Posts Tagged ‘tough mudder’

Yesterday I competed in the 2014 Men’s Health Urbanathlon in New York City.

I went in thinking the Urbanathlon would basically be like a Tough Mudder course, which I ran in 2012 in New Jersey, minus the mud. Beyond that my frame of reference for timed or racing events is mostly running races I’ve done in Central Park and other parts of New York City, as well as the Anthem Richmond Marathon I completed in 2012 in Virginia.

Yesterday’s Urbanathlon was a 10-mile course within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, starting and ending at Citi Field, where baseball’s New York Mets play.

Like so many “adventure races,” including Tough Mudder’s rival Spartan Race (not to mention the CrossFit Games and the American Ninja Warrior competition), the gimmick here is that it’s not just a running race–which adventure race promoters often disparage as “boring”–but an obstacle course with running built in. But with the Urbanathlon, I’d say it was essentially a 10-mile running race with a few not-so-difficult obstacles added in.

For someone like me, who runs about a 10-minute mile (which is not particularly fast) I had hoped to make up some time against faster runners on the obstacles. I have decent upper body strength and can pull up my body weight pretty easily with my arms, so I figured I’d gain at least a few minutes on monkey bars, wall climbs, etc. However the obstacles were fairly easy to complete and I never felt like I made up more than a couple of seconds on them. I can’t remember any obstacle taking more than a minute or two, at which point it became a foot-race again.

Most of the obstacles involved simple over or under moves–including jumping and ducking police barricades–or navigating short tire runs. The course did include monkey bars, but I was through them with just four or five swings. (On the Tough Mudder course, the monkey bars were spaced farther apart and were built like a peaked roof so you had to climb on an incline and then a decline. Also, they were greased up and your hands were already covered in mud, so the level of difficulty was much higher.)

By far the toughest and most unique obstacle I encountered at the Urbanathlon came in the last mile or so of the course, which took us into Citi Field. Once inside, competitors had to walk or run up and down the stands of the stadium for about six sections, a mini tour de stade. (I imagine this would have been much cooler if I was a Met fan.) From there we got to actually run on the warning track of the field–which, even for a Yankee fan, was pretty cool–and eventually out into the parking lot where we crawled under some propped up Volkswagens (sponsor!), jumped over some NYC taxi cabs (I saw a couple of guys do that slide across the hood thing you see in the movies), and up and down a cargo net stretched over a school bus.

I completed the entire course in an hour and 40 minutes, which is just about my usual 10-minute mile running pace (the course was just over 10 miles). Considering my time included conquering 14 obstacles, it’s safe to say they were nothing more than a minor hindrance to my overall pace. Overall I finished in the middle of the pack, 495th out of a field of 1,056.

Speaking of time, I had also assumed that like Tough Mudder, there would be long waits for some of the obstacles due to a high volume of competitors. (That race took me almost five hours to complete 12 miles plus all the obstacles.) But at Urbanathlon, I hardly waited for any of the obstacles besides when the people ahead of me started to slow up on the stair climb.

The Urbanathlon cost about $100 per entrant (slightly more or less depending on how early you registered). For an event of this distance that’s not a bad price, especially if it serves as the motivation for otherwise sedentary competitors to get off the couch and train for it. As for me, who’s generally pretty active, I was hoping to be pushed to my physical limit a little more than just summoning the stamina to run 10 miles. I thought the mud theme at Tough Mudder was a little overdone, but that event also has some really difficult obstacles outside of the mud, a few of which I couldn’t complete.

Obstacles aside, the Urbanathlon NYC course was beautiful as a running race. Most people who live outside of Queens (any many who do) don’t realize how much Corona Park has to offer. Aside from the U.S. Open and Citi Field, the park features baseball and soccer fields, water, biking, and even a small zoo.

