Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Recap and Observations

What a difference the sun makes. Men’s Health couldn’t have asked for a better morning to host the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago, and the cool-but-not-cold temperature made for ideal running conditions, while the persistent sun and blue sky made for a deservedly raucous post-race festival. I’ll talk more about my individual performance and experience in an upcoming post, but before we dive into that I just wanted to share a few immediate observations about the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago.

Here they are, somewhat organized but in no particular order:

Hotel partner
I was thrilled having stayed at Hyatt Regency McCormick place. A modern, well-appointed hotel off the beaten Magnificent Mile path in South Loop, but most importantly, a breezy 15-minute walk to the Festival area.  After the race there was a limping pilgrimage back to hotel, which was kind of funny. Also after the race I swam with my kids in the pool (a 4-foot deep lap pool, but plenty long) and I can’t tell you how many spent Urbanathletes walked into the pool area desperately in search of a hot tub, only Hyatt doesn’t have one. The incredulous reactions were priceless. I guess that’d be the one universal gripe. The Daily Grind coffee shop area was open 24 hours, and when I hit it at 4:30 a.m. (to use their microwave), runners were already lining up for coffee, fruit, energy bars, and other kick starters. I’d stay here again if a comparable deal is inked next year.

By 4:30 a.m. runners were fueling up on site.

By 4:30 a.m. runners were fueling up at the hotel. This was very nice to have on site.

Microwave

No in-room microwaves, but no worries, one was available at The Daily Grind.

Well fueled by 4:30 with a sweet potato and hard boiled egg.

Well fueled by 4:30 a.m. with a sweet potato and hard boiled egg (which I bought Friday afternoon at Whole Foods … I cooked the sweet potato at the coffee shop Friday as well, and then just warmed up in the microwave Saturday morning).

Packet pickup
Connected by skyway from the hotel, packet pickup was care free. I handled mine pretty early on Friday, so there were no lines. I gave the gentleman my ID, got my bib, and then moved down the line for a plastic bag and T-shirt. Fiat was the only sponsor there, I think, and had a fun booth where you’d complete a survey and then do a scratch game on an iPad. I won a wearable black Fiat hat, and my wife orange and black sunglasses for the family. The last two years we had to make an effort to get to packet pickup, and this year couldn’t have been easier (if you were staying at the Hyatt, I should add).

A tame, well organized scene

A tame, well organized scene for packet  pick up.

Minimalist bag

A pretty thin bag, but I liked the winning shirt design this year.

Pre-race activities
I arrived plenty early at around 5:45 a.m. and a steady stream of Urbanathletes were filing in. The emcee for the day was already in warp drive (during the award ceremony I turned to my wife and said, ‘my God, he’s been talking non-stop since 5 a.m., how does he do it?’). I hit the bag drop before things got nutty and spent the bulk of my time running and stretching (and using the port-o-potties, which were always available) before finally entering the start corral at about 6:40 a.m. I stepped out of line momentarily because one of the fitness trainers was leading the group warm-up activities, and I had already went through my comfortable routine (this year, though, the group warm-up was improved because they just gathered runners at the start and worked it from there, rather than trying to herd everyone in another area to do it).

Things starting to come alive by 5:45 a.m.

Quiet, but things starting to come alive at 5:45 a.m.

Visualizing a strong finish

Visualizing a strong finish. That’s our hotel in the background.

Celebrity participation
This year Men’s Health called on high-profile sports performance and conditioning coach, David Jack, to serve as celebrity in residence. A seemingly likable guy who performed in his role exceptionally well. At the start of the race he said just a few meaningful words before counting us down. During the race he stood atop the bus near the finish line and encouraged those making the climb. And at the award ceremony he shared his final sincere take in less than 60 seconds. He didn’t try to milk the moment or go nuts with ‘you’re gonna wanna die out there but don’t you quit!!!’ hyperbole. Well done.

‘Let ‘em go, they’ll flame out later on’
This I overheard from over my right shoulder when we all shot out of the start. The lead pack did go out hard, but tamping down your enthusiasm is hard enough at the start of a race, and tamping down your enthusiasm at the Urbanathlon is unheard of. Not sure who flamed out, and who didn’t, but the start was like the running of the bulls.

‘I don’t recall this being so difficult’
This was my first thought coming out of the opening obstacle (a modest Jersey Barricade and Police Barricade combo platter). Throughout the course even these rudimentary obstacles were draining and it took some time to get my legs back after each. I was surprised by this, and in the moment I was a bit concerned (that maybe I hadn’t prepared enough with my strength training).

The course
This year I ran with a GPS watch and it looks like Soldier Field is included in the 10.8 mile calculation (I always forget to turn off my watch so by the time I checked it was reading 10.96 miles). The start was cool in that we took off in the opposite direction this year and ran through a narrow shoot on the outskirts of the festival area before bending back toward the start and running through an uplifting tunnel of Urabanathletes and spectators. Visually, everything was stunning, set off in large part by the clear blue sky and bright sun. Less stunning was the copious amount of goose crap along Monroe Harbor. ‘I’ll burn my shoes later,’ I figured.

As expected, most of the spectators were positioned at Soldier Field where much of the action went down. If you camped at the approach (North End) runners would pass you coming and going (great spot), spectators also hung out at the stair climb entrance, and then coming out of Soldier Field was electric because you could see the shadow of a huge crowd (despite running smack into the Marine Hurdles and Tissot Tire Carry on your exit), and then the Monkey Bars / Parallel Bars combo was well lined. Not a lot of on-course spectators.

Soldier Field

I took this photo Friday morning. Runners exit Soldier Field here and turn smack into the Marine Hurdles. No time for recovery!

