Urbanathlon coming to Chicago Saturday

By Beth Werge

A racer jumps over a series of stationary taxis in the 2013 Chicago Urbanathlon race, which combines running with a series of urban-themed obstacles. See the interactive course map at http://www.menshealthurbanathlon.com/chicago-classiccourse.html.
A racer jumps over a series of stationary taxis in the 2013 Chicago Urbanathlon race, which combines running with a series of urban-themed obstacles. See the interactive course map at http://www.menshealthurbanathlon.com/chicago-classiccourse.html.

The past decade has seen an influx of races that fall into a new category of endurance challenges. But races where participants navigate muddy obstacles have paved the way for a racing evolution from traditional road races to a new breed of competition.

Move over, mud run: The Urbanathlon is coming to Chicago on Saturday.

Many of the things seen on a daily commute in Chicago turn into a different kind of obstacle at the Urbanathlon: participants will jump over taxis, climb over buses, hurdle police barricades, and navigate landmarks as part of the race.

The brainchild of Men’s Health magazine editors, the Urbanathlon offers up an entirely new challenge for the racers who hate mud, love the urban life, or both. The races, which are 4.2- and 10.4-mile distances spreading across Chicago’s lakefront, incorporate a number of Chicago landmarks and 10 and 14 major obstacles, respectively, along the way. The race is also held in New York City and San Francisco each year.

Ronan Gardiner, vice president and publisher of Men’s Health, said they have sponsored more traditional races like 5Ks and triathlons, but never had a significant event of their own.

“We didn’t think those really embodied the ‘work hard, play hard’ spirit, Gardiner said. “So we created this.”

But the creation of the Urbanathlon – whose inaugural race took place in New York City in 2006 – and having what was once an off-the-cuff idea come to fruition in Chicago didn’t come without its own challenges.

“As you can imagine, to have three or four thousand run through a city and incorporate obstacles into that run involves a huge amount of logistical challenges,” Gardiner said.

First, there’s working with the city itself, from the Mayor’s Office to police, sanitation and fire departments and making sure there’s a fully capable medical staff on site for race day. Then there are the meetings upon meetings, setting up the course, and the city and park permits.

“Usually, we get a lot of requests for athletic events,” said Shaunta Ellis of the Chicago Park District, which is the first stop for organizers who want an athletic event in Chicago. “But as long as everything is up to par, we usually permit them.”

Ellis said people usually only get turned down if their route isn’t safe or crosses over as expressway or another risky area. But Soldier Field isn’t as easy. Though the stadium hosts a number of events each year – such as the Fleet Feet Sports 10 Mile in May and the Ditka Dash in September – and its restrictions aren’t outrageously intense, there’s often a high demand for the space. There are also costs like rental fees, insurance, and data fees, depending on the event. For example, some will need traffic control while others won’t. And event coordinators have to have full confidence in the parties they allow in the facility.

“We sign off on every component of the event,” said Leslie Kish, senior event manager for Soldier Field. “We make sure it’s safe and that we agree with everything they’re doing.”

The Chicago Urbanathlon race includes a lengthy stair climb inside Soldier Field where racers will run into the stadium and tackle a mile of bleachers. The 10.4 mile course will predominantly take place along the Lake Michigan waterfront, up Lake Shore Drive and through Navy Pier.

Luca Serra, Soldier Field director of sponsorship and media, said the stadium hosts more than 200 events a year and that the staff works directly with the city and other agencies, when needed, to bring them in with planning.

Another challenge in the past was race capping, where cities only allowed a certain number of entrants. Back in 2006, the year of the Urbanathlon’s inaugural race in New York City, NYC capped the race registration at 1,500. As of now all three cities in which the Urbanathlon is held – San Francisco, New York City and Chicago – don’t cap their races. Chicago never did, and last year the race attracted 3,000 in the Windy City.

“Chicago has been incredibly open from the very beginning,” Gardiner said. “But all three cities have been [very] collaborative. They’re pretty forward-thinking cities, committed to bringing their citizens healthy and fun events, so they’ve been open minded and helpful in terms of executing these events.”

Nine partners are involved in making race day a success. The Swiss watch company Tissot is the official timekeeper while Volkswagon is an automobile sponsor, and will provide an obstacle built entirely out of VW vehicles.

But race organizers are also all hands on deck in terms of safety. Instead of signing a waiver to participate, which is required for many other obstacle course races, runners need only be 18 years of age on race day to participate. There will be six water stations around the course and there won’t be any sharks to swim with, hot coals to walk on or giant metal spikes to navigate, as in some other extreme races.

“There are a lot of obstacle races – mud runs, etc. – some of those races you have to sign a death waiver,” Gardiner said. “They’ll electrocute you as part of the race. We have no interest in doing that.

“It’s a timed event and it’s certainly a challenging race,” he said. “We’re pushing people to do something out of the ordinary, out of their comfort zone, but it’s open to athletes of all different shapes, sizes and abilities. We go to great lengths to ensure the safety of participants.”

And when participants finish their respective races – both the 4.2 miler and 10.4 miler only end once they’ve climbed over an 8-foot-high wall at the finish line just south of Soldier Field – they’re suddenly in the middle of a festival with DJs spinning, food tents and trucks at the ready, services that benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation and a bunch of engaging things for people to enjoy with the sponsors.

“It becomes a party,” Gardiner said. “In Chicago especially, people like to party. And I love that. I love the fact that you’ve just run your 10 miles and now you’re comparing war stories. That really encapsulates the whole thing.”

If you’re just finding out about the Men’s Health Urbanathlon presented by POLO Red by Ralph Lauren, there’s still time to register for the sprint (4.2 mile) or classic (10.4 mile) races by visiting MHURB.com or by visiting the bag drop tent near the finish line on race day, Saturday, Oct. 18. The classic race will begin at 7 a.m. and the first wave for the sprint race will start at 10:30 a.m.