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CitySolve Urban Race New Orleans Championships 2010

October 30, 2010
By Kipley Fiebig - Team Vignette KD

New Orleans hosted the national championships for the Urban Challenge in 2003 (Marcy and John took 2nd place in that race). It was also the national championships city for the Great Urban Race in 2009 (which Marcy and John won!). And now we were returning to The Big Easy for a third time, to take a shot at yet another national championship event, the CitySolve Urban Race.

Dave's in-laws have a house in New Orleans, which they graciously allowed us to stay in before the race. Debbie, Dave's mother-in-law, happened to pick up a copy of the free weekly newspaper called The Gambit. Flipping through the paper the day before the race, I noticed a classified ad that read:

Well, well, lucky us. We'd spotted a race clue ahead of time! Everyone gathered around to analyze the clue, and we quickly figured out that it was referring to the jack of spades and the jack of hearts in a deck of playing cards. (Because those particular jacks only had one eye, so they could only wink, not blink.) Once we got that far, all the local New Orleans folks in the house immediately deduced that the answer must be Tujague's (pronounced "Two Jacks"), a restaurant in the French Quarter. It made perfect sense, and the "FQ" in the clue title obviously referred to the French Quarter, and the clue referred to two jacks, so we were all set. We noted the location of Tujaque's and told our crew that it was going to be an answer to a clue at tomorrows race somehow, it was just a matter of when it would show up.

The Morning Semi-Finals Race

All the teams gathered in the Astor Crowne Plaza hotel conference room for the 10am race start. Since it was Halloween weekend several teams went all out and dressed up in impressive costumes. One team was dressed up like the Beastie Boys in their music video "Sabotage". Another was dressed up as Wayne and Garth from the movie Wayne's World. And the race director, Jason Hofsess, was also boldly dressed up as Richard Simmons. Jason had us stand in a circle and place our phones on the carpet in front of us. He told us we couldn't use our phones until we solved the initial clue. Once we'd figured out the location indicated by the clue, we would run there and receive the clue sheets for the rest of the morning race. He also informed us that we couldn't share the location of the initial clue with other teams. This affected us as we were working with the team of Marcy and John, so we would each have to solve the clue separately.

Then he announced that the he was going to hand out a copy of The Gambit newspaper to each team, and we would be required to find the initial clue within it. Well, this was certainly good for us, as we already knew where the clue was in the paper, and the solution. But it was not as good as it could be, as usually when a race director hides a clue in a local paper they also make you track down your own copy of the paper while on the race clock, as that's kind of the whole point of embedding it within the newspaper in the first place. But we were still thrilled that we already knew exactly where we had to go to get our clue sheets.

So we asked what we had to do before we were allowed to leave the ballroom and head towards the initial clue handout location. Jason told us we had to solve the clue. So we asked him how do we prove that we solved the clue, do we come up to you and tell you the answer? Jason quickly realized that this wouldn't work, as the conference room was too small to have teams run up to him and say the answer without other teams hearing it. So he said we could leave the room when we thought we knew the answer, but that we would have to leave the paper there so we couldn't just solve it outside the room. Another team asked what was to prevent teams from just following the first team out of the room to the clue location, and it became apparent that Jason hadn't really thought through how this initial dispersal of teams was going to flow. So, he considered it for a bit, and finally came up with a modified version of how the race should start. Once teams had found the correct classified ad in The Gambit, they would raise their hand and call one of the CSUR volunteers over and show them that they'd found the ad. Then one person on the team had to solve it without using any phone technology, and teams couldn't take the paper out of the room. Or something. It was all a bit confusing, but none of it mattered overly much to us, as we already knew the answer... we just wanted to know what we had to do to get released from the room, and it took a bit of time for Jason to construct a satisfactory answer.

Anyways, Jason called out "go!", and Dave pretty much immediately flipped the pages to the correct classified ad. Jason came over, looked at the ad we were pointing to, and said we could go. So we grabbed our phones off the floor and headed out the door. A couple other teams were immediately heading for the door, too, so we suspect we weren't the only team that had spotted the clue in The Gambit before the race start.

We ran down Canal Street and turned left onto Decatur Street to Tujague's. We arrived there first, with Marcy and John right behind us. But, we couldn't find any race volunteers handing out clue sheets. The bartender inside told us they were closed and sent us back outside, and there wasn't anyone hanging around outside. A third team also arrived at Tujague's looking for the clues, and we all wandered about helplessly. Was it really possible that we'd messed up a clue that we'd had all day to work on?