Most diabolical course change
Somehow, Men’s Health was able to find a few hidden staircases along the route and proudly assimilated them into the race. These were demoralizing salt-in-the-wound mini obstacles. ‘Up the stairs and down the ramp’ would instruct an on-course volunteer, to which I’d think, ‘Stairs? What frick’n stairs?’ And sure enough, there they were. Well played, Men’s Health (New York and San Francisco, you’ve been warned).

Most appreciated course change
I may be the only one, but I really loved how they changed the final stretch of this race, essentially bringing you into the festival area but running you along the outer banks before hooking a sharp right turn into the final obstacles (really you just re-run the first 200 yards of the race start, but instead of curling left to head back through the start area you just keep running the curve to the right, like a track, then run a looong straightaway, and then bank hard right to hit the taxis). It was a much tamer version of the Olympic marathon when runners triumphantly enter the stadium and do some time on the track before the finish. It was JUST like that. Very cool.

This is actually the back of the start corral, but the final stretch of the race brings you in near the start and then you run along the white fence until you curl into the final obstacles. Very nice.

This is actually the back of the start corral, but the final stretch of the race brings you in near the start and then you run along the white fence until you curl into the final obstacles. Very nice.

My take on the new obstacle
This year featured the Fiat Tire Carry just on the heels of the Marine hurdles. I have to imagine that later waves had some serious log jams here, only because of the logistics of keeping the tires fully stocked, but when I arrived there was an open beam to the far left so I grabbed two tires and hit it. The tires are all the same (I thought they might be different, to mess up your balance), and the beam had some grit to it so that it wasn’t slippery. I didn’t see anyone fall, but we all did that teeter-totter thing to maintain our balance at some point (you have to walk up an incline, take some turns, and then hit the decline). It’s not very high. Drop off the tires to the side, then run to the monkey bars. I really liked this obstacle because it wasn’t taxing, but required great focus, and falling off is probably easier than staying on. I’m curious how this went for others. And it was a huge, HUGE improvement over the Jeep and Subaru crawls from the previous two years.

A new approach to an old obstacle
When we hit the blue police barricades a woman next to me just started rolling beneath them, taking a whole set of three or so in a few quick rotations. ‘Hmmm,’ I thought. ‘I guess that does make sense.’ Now, I get crazy dizzy on those kiddie Tea Cup rides, so I knew I couldn’t just roll and be good with it, but deeper into the course I crawled to the barricade and then did one roll, and then crawled and then did one roll, and so on, and it actually went pretty well. It beat just crawling the entire way.

Friday morning during a slow jog I got a closer look at another standby, the monkey bars.

Friday morning during a slow jog I got a closer look at another old standby, the monkey bars.

Soldier Field will crush your soul every time
Running in the first wave I was eager to get a legitimate crack at Soldier Field this year. The last two years I lamented about being stuck behind a slower moving herd hell bent on not letting anyone pass. This year I approached Soldier Field with just one running companion (others were on the stairs, we just happen to enter at the same time), and after a labored ascent up the long entrance ramp I hit the concourse, flew up the dozen or so steps on the upper deck entry, looked up at a baron runway and flew up one step, flew up a second, and then screeeeeeech. That’s all she wrote. It was physically impossible for me to run up the steps. I had no issue devouring all of the mini stair climbs inserted throughout the race, but the pitch on Soldier Field is just too great. I was being punked by gravity in a major way. I nearly broke down at the thought of having to go four up, four down.

I used the hand rail to help hoist myself up, and at the top would jog across to the descending flight, and then regain my legs on the quick-step down. I talked a lot of smack the last few years, but funny how I was so quickly humbled. On the bright side, coming down the steps, if you take a moment to gaze out at the playing field it is remarkable.

Side note: While I couldn’t run, I was at least able to go two steps at a time, and when you experience those aforementioned ‘slower moving herd’ log jams you can only go one step at a time, which is frustrating.

Awards
Men’s Health covered off on the standard award categories; top male finisher, top female finisher, top male relay team, top female relay team, top agency relay team (new this year), top co-ed relay team, fastest stair climb, and then top finishers (male and female) in the standard age groups. A significant change is that in the overall and age group awards they stopped at the top finishers (first place). Second and third place were not recognized and did not receive awards. Not heartbreaking, but a letdown. Especially since previous years they awarded for the top three spots in each age group, and it feels like an easy award to pull off for a race of this scope.

Sponsors
I was so looking forward to restocking my stash of Gillette body wash and Hugo Boss cologne samples, but sponsors didn’t quite go as nuts this year. Equinox (I think it was them) had all hands on deck to stretch out spent runners, Emergen-C had their usual endless amounts of packets, TRX had a spot to stretch out with their resistance bands, you could nab some protein items from Six Star Pro Nutrition, and this year Hugo Boss ran the coveted Men’s Health Magazine cover photo booth, and Tissot had a super fun but wildly erratic photo booth, but overall sponsorship felt light. A not surprising sign of the times of corporate belt tightening, perhaps. I also missed Chipotle with their chips and guacamole, replaced this year by three food trucks.

Food Trucks

A few interesting food trucks provided post-race eats. This one had some pretty yummy looking grilled cheese sandwiches, another had Chicago dogs, and another donuts and coffee.

Food Trucks 2

These little donuts were delightful, but the $5 coffee that we bought with them was only half full. It was too nutty to try and straighten it out.

