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

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

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

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


Run 1
About 1.7 miles

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

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

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

A textbook approach to the Jersey Barricaeds

A textbook approach to the Jersey Barricaeds. Well done.

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

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



Run 2
About 0.5 miles

Obstacle 2: Black & Yellow Poles/ Camo Net Crawl
De ja vu on obstacle two. Same placement as in 2012, and a gimme as far as obstacles go. This is less about difficulty and more about ‘do you have good enough knees to crawl on the ground and hop back up.’ For taller runners (6-feet+), the down-on-all-fours crawl works best, whereas the bear crawl (on hands and feet) may do the trick for others. Since things got kind of log jammed here I resorted to all fours, as opposed to a bear crawl, and plodded through (not always a pretty view under their). The ground is usually very soft, and a touch wet, so it’s forgiving, and a little mucky in spots.

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

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

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

Anticipated difficulty
1 out of 5.

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



Run 3
About 1.5 miles

Obstacle 3: Police Barricades and Tire Stutter Step Combo
Hmmm, so far still pretty cookie cutter from last year. Again, plan on going under, that’s the rule, but if everyone else says to heck with it and is going over, use the patented ‘two-hand plant and swing your legs over’ method. These are high enough that you’ll otherwise have to kind of side hurdle them, which is more energy than you want to expend. Remember, above all, the running between obstacles is what’s going to carry you through this course and will make or break your time, so rely on good form and technique to not tax your legs too much on these smaller early obstacles. As for the tires, keep your head down and your knees up. I think people with big feet worry about getting through these cleanly, but I wear a 13 shoe and in 2011 and 2012 had no issues getting in and out. Also, take one tire at a time. Focus on your placement, and to the best you can take one at a time (which is the rule).

Things start out this way, by the book.

Things start out this way, by the book.

Anticipated difficulty
2 out of 5.

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

 



Run 4
About 0.8 miles

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

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

Anticipated difficulty
3 out of 5.

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



Run 5
About 1.6 miles

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

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

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

On the actual steps, you can only go as quickly as the person ahead of you, so don’t get too frustrated. There are just two paths up and down, and while it would be nice if one side was for walking and the other for running, it’s whatever the person(s) in front of you feels like doing. Conversely, if you plan to walk, be kind and stay alert to let others by you instead of creating a log jam. If I have the opportunity I will likely take these every other step. There is a rail, too, so if it feels good use it to your advantage to help you up (again, do all you can throughout the course to keep your legs fresh for the run portions).

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

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

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

Single file, no matter how you slice it.

Single file, no matter how you slice it.

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

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

  



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

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

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

 


Run 6
About 0.4 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

The bars are chunky, heavy cast iron rods so you can get a good hold, and there are only about 10 rungs. I suggest you wear gloves (I wore receive gloves last year and tore through the monkey bars). I always say it, that you don’t NEED gloves, but they sure help.

How you tackle the parallel bars is a personal decision.  Alternating left-right and hand walking this out is quite common but also difficult and disjointed for me. By only lightly bending your arms and bunny hopping forward you can launch yourself to the end in a handful of bursts, so long as you maintained your grip (gloves will help here, too). The bars are only about 8 feet long, and you can traverse these in about 4-5 quick hops. Like the monkey bars, if you stop midway you’ll have a tough time regaining momentum so try to keep moving. They really aren’t that long.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Knees up, head down.

Knees up, head down.

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

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

Anticipated difficulty
3 out of 5.

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



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

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

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

Over

Over!

Under!

Under!

Through!

Through!

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

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



Run 10
About 1.2 miles.

Obstacle 10: Taxis & Buses to Chain Link Crawl to Wall Finish.
I don’t see the Tissot 40-yard Dash this year, which is a bummer, because I thought it was a great way to push yourself in that final stretch and then hit the finish sequence. In any event this is solid finale. As I’ve said before, there are three core methods runners approach the taxis, since they are butted trunk to trunk 1.) walk the bumpers and use your hands on the trunks to balance yourself (I’ve done this before and it works well),  2.) slide across the trunk or hood (I’ve done this, too, and because they’re wet from either sweat or rain/dew you can slip-and-slide your way pretty easily) or 3.) go high and slide across the very top of the car (not a common route). Just be careful and watch your footing because it does get slippery here (another reason to slide across the trunk/hood and not try to walk the bumpers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Shoes:

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 http://www.menshealthurbanathlon.com/chicago-course.html

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): 2012 Course Review

Men’s Health Magazine came out with its Chicago Urbanathlon course map the other day, and my first reaction was “oh snap, I’ve been training all wrong.” But level heads prevailed, and having let the new course marinade for a few days, here are my quasi initial thoughts:

Note: the new layout could play out swimmingly; this is just my first take. Also, here is a link to a larger PDF on the Urbanathlon website.

