, it’s here on the steps. But they won’t come easy.

So that’s where I am today. And where I’ll be once a week for the foreseeable future. Back at my old stomping ground at the stunning James J. Hill Mansion steps, grinding through multiple sets of 186 up, 186 down. They hurt. Hands-on-knees hurt. Heaving is-my-phone-nearby-in case-I-have-to-call-911 hurt. But among the 1500 steps come race day, thanks to my efforts today, I know I’ll be able to find 23 seconds in there somewhere. Maybe more. Or maybe I’ll get exposed … again.

Men's Health Urbanathlon Stair Climb

Putting in the time now might save me some time later. A painful reminder of the diabolical Soldier Field stair climb.

Men's Health Urbanathlon Stair Climb

In this together … a little help from Team Bunker.

I encourage you to find steps of your own. Run ’em ragged. I can’t promise you that you won’t get stopped in your tracks come Urbanathlon time, but I do know you don’t stand much of a chance without putting in the real work right now. On real stairs. Resist the urge to rely on squats or hills to account for your stairs training. Get out there.

I also think the stairs are a great equalizer, as probably 95% of Urbanathletes have difficulty with them. Train hard here, then flip the script and create a competitive advantage.

There’s still plenty of time.




Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014: Embracing change and the new ‘sprint’ course

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a miser when it comes to change. So no surprise when I roundly poo-poo’d the Men’s Health decision to scrap the relay portion of the Urbanathlon in 2014 in favor of a newly designed ‘sprint’ course. Three to five miles and seven or more obstacles. The standard, or ‘classic’ course still holds. (The sprint course in Chicago is 3.6 miles, New York is 4.6, and San Francisco is 3.) 

More than change, though, I think I was miffed because in their 2012 post-event survey Men’s Health asked a few questions to gauge interest in a ‘sprint’ distance. I kind of knew it at the time that they were high on the idea and asking the question was more formality than feedback. What you don’t know about me is that I love taking surveys (rarely pass one up), but it’s always the most unsatisfying experience in my life (give honest feedback to loaded questions that you never get closure on). Yet I keep coming back; I can handle the disappointment.

And to be fair to Men’s Health, they did probe about an extended 13-mile course, too (I was more receptive to this change, but didn’t endorse completely).

The more I kicked around the idea the more I came around to appreciate it. Even like it. The relay always struck me as a fun activity among friends, but legs 2 and 3 have to spend an inordinate amount of time simply waiting in the cold, there’s little to no fanfare for leg 2 if you like that kind of thing, and divvying up the legs to see who gets to do what obstacles never seemed like a fair shake.

This sprint distance keeps the miles manageable for those who want that, and more importantly everyone gets to experience the most iconic and exhilarating portions of the race. Specifically the stadium stair climb and the final wall (at the final wall you also close with the taxi climb, bus climb, and fence crawl trifecta). I’m not sure what other obstacles are included throughout, but at gunpoint I lay money on police barricades, jersey barricades and a cargo net for starters … maybe a tire stutter step. That’s a pretty gutsy race, and you’ll have earned your light beer in the festival afterward (if you’re gonna have to wait somewhere, the beer tent is the place, not the course).

Depending on when you register, the sprint will run you $65, $78, $85 or $94.

When the 2012 post-event survey came out I gave an emphatic ‘no’ to the sprint distance. But in this case I’m glad Men’s Health didn’t listen. I think this will be a nice, ummm, ‘change’ for an event that works hard to balance keeping things consistent with adding something new to keep us challenged and coming back.

So if you crave a more full Urbanathlon experience, but 10-11 miles is a bit out of your comfort zone, the sprint is a great fit. Make it so.

Now go climb some stairs! You’re gonna need the reps before hitting Soldier Field/Citi Field/AT&T Park.

Now everyone gets to experience the joy and pain of the stadium climb.

Now everyone gets to experience the joy and pain of the stadium climb.


Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014 (Chicago): Seeing how things will play out

And there you go. You may have already received the Men’s Health ‘Urbanathlon registration begins March 14’ heads up email (with ‘best pricing’ through March 28).

Men's Health Urbanathlon registration email

Men’s Health Urbanathlon registration email

With the events seven months out it’s far too early for me to consider registration now, but it’s nice to see that two of the three races are set in stone: Chicago October 18 and New York October 25. San Francisco is generally in November, so while it’s currently ‘TBD’ and not yet on the books you can do the math and plan accordingly.