Post-race festival
I think this year there were fewer things to do (like no push-up challenge, for those so inclined), and maybe a little less sponsor activity, but everywhere I looked people seemed to be having a great time. No in-person DJ this year, but a playlist was being aired from somewhere with a good mix of old school and contemporary hip hop along with some other genres. A lot of Urabanathletes took fun photos on the award stage because of the official race backdrop, but Men’s Health had a second backdrop just off the race finish for those who wanted to do the photo thing. I though that was a nice touch. The Michelob Ultra beer tent was pretty tame. I stood in a short line with my beer ticket, but then we got instructed to stand in a different line so that we could first get a wrist band. I went with my girls to the wall climb instead. Most people hung out until about 11 a.m.  when the awards wrapped, and the festival officially went until 2 p.m., but I have to imagine it gets pretty sparse by noon (but again, the weather really held up, so maybe more people stuck around to empty the kegs and compare wounds).

Look at that sky. The festival had a good post-race party vibe.

Look at that sky. The festival had a good post-race party vibe.

My girls had fun on the rock climb, and got plenty of reps.

My girls had fun on the rock climb, and got plenty of reps.

Everyone took a turn in front of one of the backdrops.

Everyone took a turn in front of one of the backdrops.

My crew hung in there and had a good time.

My crew hung in there and had a good time.

About 5 Urbanathletes from the Challenged Athletes Foundation participated, and crushed it.

About 5 Urbanathletes from the Challenged Athletes Foundation participated, and crushed it.

I somehow missed this photo opportunity in 2012, but not this year! One of the greatest things ever.

I somehow missed this photo opportunity in 2012, but not this year! One of the greatest things ever.

Participant medals
I can’t tell if this is an improvement, a downgrade, or just a lateral move, but the medals are at least different from the last two years. I love the solid yellow ribbon with the city and date in black, but the small, bright nickel-plated medal itself seemed a little chintzy. More importantly, though, when I crossed the finish line I was spent, and a woman draped in medals came after me, holding the ribbon open so that she could place it over my head and drop it on my neck, and excitedly say ‘congratulations!’ I thought that was nice.

Not the best photo, but a look at the participant medal.

Not the best photo, but a look at the participant medal. Love the ribbon, luke warm on the medal.

Overall grade
B+. I think the overall experience was exceptional, punctuated by an unseasonably sunny morning. And I like that Men’s Health finds just enough tweaks each year to make it a little different from the year before, and not just cookie cutter this thing over and over. Participation was up considerably from last year, too. It did feel like Men’s Health maybe had to (or simply decided to) cut back on a few things this year, which didn’t sabotage anything per se, but took off just a hint of luster from the day. Bottom line, we had a great time and will be back.

Congratulations to everyone who competed and gave it their all. And best wishes to those of you in New York and San Francisco getting ready to do your thing. If you have thoughts or observations about those races let me know; I’d love to share them here.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): Fuel for Thought

Earlier this summer I ran my first half marathon. As we marched down the street to the start, I was pretty confident in my training, I came well prepared with the proper gear, was astutely aware of every water stop, and had more than enough gel tucked in my SpiBelt. And then before the horn went off  I was hit with the realization that all I ate that morning was piece of toast with peanut butter and honey (a good two hours earlier). Impeccable planning, but I forgot to eat.

I finished the race with an epic bonk. Never again.

I’m sharing this because after all of the training you put into the Urbanathlon I don’t want you to fall short on fuel. At 10.8 miles you’ll need it.

Racing rule 102.36 in the runners handbook declares that you should never try anything new the morning of a race. You just don’t want any surprises out on the course with cramps or semi-traumatizing GI issues. For the most part I follow that rule. So I’m not here to tell you to try something new, but I thought I’d share my approach to fuel come race day (it’s based on nothing more than my preference).

As of right now

  • Stay hydrated. The night before the race don’t expect to empty a water cooler and call yourself ready. Starting right now (it’s Wednesday) keep a water bottle or cup around, and keep it full, and consistently take a hit off of it. You don’t have to go nuts, and you don’t need any out-of-the-ordinary concoctions. Just make a concerted effort to stay hydrated.
  • My diet is pretty normal by most standards, and more than anything I’ll just start to abstain from heavier or more fatty foods (I know, real scientific). Push the fresh veggies and fruits, and mix a sweet potato in here and there. And as much as I can go for an IPA, red wine, or something with a little more oomph, I’ll save those delicious calories for the post-race antics.
Nothing fancy, just a cup with some water well within reach.

Nothing fancy, just a cup with some water well within reach.

The night before the race

  • Really just depends on what our dinner plans are. I could plow through a Chipotle Burrito Bowl, or if we’ll be at a more formal restaurant I’ll do some pasta with red sauce, or something similar. Whatever we do I just won’t go overboard with a  steak or burger, or cheese curds.
  • Keep up the water.

Race morning

My Urbanathlon pre-race ritual.

In 2011 and 2012, this was my Urbanathlon pre-race ritual at the funky Hard Rock McDonald’s across from Best Western River North. In 2013 I’ll shake it up a bit, but will keep McDonald’s in the  equation.

  • 4:30 a.m. I’ll reluctantly rise and warm up my sweet potato in the microwave (I will have cooked it in the microwave the night before). I’ll add a touch of butter and salt, and toss a hard boiled egg on my plate and wash it all down with 16 ounces or so of water. This will give me the sustained energy I need a few hours later.
  • 5:30 a.m. I’ll have a cup of coffee, black. My stomach can handle it, and I need it. I think there’s a McDonald’s in or right near Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, where I’ll grab a scalding cup.
  • 5:45ish a.m. After a trip to the restroom, I’ll trek to Soldier Field and along the way will nurse a Gatorade and nibble a PowerBar. I won’t finish either. I’ll work on these until about 6:30 a.m.
  • 6:45 a.m. 15 minutes before the race I’ll empty a Gatorade Prime pouch. Whatever is left of my PowerBar at race time I’ll toss in my pocket.