For runners who want a little something extra in their races to break up the all the running, the Urbanathlon is exactly that. But for non-runners in the market for a challenging and fun obstacle course that will test both their upper and lower body, I suggest trying out for American Ninja Warrior instead.

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Note: This post was originally published before the 7/14 episode of American Ninja Warrior. If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know that Kacy Catanzaro has advanced to the finals in Las Vegas and will take on Mount Midoriyama, the first woman to reach this stage of ANWVideo of both her runs so far are included below.

I’ve been very fortunate to grow up in a fantastic era for sports fans.

I was a Bulls fan during Michael Jordan’s prime and saw his famous up-and-under move in real time on TV during the 1991 NBA Finals versus the Lakers.

A lifelong Yankees fan, I witnessed their 1990s dynasty not to mention Derek Jeter’s backhanded “flip” to nab a runner at home plate in the 2001 American League Division Series. Oh yeah, and I’ve been around for Mariano Rivera‘s entire career.

And as a bonus I’ve had the good fortune to watch my hometown football Giants recently win two Super Bowls they, quite frankly, had no business winning against the heavily favored New England Patriots.

And yet for all the tremendous sports moments I’ve witnessed in my 32 years, it was an obscure “game show” called American Ninja Warrior that provided one of the most incredible athletic feats I’ve ever seen.

American Ninja…What?
An old college buddy introduced me to something called Ninja Warrior back in 2008. On a Sunday morning after a beer-fueled college tennis team reunion (GO HAWKS!) he was fecklessly flipping through the channels on my cable box when he got to the G4 network (now Esquire Network) and exclaimed, “NINJA WARRIOR! THIS SHOW IS AWESOME!”

Ninja Warrior, an edited-for-America version of a Japanese “sports entertainment television special” (to borrow some Wikipedia phraseology) called Sasuke, featured contestants attempting to traverse a series of obstacle courses, each with obstacles that make the popular Tough Mudder competitions or old school American Gladiators episodes look like child’s play.

Obstacles named Salmon Ladder, Unstable Bridge, and Spider Wall were designed to chew competitors up and spit them out, daring them to come back to next year and try again.

Eventually a short-lived G4 series called American Ninja Challenge—allowing Americans to compete for a spot on Sasuke—gave way to the current American Ninja Warrior format, which takes place entirely in the United States, with the final series of courses, i.e. “Mount Midoriyama,” built and filmed in Las Vegas.

Boys’ Club?
The great appeal of American Ninja Warrior is the American Idol-, World Series of Poker-like everyman quality. They are accountants and salesmen and teachers and preachers of all ages (some in their fifties, God bless ‘em!) who are in great physical shape and have any of several athletic hobbies—stuff like rock climbing, gymnastics, or Parkour—that help prepare them to compete, and even thrive, among the best of the best on the ANW course.

Some of these men, early adopters of American Ninja Warrior, have become household names (or at least faces) for those of us who have watched ANW for a few seasons. Guys like James “The Beast” McGrath, Dave “The Godfather” Campbell, and Brent “I Don’t Have a Cool Nickname But I Am A Professional Stuntman” Steffenssen come back each season rededicated despite failed runs at Mount Midoriyama—and despite that fact that no American, in six seasons of the competition, has conquered it.

Brent Steffensen navigating an obstacle. (Photo credit: Brandon Hickman/NBC via www.monstersandcritics.com.)

Brent Steffensen navigating an obstacle. (Photo credit: Brandon Hickman/NBC via http://www.monstersandcritics.com.)

And come back they have, with experience their most valuable asset. Having seen what the course is all about, many competitors construct their own obstacles in the off season to practice. (Heck, you can even buy blueprints of American Ninja Warrior obstacles—and it’s only a matter of time before IKEA starts selling ANW kits.) Knowing that they’re physically capable of conquering an obstacle is half the battle. The other half then becomes like any other sport, with many practice hours (hopefully) bringing out one’s best performance on game day.