I have to say, I’m not entirely all-in on whether I’ll compete in Chicago this year (blaspheme!). I love everything about the event, I love Chicago, and love LOVE the extended weekend getaway before winter sets in vibe for us, but it’s a pretty sizable financial commitment and after three years we just need to step back and refocus on if it’s time to try something new (note, we did float the idea of competing in New York or San Francisco …).

Adding to that, I’m planning to run my first marathon in June, and if things go well (or even just okay) then I will strongly consider running the Twin Cities Marathon October 5 (an amazing event right in my backyard … the last three years I competed in the Twin Cities 10K as part of marathon weekend and use it as my warm-up race to the Urbanathlon). That’s important because the proximity of event dates may or may not be conducive to proper recovery for a strong showing in Chicago (kind of sounds like an excuse, but it has merit).

There are a lot of miles between today and October (and I usually register around July), so we’ll get things figured out.

In the immediate term, running has been going okay for me. Despite the record amounts of snow and below-zero temps I’ve been able to keep up with my miles. In fact, pretty much all of February was spent running indoors on the treadmill.

Looking for me this winter? Safe bet you'll find me here.

Looking for me this winter? Safe bet you’ll find me here.

I’ve read all the ‘dreadmill’ jokes, and I’m guilty of many of them (I was the most ardent treadmill detractor), but I’ve come around in a big way. It’s actually been really enjoyable (no insane layers of clothing) and I’ve consistently been able to bang out 10-13 miles at a clip. Not ideal but beats not running or coping with hypothermia.

Periodically we get hit with a still-very-cold-but-not-so-cold-you-fear-for-your-life day and I’ll venture outside. I love my roller coaster route and the intensity that the hills demand. But those days are few and far between, with no signs of letting up. Plus many of my standard routes are snowed under (people have just given up on shoveling at this point and the park trails are tough for crews to consistently maintain).

A rare but enjoyable sighting in February.

A rare but enjoyable sighting in February.

In fact, I decided against a 10-mile race on October 8, partly because I know it will still be too cold to be enjoyable, and partly because I have to imagine the roads will still be craptastic and icy. Not fun.

I’m sticking with my standard season opener April 12 at Goldy’s Run 10 mile at the University of Minnesota.

Hope your running is going well. Stay with it.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2014 (Chicago): Not starting from square one

With fresh cover on the ground, and my face, it's time to put the earbuds back in and go slow and steady.

With fresh cover on the ground, and my face, it’s time to put the earbuds back in, the layers back on, and go slow and steady.

After last year’s Urbanathlon I took a solid two weeks off, which lazily bled into a third week, followed by a sidelining on-again off-again calf injury, and then submarined by Thanksgiving, and eventually obliterated by the Christmas and New Year’s combo platter.

Before I knew it I had picked up some unwanted pounds, and there I was, at the start of the coldest days of the year, recalibrating from what felt like square one (as it related to my running fitness). I was cold, achy, and winded, but I bundled up and hit the road to slowly, and mostly aimlessly, run. Not putting in the deliberate work and effort.

Fast forward to today. I’ve come too far with my gains the last several months and am not the least bit interested in reliving last year’s post-Urbanathlon backslide. But I have to balance that doggedness with the truth that I’m a little burnt out (a touch physically, a schtickle emotionally).

Still, I’ve cobbled together an informal plan to keep me lubricated through the end of the year. One that will indulge me in slightly longer, slow miles, while laying down a better strength foundation through cross training and, for the first time ever, yoga.

Come January we’ll switch things up, but the next several ‘please-stay-healthy-just-stay-active’ weeks will look like this:

Modest cross training. Body weight squats (with medicine ball), jump rope, single leg raises, ball jacks, planks, pull ups, etc. (no weights, unless I do curls)

About 6 easy miles

About 8 easy miles

About 8 easy miles


About 6 miles, with occasional hill repeats. May go a little faster here.

About 12-15 slower miles

I’m not specifically training for anything until Goldy’s 10-mile that runs April 2014 (so late January I’ll dial things up), and all I want right now is to lay down that base from which to build on come Spring.

And of course, as is my standard training manifesto:

I am flexible and adaptive about all of this. This schedule is a best-case scenario and one I’ll work hard to honor. Life is busy and things come up routinely (and sometimes I’m just hungry and would rather eat lunch). These are guard rails for an ideal week, and while I don’t delight in missing a planned workout I’ll take it in stride when it happens. When possible I’ll figure out how to do something active in its place. This should be fun and fulfilling.