All told this may seem like a lot of weird stuff floating around my belly, but it’s a regimen I’m somewhat used to, and the spacing will help.

During the race

  • I’ll hit every water stop. I know they’ll have Gatorade and water, and for most of the stops I’ll hit the Gatorade. This is also why I may make the executive decision to wear my black tank instead of my white tank as planned; because if the Gatorade is anything other than clear my white top doesn’t stand a chance.
  • Midway along Monroe Harbor, at about mile 5, just before Soldier Field, I’ll inhale a Roctane GU (this is just a commercial gel). I’ve trained and raced with these, and know my stomach can handle it. I’ll take it just before a water stop, at which time I’ll actually drink water, not Gatorade, so that I can wash it down.

Ultimately …

Put simply, the point of all of this is that whatever your stomach tolerance is, just don’t forget to properly fuel for what is a pretty demanding run. And you can take some baby steps right now, even though the race is a few days out. It’ll make a big difference. Trust me.

Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): What to Wear in 2013

I figure since I loosely covered dress code in 2012 I’d better revisit for 2013. It’s unusual to say the least that you’re getting fashion counsel from a guy still ensconced in Fall 1997 wardrobe, but my thoughts here are light on style and heavier on substance, so I guess it works out.

I also realize that running attire is a lot everything else in life … we like what we like and regardless of what anyone else has to say we stick to our preferences. And that’s okay. I’m not here to convert anyone, or to judge. I’m just here to give you a lay of the land and encourage you to govern yourself accordingly.

Now, this past year I don’t know if I’ve grown much as a runner, but I can say that in that time my attire has gone through a modest makeover.

Specifically, the last two years I’ve worn the exact same pair of shorts to every race I’ve ever run. Every race. I loved them because they were light and loose and a little long. But then I experimented with a pair of actual running shorts (from Costco and a pair from REI), and well, consider my life forever changed. Wow. Sure, they’re a touch shorter than I’m normally comfortable with, but that’s okay. And the, ummm, sewn-in, ummm, underwear thingy I guess is what you call it … heavenly.

Secondly, sticking with the less-is-more mantra of my running shorts, I’ve ditched the headband. It didn’t bother me when I ran with it, but then I ran a race without it and the difference was remarkable. I just felt unencumbered without it. Lastly, I stepped down my compression tank to more of a light weight singlet, courtesy of my loosely organized ‘Run Club’ at work (well, I had to buy it, so not really ‘courtesy of’).

But that’s all good for summer in Saint Paul. We’re here to talk about fall in Chicago. Point taken. Let’s go.

‘I’m freezing just looking at you’

That’s what the friendly woman next to me repeated as we toed the start line in 2012. Admittedly I was a little chilly, but that lasted only as long as it took me to exit the port-o-potty and for the starter to count down the race. It’s too early to know the weather on race day, but the week leading up to it looks sunny and glorious (lows around 50), and the week of looks wet and glum.

Knowing that much, if the weather holds, here’s how my gear will shake out in 2013:

Shorts or pants

Bottom line, if the starting line looks like this, then yeah, I’ll wear long sleeves and long bottoms. Otherwise less is more for me.

Cap: This will be a race-day decision. While I sweat like Patrick Ewing in the fourth quarter it hasn’t affected me when I run nearly as much as I thought it would (burning eyes, for example). So the headband is likely out (for the reason I mentioned earlier), but if it’s truly cold I’ll consider keeping it in play or wearing a modest skull cap of sorts. At worst you should consider tossing a cap in your bag for after the race in the festival area. You’ll have worked up a good sweat and chances are there will be a breeze and chill in the air.

Race ‘singlet’: Very lightweight. I like my compression tops, but may current sleeveless number is always riding up on me and gets all halter toppish, so the loose, light race singlet gets the nod. As a backup I’ll bring my long-sleeve compression top from Target and wear that, but it has to be really, really, really cold. I’ll have a hooded fleece that I’ll toss on after the race.

Compression arm sleeves: I ran in these the last two Urbanathlons and they provide some nice warmth and comfort. It will have to be mid-50s for me to consider leaving these in my bag. This is also the one time of the year I can wear these, so necessity or not, they may make a showing.

Shorts: Black running shorts. They’re almost like a gateway running short, since they aren’t the really thin, short-short ones. I’ll tuck a pair of running leggings in the far reaches of my suitcase in the event we’re hit with a blizzard.

Wide receiver gloves: If you’ve spent more than 30 seconds poking around this blog you know I’m a huge advocate for gloves at the Urbanathlon. Between the mud you’ll invariable encounter, the climbing, the traversing, and the cold, it’s silly to not wear them.

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 on the palm). And from a previous reader tip, consider a pair of expendable gloves that you can toss out either just before the monkey bars (so your hands are now dry for that climb) or immediately after they help you across the monkey bars (if you truly have a disdain for gloves). I’ve said too much …

Shoes: A big change here. I’m going with my Sketcher GoRun 2s. Very light. Sneaky comfortable. Will hold up well for the duration of the race and keep me light on my toes for Soldier Field and the Marine hurdles and final wall.

Accessories: Just one. I will likely run with my SpiBelt so that I can pocket one or two Roctane GUs. Last year I popped a homemade gel along Monroe Harbor before Soldier Field, and I’ll do the same this year (going with a commercial gel this year), and maybe, just maybe a second one later in the race (unlikely, but I at least want the option).