Yes, yes it was. I guess this is what happens when we leave our crack clue-solving team out of the loop and assume that we're smart enough to solve a clue on our own! Speaking of our crack clue-solving team, it was obviously time to give them a call. Dave pulled the ad out of his backpack (we'd torn the ad out of Debbie's copy of the paper from the day before, not from the copy that the race provided us with at the start), and he read in the clue to the crew while the rest of us started looking around the area for alternate answer locations. Just a block away was Jax Brewery, perhaps that was it. We searched around the brewery stores, but no luck. We knew there was a Mr. Jack's Haircutters, but it was a few blocks away and it didn't seem like any more of a valid solution than the other Jack-related businesses we'd already looked at. Then our crew came through with the answer... One Eyed Jacks. Of course! I must admit that this was a slightly better answer than our original answer of Tujague's/Two Jacks. I suppose we should be happy that this wasn't just a regular clue checkpoint where we had to take a picture of the correct business, as then we would have had to argue with the director at the end of the race about whether our answer was an acceptable alternate checkpoint solution, or not.

Fortunately One Eyed Jacks was only a couple blocks away from where we were. We ran over, and saw a bunch of smarter teams already there looking at their clue sheets. We got our own copy of the clues from the volunteer dressed as Beetlejuice, and quickly took pictures of them and sent them to the crew.

Time to recover from our comically inept start and get back on track. We scanned the clues to get an idea of where the race was going. Both of the previous years that we'd raced in New Orleans we were sent over to Tulane and Loyola University, but none of the clues this year appeared to be there. Which was fine by us, as that area is quite far away and the public transportation system has a tendency to run way behind schedule (especially on a big weekend like Halloween). Instead, we noticed several clues in the Garden District. We decided it made sense to get these first, as it would give our crew more time to solve the clues while we rode the streetcar out there.

We ran back to Canal Street and saw that there was a streetcar just getting ready to head out on Saint Charles Street. Perfect timing! Both of our teams hopped onto the streetcar. It was standing room only, and we weren't the only teams onboard. No matter, we wedged ourselves into the small space behind the driver and scanned the clues to see if there were any we could help with.

Our streetcar slowly made its way through the downtown area, then picked up speed once it made it under the Pontchartrain Expressway. Our crew was still working on trying to solve the Garden District clues as we entered that area. Well, we didn't know exactly where we were heading within the Garden District, but we certainly knew that we didn't want to keep on riding our way out of it. So we started debating about where we should get off. In the absence of any better plan, we kept an eye on the other two teams on the streetcar. Sure enough, at Louisiana Avenue they headed for the doors, and since they looked like they knew where they were going, we decided we may as well just follow them until our crew came up with a better plan.

All four teams took off running south on Louisiana Avenue towards Magazine Street. The lead team was running quite fast and they quickly distanced themselves from all of us. We wound up following team Avenging Narwhals, a father and son team that we'd had the chance to get to know a bit since we do so many of these same races. The Narwhals have a great track record of finishing these things at the top of the pack, so we figured they probably knew where they were going. It was about this time that our crew started coming up with the solutions to the points just as we were about to run into them, so we were zeroing in on our destination using multiple information sources: both by watching the other teams, and by listening to our phone contacts tell us their guesses for businesses and addresses. It was all coming together so rapidly that I don't remember which one of us spotted it first, but one of the teams in the area figured out that the answer to #9 was The Bulldog.

Yay, our first checkpoint! We continued east on Magazine Street, when the Narwhals realized they'd accidentally ran a few feet past #6, Fleurty Girl. The Narwhals did a quick about face and entered the store, and we shamelessly took advantage of their more successful clue solving efforts by following them. Here we had to take 3 different pictures of shirts that said "Who Dat". You can see the Narwhals father and son team behind us in the first picture.

Thank you, team Avenging Narwhals... we definitely owe you one! At this point our phone contact Chris informed us that we probably could start heading back towards the French Quarter. Our crew had solved enough of the points that he didn't think there was anything else left that was as far away as we were. That was good enough for us, so we ran back north to Saint Charles Avenue to catch a streetcar. Marcy and John stayed behind for a bit to study the cluesheet and make sure that they weren't leaving a checkpoint behind. They tend to play things safe like that... whereas Dave and I tend to take more risks. Plus, if we were accidentally leaving a checkpoint behind, we reasoned that we could always just use it as our one free skip point.

Our risky moves have backfired on us (spectacularly) more than once in previous races, but this time our gamble paid off. We made it back to Saint Charles just in time to catch another streetcar. And the Narwhals and Marcy and John wound up missing it. So now we were blazing our own path, no longer following anyone. Which is fine by us, as we don't like following other teams if we don't have to. And now that our clue crew had had enough time to solve the rest of the clues, we didn't have to.

The streetcar zipped along the tracks towards our next point. We marveled at how much luckier we were this year at catching good public transportation, as a lack of streetcars meant that we'd have to run all the way from the French Quarter to Tulane University the previous time we'd raced in New Orleans. And we had to run the entire way more than once. For those of you that aren't familiar with New Orleans, I can assure you that that's probably a lot farther than you want to run during a race like this. We much preferred the streetcar option, let me tell you.

