The Men's Fitness Ultimate Athlete Games held their inaugural race (contest? challenge?) outside of Chicago on July 19, at the Sandwich Fairgrounds in Sandwich Illinois. Where's Sandwich? Good question, it's about an hour away from the city of Chicago in a predominantly agrigultural area. In short, you're surrounded by cornfields in each direction, as far as the eye can see. Although the venue took a little while to get to, the directions were pretty simple, to quote Charles LaMarr in Better off Dead: “Go that way really fast, if something gets in your way – turn!”. In other words, it was a pretty straight shot out of the city. Once arriving at the Sandwich Fairgrounds, you could tell why that location was chosen; the layout was near perfect to have an event:
- Parking within a few hundred yards of registration and sign-in
- A wide open, accessible “festival” area
- Plenty of port-O-potties
- Lots of vendors giving away good stuff, including a free hard cider after the race. Swag included ice cold wraps, Gillette razors, Pelican had a a spin-for-prize and everyone walked away with something.
- UAG gave you a choice whether to grab your swag bag (a very nice sling backpack, a copy of Men's Fitness and a really nice tech t-shirt) before or after the event, it all depended whether you wanted to make the short trip back to your car or not. Either way, it's nice to have options and they arranged the festival so it was no hassle to grab your bag when you felt like it – it wasn't the usual linear process from one tent to the next.
- The grounds were in perfect condition; the grass was manicured in the festival area and on the course – it was fun to run a course that didn't have any mud, but we'll get to that later.
- Flat. Flat. Flat. Since this race was about the obstacles and not the terrain, the prarie-flat land was perfect for emphasizing each athlete's ability to conquer a dozen or so challenging obstacles.
- Announcements, awards, and photo-taking all took place up on a stage in the center of the action. If you wanted to feel like a rockstar (or Ultimate Athlete) then the layout was perfect. With all the fit bodies on display from all over the midwest, there was plenty of skin to be photographed!
First-time race, first-time obstacles, seemed a recipe for disaster, right? Well, not quite. While the UAG brand is new, the race production team and race director were far from newbies. Adventure Fit's Sharon Cutler is also responsible for Shape Diva Dash amd was the force behind pulling the event together and keeping the event on-track, and Josh Kravetz, Adventure Fit's President was on the mic, out on the course, showing his knowledge after nearly a decade as a race director of mountain bike events, road races, and triathlons.
Josh & his crew had also been testing some of the obstacles that the athletes conquered on race day for upwards of a year, and while many were surprisingly “simple” in design, they were perfect tests of a racer's strength, agility, and speed. Speaking of those three components, this well constructed segue brings you to the three courses UAG featured:
- 1-mile Strength course
- .5 mile Agility course
- .25 mile Speed course
One thing these courses didn't feature – mud – at all. No throwing out your shoes, or washing a pound of grime off when you were done. There's a pretty good chance you were sweaty even after completing one of the 3 courses, but that's still a lot more convenient than needing to throw your clothes in a bag and shower! I'm not knocking mud racers, but this was a great change of pace – all obstacles, no mud.
One Hour, Any Order
After the obligatory racer's meeting where they covered the rules for each obstacle, (I need to admit, my AADHD – Athlete's ADHD – was in full effect, and I couldn't pay attention to listen to 5 or so minutes of describing the obstacles, I'd already read their web page and watched the videos and knew what to do – or so I thought!) then you were left to choose which off the 3 courses you would tackle first: Speed, Strength, or Agility. I turned to my fellow athlete Scott Brackenmeyer (who graciously hosted us at his home, about 10 minutes from the race course), and we plotted out what order we'd be taking on the courses… would it be better to sprint through the Speed course on fresh legs? Maybe taking care of the challenging Strength course was the best idea while your upper body was fresh? While I was pondering, the race director announced (I'm paraphrasing): “OK Racers, it is now 9:00am, you have one hour to complete all 3 courses, pick a course, line up and Go!” Scott made his pick of Strength, while I meandered over to the far side of the festival area to hop in the Speed lane.
Technically, there was no real rush – each of the 500 or so athletes would have 1 hour to complete all (3) courses. With the total distance only 1.75 miles, there was plenty of time to catch your breath and shake out tight muscles before choosing your next challenge. I took the time allowance to heart, and engaged in some long conversations with race organizers Sharon and Jake and barely squeaked my lap of the Strength course in before the time limit!
I ended up completing the courses in this order: Speed, Agility, and Strength. All combined, they took me about 18 total minutes, and I was pretty pleased with my sequencing. I vaguely remember overall winner Brakken Kraker did it somewhere around 12 minutes, that's pretty darn speedy considering each course had at least one obstacle that was specifically designed to slow you down to a crawl – literally. The Strength course featured a 100+ yard bear crawl under ropes, where you were forced to start over if your knees touched. The Agility course made racers traverse a zig-zag balance beam backwards, while juggling flaming snowballs. (ok, not so much with the juggling, but it was still pretty difficult to stay on the 3-inch wide beam!) The speed course had a fish net crawl that snared many, my wife got her pony tail repeatedly snared, and anyone wearing earrings was probably missing one afterwards.