Oh, and I’m 50-50 on whether I’ll wear a GPS watch. With the obstacles the math gets kind of fuzzy so I don’t know if I need that swirling around my head. If it’s mostly dry (I have a Motorola MotoActv) I’ll more than likely wear it so that I can at least get a modest read on my current pace during those longer stretches.

I should also mention my backpack. Plan to bring your own bag (unless for security measures Men’s Health requires everything in a clear plastic bag, like we just had at the Twin Cities 10K ). Your race packet should come with a number to pin on it, which is nice. The bag drop is pretty efficient, too, but last year log jammed just before it was time to line up in your wave (drop area is pretty small with a handful of volunteers available to shepherd your bag to its spot).

Speaking of log jams. The port-o-potties get backed up, too, but last year I wandered past the crowd toward where the last wave starts (well within the festival area, just at the back of it) and there was a long row of lonely untapped port-o-potties.

Put it all together: In hindsight, I guess it makes more sense to think through what you will wear after the race, not so much during the race (if you plan to hang out at the festival). Here’s what I’ll be wearing:

What to wear Urbanathlon 2013

Throw some arm sleeves and gloves on this photo and that about covers it, literally, for me at the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago (including the PowerBar in hand).

Men’s Health Urbanathlon 2013 (Chicago): [Not so] Frequently Asked Questions #2

Sponsor come loaded for bear ... bring a bag!

Tip #1 Sponsors at the Urbanathlon come loaded for bear … bring a bag!

Part I | Part II

My reservation at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is complete and I just finished my race registration, so that makes me official and committed to the 2013 Urbanathlon in Chicago. Couple that with the race being less than a month away and I start to get a little more dialed in to the pending event and ancillary details (what time should we hit the road so that we don’t arrive in Chicago during rush hour again this year, what will I eat for breakfast race day, should I make dinner reservations that evening, etc.).  As these and other questions swirl in my head we may as well put them to use and crank out a second FAQ (especially as some things have changed since the first round).

Feel free to look back on FAQ Part I for some foundational info, but here is part II of my Men’s Health Urbanathlon FAQ for 2013 (and you can always refer to the Men’s Health Urbanathlon site for their official take on things).

So, not that you asked, but:

Q: How are the waves being organized this year?
A: Glad you asked. This is a significant (and appreciated) change from previous years. Men’s Health has done away with the waves assigned by age (a gripe from previous years that didn’t much bother me), and while the wave system still exists you can simply sign up for the wave you think you should compete in. Now, I registered last week and the only options remaining were the first Elite Wave (you need to post a qualifying time from a previous Urbanathlon, or otherwise make your case, to register for this wave), Wave 2 (which comes with an add-on cost, though you get some nice perks with it), and Wave 8 and Wave 9.

Really, you can take more than one! It took me a good 8 months to run through my Hugo Boss. Smells fantastic.

Really, you can take more than one! It took me a good 8 months to run through my Hugo Boss cologne samples. Smells fantastic.

Q: So if there are no waves by age group, how will they handle age group awards?
A: I was curious about this, too, and actually emailed Men’s Health as much. They responded pretty quickly and essentially said that no matter your wave you will be tracked with your age group and eligible for an age group award. That goes for the Elite Wave 1, which is new this year. I like this change, but it certainly makes things more competitive now that it’s completely open (for example, a participant last year was pleading his case in the Awards tent that he should have placed first in his age group, which technically he did, but because he ran in the first Elite Wave he was excluded from his age group rankings … this year he’s eligible for that elusive age group award even if in that first wave). I don’t think my 2012 time would have held up if these rules applied last year.

I've mentioned the brawny to scrawny math in previous posts, and you brutes can caste your revenge at the push up challenge.

I’ve mentioned the brawny to scrawny math in previous posts (favoring the runners), and you brutes can exact your revenge at the push up challenge.

Q: Where is packet pick up?
A: As if you needed another reason to stay at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, Men’s Health is holding packet pick up there Thursday and Friday. I’m feeling better about my hotel choice every minute.

This year toss a bathrobe on and grab your race bib. You're right there!

This year toss on a bathrobe and grab your race bib. You’re right there!

Q: What’s the weather supposed to be like on race day?
A: It’s anyone’s guess. It’s Chicago in late October. It will be crisp, so dress accordingly. Unless there’s snow on the ground I’ll be in a tank and shorts, but if you’re the type who gets cold easily plan to layer up. Also, the ground gets pretty wet around most of the obstacles, so expect your hands, knees, and feet to get a little wet and probably muddy.

Obviously I won't be here, but if muddy conditions get you down they can take care of you on the spot.

Obviously I won’t be here, but if muddy conditions get you down the great people of Paul Mitchell can take care of you on the spot.

Q: What’s the toughest stretch of the Urbanathlon?
A: I’d have to say right at mile 4, just after Obstacle 3, when you exit Navy Pier and hit Monroe Harbor. It’s a long, flat stretch, but it’s a little exposed and windy along the water, and it’s probably the longest running portion of the race (and your more than a 5K into this thing). It’s here where you’ll probably start to feel a little gassed, and this uninterrupted run doesn’t help much.

The course will beat you down, but trainers will make it all better afterward.

The course will beat you down, but trainers will make it all better afterward. Chips optional.

Q: Okay, Randy, what are you most looking forward to this year?
A: Like a Grammy award nominee, I’m just happy to be here. Really. This is my third go-round with the Urbanathlon, so I feel I know what to expect, and I just hope my body holds up. Now, at gunpoint I’d probably say I’m most eager to get a fair shake at Soldier Field. In 2011 I totally bombed that stretch due to the unexpected in-stadium distance and my poor conditioning, in 2012 I attacked the stadium like Matt Forte only to get held up in the single file log jam, and this year I anticipate less crowding so it’s back on my shoulders. If it plays out, I can see myself shaving at least a minute off my time in Soldier Field alone.