While still very much a niche sport, American Ninja Warrior is steadily growing. According to ANW‘s executive producer Kent Weed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the show received 3,000 audition tapes for the current season–more than double the 1,200 it received for the prior season.

While the body types of the competitors can vary from muscular to toned to lanky, one sort of body is conspicuously underrepresented: the female body. In any given episode one woman’s run at the course might be featured for every twenty men (maybe more than that), and typically those women never advance past the first few obstacles in Stage 1. Yet each season for the last three or four that I’ve watched, more and more women are attacking the course—and getting a little farther along each time.

The Mighty Kacy
It stands to reason that a tall woman would have the best shot at completing Stage 1, given that many obstacles rely on jumping and running across wide gaps, swinging and reaching, and pulling one’s own body weight horizontally and vertically. So the first time I saw 5-foot-tall Kacy Catanzaro step up to the starting line I didn’t like her chances—until I learned a little bit about her background.

Kacy Catanzaro negotiates The Ring Toss. (Photo credit: Alexandra Olivia via www.dallasnews.com.)

Kacy Catanzaro negotiates The Ring Toss. (Photo credit: Alexandra Olivia via http://www.dallasnews.com.)

Catanzaro, 24, is a former Division I gymnast at Towson University. The Dallas qualifying round in 2014 was not her first attempt at completing Stage 1 of an ANW course, so she had some experience on her side. Oh, and her training partner (and boyfriend) just happened to one of the most successful ANW competitors of all time, the aforementioned Brent Steffensen.

“Beat That Wall!”
For five minutes and 26 seconds, Catanzaro carefully negotiated an obstacle course built for bigger, stronger humans (she only weights about 100 pounds), culminating with the final obstacle of Stage 1: The Warped Wall, a 15-foot high curved wall just like the ones in Sonic the Hedgehog. (Not familiar with Sonic? Just see the image below.)

(The way she approached each obstacle, focused and purposeful but not scared, was not unlike the way Rivera pitched, especially in his final season. He no longer had the raw athletic ability to dominate hitters as he once did, but he could find a way to piece together three outs in a matter of minutes, as if he knew something the hitters didn’t.)

An American Ninja Warrior contestant attempts The Warped Wall. (Photo credit: www.austin360.com.)

An American Ninja Warrior contestant attempts The Warped Wall. (Photo credit: http://www.austin360.com.)

By the time she reached the wall Kacy Catanzaro already completed several obstacles that many other competitors, men and women, had failed at. Had her run ended with three failed attempts to climb the wall—the maximum allowed before a contestant is disqualified—it still would have been as close as any female had come to completing Stage 1 in six seasons of the show. But it wasn’t good enough for Kacy.

The trick to climbing The Warped Wall in my view—from the couch—is to find that perfect moment while running up the wall to jump towards the top and hopefully grab the ledge and pull yourself up. Some competitors are strong and athletic but never seem to find their perfect moment; others simply rely on an abundance of height to make up for their lack of timing. (There’s some info out there on the physics of The Warped Wall in case you’re thinking of building one in your backyard.)

Catanzaro, who trained for The Warped Wall and other obstacles using replicas she and Steffensen had built for practice, was relying on flawless technique to make up for a dearth of height. On her first attempt at the wall, it seemed she had the timing just right, but her fingers came up short.

With the crowd chanting, “Beat That Wall!”, Catanzaro paused and caught her breath before making her second attempt. Rather than dejection, her face read only of complete focus. Again, she ran full speed ahead, leapt at just the right moment and…she did it! She pulled herself up to the top of the wall, turned around to slam the buzzer that stopped the clock and she was through Stage 1! See Catanzaro’s entire Stage 1 run below.

The announcers howled above the crowd noise as Catanzaro stood above everyone there in Dallas that night, pumping her fist and chanting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as Steffensen looked on proudly. I had goosebumps.