Well, we preferred it until we hit a stop where a dozen people had to board. It can take a while for people to get on, what with the digging out the change and trying to get the ticket dispenser to accept crinkly dollar bills. Had we had more presence of mind, we would have got off as soon as we saw the long line, as we were now only about 6 short blocks away from our destination. But then we were moving again... to the next stop. The line was only about 3 people, so we figured it might not take long. But the first person in line was an old lady who started rummaging around in her purse to find her money, and we decided it wasn't worth waiting to see how long it would take that process to play out. So we exited the streetcar early and ran the 3 extra blocks to #10, which was Emeril's. We managed to get in place for our picture before the streetcar passed, so our choice to get off early had been correct.

We were just about to cross under the Expressway back into downtown, so no more public transportation for this race. In the French Quarter and Downtown, it's much faster to just run. So we ran through Lee Circle, then down Andrew Higgens Street to Saint Peter's Street to the Howlin' Wolf for #4. Here there was a volunteer administering a special test. Each of us had to use a straw to transfer five M&Ms between two bowls about 15 feet apart. It wasn't too hard, you just had to suck it onto the end of the straw and get over to the other bowl before you had the urge to exhale. In no time we'd finished our ten transfers, and the volunteer told us to take a picture of him as proof that we'd completed the challenge.

Dave noticed that we were passing lots of local eateries, and wondered if we could get a couple of pictures of food for bonus clue #2. We would get 2 minutes of bonus time (up to a maximum of 6 minutes) for each picture of us eating different types of food: Crawfish, Gumbo, Beignets, King Cakes, Po-Boys, Jambalaya, and Bananas Foster. We were going past a restaurant anyways, so Dave quickly convinced them to let us wander around inside for a bit to take some photos. We found a table of fine folks that didn't seem to mind our antics, and they let us take a picture of their gumbo...

... as well as a picture of them eating a po-boy. According to the clue sheet, technically we had to be the ones eating the food in the picture, but Jason didn't seem to be picky about that part when he checked our photographs at the finish line.

That was 2 of 3 for the food pictures... and we knew without a doubt we could easily get a picture of beignets later on, so we thanked the restaurant workers and patrons and were on our way. Over to Canal Street, where we ran past the Beastie Boys team and so we shouted "Sabatoge!" at them. Then up to Baronne Street for #8, Cajun Mike's Pub 'n Grub.

Back into the French Quarter! As we crossed Canal Street we ran into the Wayne's World team, and so we shouted, "Party on, Wayne!" at them. We should have yelled "Party on, Garth!", too, but we were running too fast at that point for our brains to keep up. Sorry, Garth! We ran down Iberville Street to the Country Flame to get a shot of the funky mural for #1:

Now that we were back in the French Quarter we were knocking off the remaining points in rapid succession. It was only a couple of blocks to the Copper Monkey for #5:

Another few blocks led us over to the famous Cafe Du Monde on Decatur Street. Since this is pretty much the place to go to get beignets, we knew we'd have no trouble getting our third food bonus picture here. And sure enough, the first person we asked had no problem letting us take this picture of him:

Of course, the real reason we had come to this cafe in the first place was to satisfy #3. We knew we would have to look in the crowd for a man and a woman that were in a large picture on the last page of the clue sheets. The woman's glasses were kind of distinctive, so we started looking around for those. But we needn't have worried... as soon as the customers in the eating area noticed us looking around for the pair, they started gleefully pointing out to us the direction to where they were sitting. Obviously, a lot of teams had gotten this checkpoint early on, before they headed out to the Garden District, because the crowd all knew who we were looking for by now.

Time to head to #2, which was Serendipitous Masks. At least, that's what we thought the answer was. Since we had to do a special test here, we entered Serendipitous Masks and asked the clerk what our task was. He gave a big sigh, and in a tone that indicated he'd obviously had to tell a dozen teams this already, he explained to us that this was not the correct store for the checkpoint. Then he was nice enough to not only tell us the correct store was Maskarade, but he gave us directions on how to get there. I can only imagine how the conversation went with the first team that went to this incorrect spot. "Are you the race checkpoint?", "Noooo....", "Uh, well, ok, so can you help us figure out which nearby competing mask store is the checkpoint?", "Well, I guess so...".

Anyways, we were lucky (once again) that our incorrect answer wasn't a location where we just had to take a picture of the business and move on, because if that had been the case, we'd have had to try and argue that our picture was of an acceptable alternate solution to the clue. It's never any fun dealing with controversy like that during a race. We were also lucky that our wrong answer was once again located so close to the correct answer. As we left the wrong store we ran into Marcy and John, who we hadn't seen since our second point. Hi, Marcy and John! And don't bother going into that store and bugging the poor clerk again, instead, follow us to the correct store! And so we all traveled to Maskarade together.