Chipotle is an Urbanathlon hero. They served a killer soup in 2011, but just chips and guac in 2012.

Chipotle is an Urbanathlon legend. They served a killer soup in 2011, but just chips and guac in 2012. Bring back the soup!

Q: What are some good spectator spots for my family or friends?
A: First off, the best thing you can do to show your appreciation for family/friend support is to sign them up to receive text updates when you hit certain zones along the course (you can also set it up to post to your Facebook or Twitter wall). Men’s Health has a link here. That way they have some idea of where you are at any given time and aren’t held hostage waiting for you (as a hundred people pass by wearing almost the exact same outfit as you).

With that off my chest, the course is your oyster, and there isn’t a bad spot along the way to spectate. Pound for pound, however, if they just stick around Soldier Field they can catch you at the start, at about mile 6 when you return and enter into Soldier Field, when you come out and hit the Marine Hurdles and monkey bars (obstacles 6 and 7) and then at mile 10.8 when you return for the final obstacles and finish. That’s four looks! Plus they see you at your best and most despondent, and they never have to roam far from the free samples.

I'm totally wearing one of my Jockey T shirts right now! Among my favs.

I’m totally wearing one of my Jockey T shirts right now! Among my favorites last year.

Q: There’s less than a month until go time, is there anything I can do to get my training honed in between now and then?
A: I appropriately refer to this window as my ‘lube phase’. Whatever training you’ve done up to this point is hopefully paying dividends, with any gains likely leveling off, and right now you just want to keep the body well lubricated. Take those slow long runs, keep up with the tempo runs and some speedwork, still stair climb if you can, and then taper as appropriate. You want to enter race day feeling well lubricated and not beat down.

Q: This is my first Urbanathlon, just give me one nugget to consider.
A: Just one? No can do. Here are three:

  1. The course will feel long. Well, at 10.8 miles it is long, but it’s a looong 10.8 (the running in Soldier Field isn’t accounted for in that 10.8).
  2. Conserve your energy on the lesser obstacles (police barricades, nets, etc.). Like I said (and learned the hard way) in 2011, to the runner go the spoils.
  3. This truly is a fun event, so above all enjoy yourself and drink in the atmosphere. If the weather cooperates, it’ll be a blast (race and post-race festival).
  4. Oh, and bonus nugget, wear gloves! Anything with some grip (I’ll be wearing the same receiver gloves this year)
My gloves for 2012

My gloves for 2012 and 2013. Trust me on this.

My gloves AFTER the race

My gloves AFTER the race

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 2013 (Chicago): Where to Stay

I’m particularly loyal, and largely averse to change. So while usually game for something new, I reliably stick with what I know and trust. And as I’ve been thinking more seriously about the details surrounding the Urbanathlon in Chicago it was a forgone conclusion that we’d stay at Best Western River North for a third consecutive year. Make it so!

It’s a more than adequate hotel in a great part of downtown, with an indoor pool, free wireless Internet access, walking distance to just about anything, and highly coveted free on-site self parking. We even saw the prime minister of South Korea out front. What’s not to love?

Living dangerously I looked into the Urbanathlon rate at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. Ummmm, Best Western who? The last two years we cobbled together a much better rate at Best Western River North (than what the Urbanathlon partner properties offered), but this year the Urbanathlon partner rate is formidable. $179 per night with free self-parking for one vehicle. And it’s a magnificent property by most accounts. Okay, now make it so! Booked it.

Parking alone at just about any other hotel will leave you worse for wear than the stair climb at Soldier Field. Best Western always had this going for itself, and it was a core benefit they dangled that nobody else could claim. But the Urbanathlon rate leveled that playing field, for a short time at least.

Importantly, the Hyatt is less than a mile from the Soldier Field area where the event is centralized (roughly 0.7 miles on foot, 2 miles by car), meaning it is more doable to run my warm-up to the event from the hotel, and weather permitting, my crew will just walk on over rather than drive and park. There are no shuttles to and from the hotel to Soldier Field for the race, so plan to walk/run it, or catch a short cab ride.

Hyatt Regency

I won’t take this route to the festival, but you get the idea at proximity to the event from the hotel

Best Western River North

I’ll miss staying at Best Western River North (great hotel in a great location), but we’re trying something new this time around. It’s an easy cab ride for any Urbanathletes looking to stay there.

Conversely, the Hyatt puts us on the complete opposite side of downtown, in a less ‘touristy’ (walking / shopping / dining) and less familiar area. In fact, most online reviews hit the same beats … ‘awesome hotel if attending a convention next door, but there’s really not much else around it and it’s too far from anything vacationing guests might want to do downtown’ (oh, and the pool looks like a 4-foot deep lap pool, which my kids may not love, but should at least like).  While I may get stuck in my ways, and blinded by loyalty, I’m always up for an adventure (and even more so a killer deal), as is my family, so I still feel good about the change.

As I’ve come to expect with these sorts of things, reserving a room online using the “URBANATHLETES ” promo code was an easy process, but prior to that my wife called to get more specifics about the rate and make a reservation and nobody had the slightest clue what an ‘Urbanathlon’ was and was of no help.  [Sigh.]

In the end I can’t tell you where to stay, but I can tell you that the Urbanathlon promotion with Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is about as good as it gets in ‘downtown’ Chicago (South Loop). You will find nicer hotels, and you will find less expensive hotels, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a really nice inexpensive hotel this close to the event (with free self parking for one vehicle) like you get with Hyatt (… though I’ll keep my eyes open if a Godfather offer comes up from another property closer to the heart of downtown …).