ANW event coordinator Michelle Warnky became the second woman to finish the course, making it up The Warped Wall on her first try in just 3:09 in St. Louis (and, actually, making it look really easy), while rock climbing instructor Meagan Martin later completed the course in 4:46 in Denver. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see even more female athletes qualify in 2015.

What’s Next?
On tonight’s episode of American Ninja Warrior, at 9 pm Eastern on NBC, Kacy Catanzaro will try to top her already incredible run by becoming the first woman to complete Stages 2. Perhaps she’s still a year away from that feat, or maybe she’ll ride the momentum she’s created all the way to the next round at Mount Midoriyama.

No matter what happens tonight, Kacy Catanzaro, Michelle Warnky, and Meagan Martin have already changed the game for women and men. Maybe the eventual next step for American Ninja Warrior is to have separate male and female competitions, as we see at the Olympics, CrossFit Games, or sports like tennis or mixed martial arts (e.g. UFC). Whatever comes next for the sport, we already know that American Ninja Warrior has likely found its newest crop of female stars and perhaps more importantly, the new faces of the brand.

**UPDATE** Kacy did it again! On last night’s (7/14) episode of American Ninja Warrior, Catanzaro completed the Stage 2 course and is headed to the finals in Las Vegas! See her full run below.

RELATED: NBC, American Ninja Warrior Go All-In on ‘Mighty’ Kacy Catanzaro

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I am a Tough Mudder.

That’s right. This past Saturday I completed the 2012 Tri-State Tough Mudder event at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.

For those not familiar with Tough Mudder, I’ll let them tell you what they’re about (from their website):

Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. As the leading company in the booming obstacle course industry, Tough Mudder has already challenged half a million inspiring participants worldwide and raised more than $3 million dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project. But Tough Mudder is more than an event, it’s a way of thinking. By running a Tough Mudder challenge, you’ll unlock a true sense of accomplishment, have a great time, and discover a camaraderie with your fellow participants that’s experienced all too rarely these days.

I got the idea to run the event from my friend Mike, who was looking for a new physical challenge beyond his normal gym routine. He recruited me and eight others, and we had our squad.

I’m running the New York City Marathon in two weeks, so my first priority was surviving the course without a major injury that might jeopardize my marathon hopes. I’m happy to report that I completed the course relatively unscathed apart from a few knee scrapes.

Tough Mudder prides itself on its badassness. Its branding is all about being a counter-culture event, more exciting and physically demanding than distance running. In fact, here are Tough Mudder’s thoughts on marathons:

Marathon running is boring. And the only thing more boring than doing a marathon is watching a marathon. Road-running may give you a healthy set of lungs, but will leave you with as much upper body strength as Keira Knightley. At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind. Our obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test you in every way and are meant only for truly exceptional all-around people, not for people who have enough time and money to train their knees to run 26 miles.

Well, having completed my first Tough Mudder, I can say that any of my longer training runs (13+ miles) have been physically tougher. (I can neither confirm nor deny whether I have a stronger upper body than Keira Knightley.) Still, if it takes that sort of in your face rhetoric to drum up business, I can’t fault them for it–besides, it seems to be working.

Rather than taking you step-by-step through the event, here are some of my thoughts from the day:

Smells like team spirit. Tough Mudder is incredibly rah-rah, meaning it’s a lot of pump-me-up, Jock Jams kind of stuff–which I’m not a big fan of. Before we could begin the event, our emcee did a 20-minute spiel that included many a “hoo-rah.” I just wanted to start the race.

Once I got past all the hootin’ and hollerin’ and hit the course running, I realized that the spirit of the event is genuine. Anyone who needed a push, whether it was over a wall, through a tunnel, or up a muddy hill, got one. And there always seemed to be someone standing on the other side with an outstretched hand to pull you through. It was very cool to see that sort of teamwork from people who didn’t know each other.

