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 (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.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): A slow start

November has largely been a wash.

Having peaked at the Chicago Urbanathlon it took a solid two weeks to get my motor running again, and when it did kick in I was summarily dogged for the first time by a frustrating ‘injury’ that manifested itself in a persistent (and odd) pain around my hips/groin/hamstring area a few hours after my run and lasting for a day or two. I figured rest, good hydration and consistent stretching would be my best home remedy.

 And then Thanksgiving rolled around and well, more rest was on the menu.

The taking it easy thing, while the best cure, has been difficult. Every day I’m not putting the miles in is a day I don’t improve. And now the unseasonably warm weather has gone full bore into biting cold (not making it any easier to get back out there).

The upside is that I’ve had plenty of time to think, rethink, and think some more about my training for the next two months. My goals between now and the end of January are simple: increase my weekly mileage to 34-40 miles (from about 20-25), increase my long run from 10 miles to 12, and continue my weekly speed work and stair climb (this past year I didn’t get hip to the speed and stair game until July so getting it in early and often should help). Speed, strength and endurance. That’s the end game, but right now it’s just about maintaining my core fitness for the more rigorous workouts to come this spring. 

So how does all of this play out in a weekly plan?

I can’t state emphatically enough how valuable and refreshing these days of rest are (despite my current feelings about taking it easy).

6 miles 7:20/mm
My 6-mile race pace this fall was 6:35, and 7:20 feels like I’m pushing but not overworking or burning out. The course on this day includes a pretty long, steep hill half way in.

6 miles 7:20/mm
This is just a comfortable pace for me at this distance.

10 miles 7:30/mm
By the time the Urbanathlon rolled around this 10 mile was my Sunday long run that hovered around 7:15/mm. I’ll slow it down some, maybe even to 8/mm, especially given the now slick, snowy terrain.

Stair Climb
(6 reps / 1,068 steps)
I can’t say I look forward to this routine, but I enjoy the change of pace, and I’m always glad I did it when I’m finished. This past year I kept pretty detailed stats about each rep (timing, mostly) and they averaged out like this: 1:41, 1:42, 1:43, 1:47, 1:48, 1:42 (this last set is always brutal). I’ll keep it dialed in here for a while.

Speed Work 4 X 800 (plus 2 miles for warm up and cool own) 5:54/mm
These are fun, actually, and very necessary to build speed (in my opinion).

12 miles 7:40-8/mm
I’ve never run this far in one clip. Each year the Urbanathlon sets a new bar in my mileage, and in 2013 I want the 10-11 mile run to be a step down for me; not a reach. So I’ll start with 12 miles and look to hover around 15 come summer. For the first time I’ll put some half marathons on the race schedule, too, so I can get some race-day reps at this distance.

So that’s how I see things shaking out for now, and of course I feel compelled to give my standard training manifesto/caveat:

I will remain flexible and adaptive about all of this. This schedule is a best-case scenario and one I’ll work hard to maintain. Like with you, life is busy and things come up routinely. 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 and figure out how to do something active in its place when I can. This should be fun and fulfilling.

Now good luck with your training. I’m also curious about your regimen to build/maintain speed, strength and endurance. Let me know in the comments; I can use the help.

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): Pulling myself up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Rest. A respite after my Sunday long run.


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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