Here are the official details. 

Lola’s Half Marathon Race Report (my first half): a PR, the ER and F-Bombs

So, calling my first half marathon ‘eventful’ immediately brings to mind Danny DeVito’s famous line (to me) in Romancing the Stone (1984) … ‘understatement of the year ass hole.’

I think to have a chance at improving my time at the Urbanathlon I need to get stronger at further distances (not speedier at shorter distances), which is why I reached for the half in the first place. And boy was it something. I’m not exactly sure where to start, so I’ll just plow through it.

Lola’s Half Marathon is the third run in a small series of races put on by Podium Sports Marketing, and if you compete in at least three of the four signature races you earn an attractive runner’s fleece (so, ya know, that’s all I needed … I’m easy). Now in its second year, it’s held in Waconia, MN, a quaint town of about 10,000, framed around beautiful Lake Waconia, about 45 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities, complete with a Main Street that runs through downtown.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Potty

I was off my game from the start, no thanks in part to an unsuspectingly long wait for the potty. There was a second line that was on the other side, so this line is for about 4 port-o-potties. I spent my entire warm up right here.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Cheer Zone

But my team is there to cheer me on during my wait …

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report The Park

Everything kind of centered around the town square/park

It’s been cold and rainy for weeks on end, and Saturday morning was sunny and about as perfect as you can ask for. What a gift.

Coming in, I knew I could run 13.1 miles (I hit 13.5 once during one Sunday long run), but I wasn’t sure if I could ‘race’ 13.1 (big difference). But with some racing reps, and mistakes, behind me I’m starting to feel smarter as a runner. I planned to be far more strategic this time around; start slooow (no matter how good I feel), settle in and find my rhythm for the long haul, and then bring it home. And with an official pacer at 7:15/mile to boot (which is where I anticipated running), the guesswork on what to do was all but obsolete (the next pacer was at 7:40/mile, which I thought was safe, but maybe too doable).

As we lined up and I’m soaking it all in (just my second race of the season), a sinking feeling hit my stomach (like when you forget your bank card in the ATM). I realized I had a small breakfast at 5 a.m., (toast, banana, coffee … a modest appetizer for me) and it was now 8 a.m. Whoaboy. I started to do the nutrition math, and sheepishly rationalized that the two homemade gels in my Spibelt would sustain me. Before I could fully get my head around a plan to power up the starter casually yelled ‘okay go’ and the tidal wave of spandex blew down Main Street.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Pacer Group

The photographer caught me in my moment of regret … you can see me crouching behind the guy with the black calf compression sleeves, summoning some final strength along with a wee bit of stretching.

Miles 1-3 were glorious. About 6 of us stuck like glue to the pacer, and we held at about 7:04/mile weaving throughout town. Past the hospital, past the school, along the main road, back in through the neighborhoods and bell-ringing kids in wagons. I felt great and was brimming with confidence. The course meandered back to the start/finish area for a final boost from the crowd before we hit Main Street again and get released to the lake portion of the run.

Miles 4 and 5 were strong. I felt like I could run harder, but shadowed the pacer stride for stride, finding comfort when he’d pull back (with a somewhat quick pace I assumed we’d dial it in the last mile or so and coast). But this is where the course took a bit of a turn. Once we hit the lake we veered off the beaten path and ran a good portion on gravel and trails before being spit out on a county road.

Late into miles 5 and miles 6 is where I should start my class action law suit. The hills. My goodness the hills. Those looooong slow inclines, one after the other (‘a few rolling hills on this mostly flat, fast course,’ I think was the course description … Fe!). The pacer kept me grounded, reminding us that we were a bit ahead of pace and could take the hills a little more slowly, which we did. I’m still feeling strong, and at about 6.2 miles we pass the transition area for those running the two-person relay. Having these kinds of milestone markers was really helpful. All the pomp and circumstance from the awaiting relay runners briefly upped our pace to about 6:54 until we settled back into 7:08 or so.

Mile 7 and we’re back on hilly gravel roads (I keep hammering home the point about these trails because I expected just a paved walking or bike trail around the lake, which is common around here, but not in this case). Sweat rains off the brim of my cap, and I’m making mental notes to drink as much water as possible at any upcoming water stop. My head’s a faucet at this point and I know I have to replenish.

Miles 8 and 9 I’m feeling heavy, but I tell myself to stick to the pacer no matter what. That it is easier to stick with him than it would be to let him go and try to make up ground later. We’re also now starting to pass the back end of the 10 milers who took off just before us (but they went straight to the lake and did not go through town).

The mind games start to come into play at around 10 miles, when we pass the marker and I think, ‘damn, I should have just run the 10 mile, I’d be done.’ With every painful hill I remind myself that no matter how tough it is, everyone else is going through the same thing, so just keep moving (you don’t have to go faster, and it’s okay to slow down, but just don’t stop). I start to lose my grip on the pacer, and he and the remaining runner in our group open up a gap of about 10 feet after a crucial water stop, then 20, then when I pick my eyes off the road I can just barely see his sign bobbing amid the cluster of 10 milers and half marathoners, now colliding in one sweaty spandex stew. I let him go, but tell myself that I at least need to keep him in sight.

I’m on my own from here out.

Mile 11 just feels long (I remember this feeling from my long runs and it brings only dread), and my breathing is a far more labored. I clumsily weave between the gassed 10 milers, and have barely enough in me to clumsily swerve away from the occasional road kill (a snapping turtle hear, a scary something there). All I want at this point is to stop. I’m weak. I’ve come a long way. I tell myself that it’s two miles, and that you can do anything for two miles. I still want to stop.