Racers were paired up and each two-some was sent off originally in :15 increments. This was later changed to :30 (or 1:00, it really didn't matter because the timing mat wasn't activated till you crossed it with your unique chip that was attatched to your bib) The change came due to some backups on the course; I personally got snagged in a couple on the Speed course, the only other people that I heard complaining about getting stuck were the overall first and second place athletes, who also got tied up for about :10 at the Ninja Steps.
Once you were done with a particular course, you could head over to the timing tent and see how you did on a big screen, or type your bib number into a laptop and immediately get a printout with your splits. This was an awesome touch, as you could catch your breath while seeing your age group standings and figure out what time you needed to move up. My only recommendation for this timing area is to make it even more blatantly obvious; this is a really nice advantage to this type of race format and the timing tent should be a hub for athletes and spectators. (I could see having some real-time cameras on the course displaying on big screen TV's and everyone flocking to hang out there. While I'm at it, is a tiki bar too much to ask for?)
In all, the courses were extremely fun, the obstacles were well-paced, original, and mostly challenging. There were a few American Ninja Warrior-inspired ones like the Wide Monkey Bars, and the Core-Crunch Traverse. A couple obstacles were extremely similar to ones that I've only seen at Alpha Warrior, and others were original to Ultimate Athlete Games. They were all relatively simple construction, most consisted of no more than steel pipes, strung with nets, ropes, ladders, some well-constructed walls. The walls had a real nice touch for the first-time OCR athletes, there were climbing holds that newbies could use… of course, they really were there to slow athletes down – a little forward momentum, a well-placed footplant in the center of the wall and you were on the top! Here's a listing of just some of the ones we saw on race day:
My favorite obstacles had to be the “Pole Climb / Down Crawl” and the “Ninja Steps”. (Photo of the former is below, the latter is shown above on the far right) The Pole Climb is exactly like one of my favs from Alpha Warrior, Robin Hood, and I had a pretty solid technique coming in. On the other hand, the “Ninja” 5-Steps were the obstacle that knocked me out of American Ninja Warrior this year in Venice Beach, I was really looking forward to pouncing over those %^* things and exorcising a few demons. This time, they were pretty easy to make it over all 6 without falling. (more on this in the “cons” below)
Pros and Cons
Let's start out with the negatives, because in all honesty there were surprisingly few.
The Location: The fairgrounds were an excellent venue for this type of event, but I do have an issue with a race being advertised as Chicago, when it's actually over an hour away. Not the biggest deal, it's more my pet peeve than anything else. All in all, it was really easy to get to, just 2 freeways from the airport and you're there.
Backups: This race had the strong potential to have backups at nearly every obstacle, but surprisingly had very, very few. I ran directly into one on the Ninja Steps, as there was about a :30 wait as a 5-6 person deep line had formed. This was a total bummer, to waste that much time waiting while on the “speed” course was a bit deflating – but easy to fix for their next event in NY. The Ninja Steps were the only obstacle on the course that was one lane, they can easily add at least a second lane (I suggest adding a third row just for newbies, and removing the cleat on the middle of the other two to make it a little more challenging) to prevent any back-ups. I think this event will be wildly successful in New York, so they possibly have to consider duplicating or widening a few other obstacles that only have 3 or 4 paths to completion.
Initially, pairs of racers were let off in :15 intervals, and it didn't take long to see that was a mistake, shortly after I completed the speed course and talked with the race organizers, they'd already moved it back to :30 or at the starter's discretion, as they could easily see the first couple of obstacles from the start line. With only 500 athletes at the inaugural event, they didn't need to be so expediant on getting athletes out on the course. Instead, they may have been best-served by waiting for all previous athletes to clear the first or second obstacle before releasing the next pair. (Alpha Warrior did this very successfully, and mediated most bottlenecks on a similar obstacle-heavy course)
…aaaand, everything else was pretty much a positive. For a new event with a very unique race format, there was very little confusion – or none whatsoever. Minutes after parking, we were already checked in and surveying the festival area. The three start lines were unmistakeable, the huge lettering atop the inflatable arches was impossible to miss. Each course even had a separate athlete corral that was just wide enough for two to keep everything flowing nicely, and keep spectators out. Once you were in line, you better be locked in and ready to go. The crew running the event was great, I even got to walk the course with the race director and chat about the inspiration for a few obstacles and even shared ideas on how to improve an already spectacular event.
The Final Word
Let's face it, I'm hooked. I sincerely can't wait until their event in New York on October 18 to see what changes & additions they have made to an already fun, exciting, and challenging course! I suggest registering early, there's a good chance the New York race will sell out once folks get an idea how much fun this event is. (Don't forget, you can save $20 off your registration with discount code MRG) I would also expect the competition to be ratcheted up even higer – that's not to say Brakken Kraker isn't a top notch OCR athlete – because he surely is – I am also envisioning Junyong Pak, David Magida, Alec Blenis and other top men showing up, and fully expect to see the women's category well represented by elites like Amelia Boone, K.K. Stewart, Rose Wetzel, and many more.
I expect really big things from Men's Fitness Ultimate Athlete Games, and am surely looking forward to taking on the courses again!