During one of the mud hill climbs, a team of men wearing blue shirts with the Wounded Warrior logo formed a line and set up a pulley system with rope. It appeared that they were clearing space so that only they could use the rope. Several among us started to question them–it seemed against the spirit of the event that they brought a rope but were only allowing their own group to use it. However that notion quickly vanished when we realized that they were clearing space to haul a man in a wheelchair–an actual Wounded Warrior–up the hill. As we all started to realize what was happening and the crowd broke out into hearty applause.

One of many Tough Mudder walls that needed climbing. (Photo credit: Linda Germann)

Yeah, no…we get it…it’s very muddy. The majority of the obstacles involved athletics running through, being submerged in, or slipping in mud or muddy water. While I fully understand that the event is called Tough Mudder, the amount of mud on the course seemed borderline gimmicky. Nevertheless most of the obstacles were challenging. Here are my favorites:

  • Arctic Enema: The very first obstacle, it’s nothing more than a plunge into ice water. We got lucky with gorgeous weather so hypothermia wasn’t an issue, but this would have been much tougher on a cold day.
  • Funky Monkey: Monkey bars are set up over some muddy water. The bars are spaced far apart and slippery with mud. The first half of the bars inclined, and the second half declined. Despite my lack of height, I managed to get across.
  • Hangin’ Tough: Five hanging gymnastics rings are set up, you guessed it, over muddy water. I was happy to have completed this one without the entire contraption falling on me–as we waited in line for our group’s turn, we noticed repairmen fixing a few of the rings with duct tape.
  • Twinkle Toes: The goal here is to walk across a thin wooden beam, else you fall into muddy wa…you get the point. I nailed it, Gabby Douglas style.
  • Everest: The final hurdle before tasting sweet victory (and a free pint of Dos Equis), you must take a running start and run as far as you can up a half pipe, and either grab the top of the wall or catch a fellow Mudder’s outstretched hand to pull yourself over. My teammates were standing by and, with their help, I got up on the first try.

Who the hell would pay $100 to run in mud for four hours? Though most participants seemed reasonably fit, you need not be physically elite to complete the course. Tough Mudder hits you over the head about it being a teamwork event, not a race to the finish. Conquering all the course’s obstacles isn’t mandatory, but I didn’t see too many people who didn’t at least attempt an obstacle before deciding to skip it.

It was great to see so many women participating–I’d guess it was about 20% female–and all the ones I saw handled the course as well or better than their male counterparts. There was no, “Let me help you with that, sweetie” stuff either. On the Tough Mudder course, everyone is treated as an equal. (According to Tough Mudder’s site, 25% of registrants are female.)

Many people wore costumes while running the event. I don’t know if it had to do with Halloween or just because. I saw a couple of princesses, a guy in an ape mask, and four dudes wearing nothing but leopard print thongs. In hindsight, as I’m still figuring out how to de-muddify my own clothes from that day, the thong guys might have had the smartest outfit of all.

Did I mention it was muddy? (Photo credit: Linda Germann)

A few gripes. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the few negatives of what was largely a really positive experience:

  • Wait times for baggage were very long and didn’t seem particularly organized.
  • The “showers” were literally garden hoses with no hot water and no water pressure. (In fairness, I didn’t think they’d even have showers, so I can’t complain that they at least had something to wash off the caked mud and allow me to be semi-comfortable on my way home.)
  • The parking lots were 40 minutes from the site of the event by shuttle bus, which is a long way after a four-hour race.
  • They nickel-and-dimed participants, charging $10 for parking if your car didn’t contain at least four people; and spectators were charged $20 to watch the event (or $40 if they hadn’t bought their tickets in advance).

I’ve participated in a lot of running events, many in Central Park through New York Road Runners, and save for the above points, I thought that overall, Tough Mudder, was pretty well run. Tip: If you decide to do the event, sign up as early as possible–it’s $95 for early entry and the price increases as you get closer to the event. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll do the event again, but I feel like I got my money’s worth.

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