Mile 12 was horrific. Physically, my legs just started to lock up (and I couldn’t stop it) and my breathing was out of control. This was a new feeling/experience so I’m not sure how to respond (I think among runners the technical term for this is ‘bonking’). I looked at my GPS watch no fewer than 12,368 times. I told myself I can do anything for one mile. I fidgeted with my hat. Take it off. Put it on backwards. Take it off. Put it back on. I’m scanning the occasional spectator to see if they have a spare bottle of water, so I can just stop and replenish. Nothing. A guy about my age is running a good 20 feet ahead of me with two fully loaded water bottles on his belt and I think of trying to catch him. I’m a little dizzy, and this is no longer fun. I just want it to be over, and that’s not happening without a great deal of effort and pain. The hills just keep coming, too (yes, this will also be in my class action law suit).

An unforgiving hill greets us at about mile 12.8, and I’m a wreck. I’m trotting, barely, and I know if I stop to collect myself for the final ascent that there’s no way my body will get back in motion. We hit the opposite end of Main Street and run a final slow incline to the town center. I see my crew on a corner about 800 meters from the finish. Instead of the usual fist pump and high fives I great them with a labored stride and defeated shake of the head. My girls, per our custom, hop out and stride with me, which lifts me momentarily, but between my heaving and lurching I urge them to ‘let me go.’ They fall back (this crushes me still).

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Final Hill

My pain shows. I was sooooo tense here. My daughter had the wheels for this final slow incline.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Final Hill 2

Still an uphill battle, but ‘only’ about 600 meters to go.

The last 400 meters are a quick right for a block, hang a left for a block, and then hang a left for a half block through the finish (essentially just running around the town center through a strong crowd). I hear my name over the sound system as I cross, pump my fists, and then collapse (later I told my wife that if they had moved the finish line back 5 feet I wouldn’t have made it … I wish I were joking). I loosely recall grabbing my medal (by far the coolest medal I’ve earned), and then a bottle of water. I found a spot off to the side and spread out on the concrete, dousing myself, trying to snap into focus, but half joking in my head that ‘hey, you can pass out now’ and almost obliging.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Rough Ending

That I couldn’t even put on my medal, well, you know I was in rough shape.

My crew finds me, and my wife knows I’m not well. We wait it out, trying to get a read on how I feel. I tell my wife (out of earshot of my girls) ‘they can have the f&#@*!% half marathon! This is crazy.’ And perhaps did another 10-minute rant about the hills. I’m still sweating buckets, and while my breathing is in check I just can’t shake the light headedness. A medical staffer comes over to check on me and urges me to keep moving and take in fluids (but to ‘avoid the yogurt!’). I do both. They check on me again. I’m about the same. They come by a third time and notice that I’m looking pretty ‘pale’ and sweating waaaay too much (I finished 30 minutes ago), so she calls it and has me sit down for fluids.

I expected some Gatorade or other medical-grade replenishing hooch, but instead a small team swarms to get an IV in my hand (a bloody mess). What I didn’t realize is that you don’t just get your IV and then go on your way. Oh no. They then put you on a stretcher, stuff you in the back of an ambulance, and take a leisurely ride to the ER. As a high-functioning introvert who hates the spotlight, I was mortified. But everyone was great and kept the mood light.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Fluids

Of course it felt like everyone was watching me, like the woman in blue above me …

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Drink it in

But it was harmless. Feeling better and seeing it through.

The moment of high comedy for me was being wheeled in and seeing all of the running shoes sticking out of the occupied bays in the ER. I tipped my water bottle to a despondent dad, who was not amused with my attempt at ironic humor. The staff filled me with a second bag, monitored my vitals, did some blood work, and sent me on my way.

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Waiting Game

The initial excitement wore off, and it takes about an hour for a bag of fluids to get into your system, so there was a lot of this …

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Waiting Game 2

… and this …

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report ER

… and alas, this; showing off my wounds.

For my troubles I finished in 1:35:58 (since it’s my first this is a PR!), earning 54th place overall. As kind of a subtle twist of the knife I earned 4th in my division. Had I taken care of my body I know I could have reached that third spot. Lesson learned.

Physically, I know I can run, and compete, in the half. For Lola’s I was so laser focused on making sure everything was in order (wake up early, get kids up in time, feed the dog, print directions, pack bags, make sure I have all of my stuff, plan my warm up, etc.) that I neglected the obvious … fuel properly before the race. Doh! And I get so excited for race day that I lose it a little (I obsess for at least two weeks prior).

Lola's Half Marathon Race Report Finisher Medals

The finisher medal is one of my favorites thus far of all my races. It’s 50 pounds if it’s an ounce, and overall just pretty stylish (and I love the dog tag for the Dog Day 5K participants).

It took a few days to start feeling like myself again, and I took a full week off before diving back in.

I had planned to run a half on July 4 (The Red, White and Boom in Minneapolis), but will instead take the next 7 weeks to more specifically train for The Minnesota Half Marathon on Aug 4 (the last race in the Minnesota Running Series, and my jacket qualifier!). Get my miles up, do more with speedwork and tempo runs, and get my Sunday long run consistently at 14-15 miles. I’ll work out the nutrition piece, too, and try a few of the commercial gels, like Cliff Shot and GU Rocktane, to see if those give me more in-race fuel than my homemade gels.

Plus the Minnesota Half is back in my hood, in downtown Saint Paul along the Mississippi River. I may even run it once or twice (or thrice) for a Sunday long run to better scope it out and get a few reps in. In the meantime I have a pretty detailed 7-week training plan that I hope will put in me a good position to race the half more comfortably come August.