Pros

  • 10.8 miles. This is the first thing to smack me in the face. For some reason I thought they would skew shorter this year, but they stretched it about a mile. I’m good with that (but need to up my training miles)
  • This year the final 3.8 miles are nearly all shoreline. It’s such a magnificent view and should be a great distraction when negotiating the misery of the last leg.
  • The opening leg is still the furthest uninterrupted run at about 2.1 miles. There is another near-2-mile stretch along Monroe Harbor right before Soldier Field. These long stretches are liberating.
  • A whopping 9 obstacles PLUS the Soldier Field stair climb. Men’s Health has yet to reveal the actual obstacles, so I could change my thinking in a week or so (but I doubt it).  

Cons

  • The start and finish (Festival area) have moved down about a mile and a half near McCormick Place. That in itself isn’t a big deal, but from a Google Satellite image they appear smack in the middle of a parking lot. This could be an old image (the Men’s Health course map shows it as green space), so my grievance could be moot.

Push

  • The Soldier Field stair climb is nearly smack in the middle of the course, rather than the end. This could go either way, though my initial reaction was one of great delight. I feel it will either give you more time to get your legs back and finish the back half really strong, or it will deplete you and make the final  4-5 miles a leg-cramp tsunami.

Overall, I feel like Men’s Health did a great job of keeping some consistency, yet through modest tweaks is challenging participants to up their game. Well done.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon: Design an Obstacle Finalist!

[QUICK UPDATE: In the final vote I ended up as first runner up with 75 votes. First place had a whopping 275ish. For my time a snazzy Men’s Heath training T-shirt and DeltaFIT DVD set are on the way. I like it.]

Imagine that your favorite NFL team called you up and asked you to design a couple of plays that they might use in goal line situations, and that maybe they’ll let you roam the sidelines during the next home game to see how things play out. You’d be over the moon, right?

Well that’s how I felt yesterday when I saw that Men’s Health selected my “Pole Crossing” obstacle design as one of three finalists.

More than 24 hours into voting and I’m getting smoked in the rankings, but that’s okay. There’s still time.

Through Friday, August 24, you can vote for your favorite obstacle design on the Men’s Health Urbanathlon Facebook page. You’ll need to “Like” their page before voting, but that’s such a small obstacle to overcome …

Design an Obstacle contest

My ‘Pole Crossing’ is in the middle, down by a scant 40 votes at the time of this post.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): A Chance to Design an Obstacle

I’ve quietly lamented in a previous post how the Urbanathon is, on balance, a runner’s race. The promotional imagery and videos generally portray buff dudes in skullies and compression shirts amped about going into the depths of hell and back. I get it (and these guys are there, it’s just that they are in for a rude awakening when the obstacles barely register a blip on the ‘depths-of-hell’ meter). The reality, in my limited experience, is that the obstacles are more speed bump than road block.

So I was glad to see the Men’s Health contest to call on ideas for a new obstacle. Men’s Health would cull the list of entries and put a few into a final vote among their Facebook fans, and possibly the winning entry would get included in one, some, or all of the US Urbanathlons (Chicago, New York, San Francisco). The person who submitted the winning idea could also earn a race registration, among other things.

I jumped at the chance.

As I considered possibilities, I tried to keep 5 things in focus:

  • Must require a good amount of upper body strength (there are enough things on the course to tax your legs, and we need to level the playing field).
  • No gimmicks, like mud or water. Let’s keep it professional, here.
  • Must be something that can handle the large flow and volume of participants (this from the guy who had to wait nearly a minute at the first tire obstacle in 2011).
  • Has to be practical. I initially thought about a variation on the blocking sled (that you see in football practices), but how the heck do you reset those for each participant?
  • The penalty for not completing the obstacle had to be severe enough to make you think twice about just skipping it or giving up (in 2011 I saw some participants just forgo an obstacle without even trying).

Inspired by some recent playground freelancing by my 10-year old, I submitted an idea which I’ll call the ‘arm bar.’ Here are the broad strokes:

Urbanathlon Obstacle Contest: 'Arm Bar'

Here is a version of the jpeg I submitted to Men’s Health, along with a variation of the copy below.

  • Climb a portion of a 9-foot(ish) pole (3 inches in diameter) to reach a 15-foot(ish) horizontal pole (still 3 inches in diameter) that you must traverse.
  • My vision is hand-over-hand (work those shoulders!), but one might wrap their legs and pull themselves across military style.
  • At the end of the horizontal pole, climb down (not jump), run 20 feet ahead and do another set.
  • If you can’t do a set, that’s 25 pushups. Can’t do either set, that’s 50. Not even going to try, that’s 50 pushups plus an additional 30 seconds you have to remain in the obstacle area before you can proceed.

Climbing is hard, especially after a few miles of running. And the muscles required to pull this off aren’t ones you use every day. I also feel like these complement the monkey bars, and don’t replicate them. In fact, I read considerable post-race feedback (including my own) that the monkey bars are too short and too easy.

As expected, Men’s Health received some quality entries, and I’ll keep an eye on which ones make it to the final round. Here’s to hoping the ‘arm bar’ gets its day in the sun.

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.