Here we had to find a specific skeleton mask and feathered headband. We asked the clerk at the counter if he could give us any hints where to look, and he told us to try the back part of the store. There was a saleslady there, and she was also helpful, giving us hints such as "colder" and "warmer" to guide us to the correct masks. I think they just wanted us to get out of the store before we sweated all over the merchandise. Anyway, Marcy spotted the masks first, and so we both got our pictures and headed out.

Alright, what else do we have left to do? Well, we were allowed to skip one point, so we were skipping #7. If we wanted to we could try and get Bonus Clue #1, by collecting some red vampire beads and getting a picture at the Vampire Funeral Parade. But the bonus was only worth five minutes, and we weren't sure if it would take longer than that to complete the task. Plus, we knew we only had to place in the top ten in the morning race to advance to the afternoon race, and despite our rocky start we were pretty confident that we would still be in the top ten even without the bonus. So all we had to do was dash to the finish line, which was Pat O'Brien's in the middle of the French Quarter.

We headed in, and despite our struggles at the start of the race, our two teams were the first to arrive at the finish. Yay! Marcy and John hadn't gotten any food bonus pictures, so Dave and I were slightly ahead of them. But all that really mattered was that both of our teams could compete again in the afternoon race for the prize money.

In Between Races

Our teams briefly chatted with each other at the finish line about how the morning race went, but the talk soon turned to preparing for the afternoon race. Race management couldn't tell us exactly when the next race would start, they just said it would be about 45 minutes after the tenth place team finished. Not having a specific time made planning our activities a bit trickier, but we figured they likely wouldn't start the second race right on time anyways, and they probably wouldn't start it without us, so we decided to leave and get some lunch.

Here we are at the finish line area getting ready to leave. John Beard's parents, Jerry and Jenny, are in the foreground. They drove down special from Texas just to watch us do the crazy race thing:

For lunch we went to McDonald's, of all places. At least it was nearby, and they could serve our food quickly enough for us to make it back in time for the second race start. Public restrooms are so scarce in the French Quarter that even McDonald's puts a lock on the bathroom door. You have to be a paying customer to use the restroom. It's little wonder that the Quarter has a certain distinctive smell to it.

Our friend Tim took this picture, and I liked his caption so much that I'm going to use it here almost verbatim. "Between the races. At McDonald's. Charging up the phones. Zack on the computer. Marcy hamming it up as always. New Orleans police calling in a report of people violating the clearly-posted 'No Loitering' signs.":

I finished lunch first, so I headed back to Pat O'Brien's to get an update on the next race start time. Eventually the word came down that it would start at 1:40pm. So the top ten teams started gathering around the Saint Peter's street entrance to Pat O's around that time. Two impressively costumed teams made it into the finals race, the Beastie Boys and the German Girls:

The Afternoon Finals Race

At around 1:50pm, Jason told us the race would start with each team being handed a piece of paper with a name on it. We would have to run to Saint Louis Cemetery #1 and find our name on a gravestone, take a picture of it, and return back to Pat O'Brien's with the picture to get the clues for the race. Since each team was assigned a different name, we couldn't just follow each other to the tombstones, which was a neat twist. Our phone contact Chris quickly looked up the location of the cemetery for us, so we knew where we were heading as they counted down to the start.

And... go! The teams were released at about 1:53pm. The cemetery wasn't too far away, just a couple blocks up to Rampart Street and then a couple more blocks over. All the teams entered the cemetery around the same time. Dave and I split up and started searching for our name, L. Eugenie Chesse. Wow, there were a lot of tombstones to go through in this place. And some of them were difficult to read. We hoped that the challenge was designed to be somewhat fair, in that everyone was assigned a stone that was about as easy to read and about the same distance from the entrance.

We wandered around, checking all the names but not having any luck. The cemeteries in New Orleans are above-ground, so the large tombs made the path-choosing difficult, and they obscured the view of the rest of the area. There were a few tour guides talking to groups about the history of some of the tombs, so we asked a couple of the guides if they knew were L. Eugenie Chesse was buried. None of them did... not a good sign! Our clue support crew gamely tried to search online to find the location of our name, but not surprisingly they didn't have much luck with that.

We heard a couple of other teams find their name fairly quickly and head back. At 2:04pm Marcy and John found theirs, so at least one of our teams was making progress. Dave and I continued to wander, exchanging helpless shrugs whenever we came across any of the other teams that were also still stuck searching.

Finally Dave found the stone. Ironically, it was fairly near the entrance, though we'd spent most of our time looking farther inwards. Dave told me over the phone to come over to him by the entrance, and it was only then that I realized how big the cemetery was... it took me a surprising amount of time to make my way back. I actually had to ask people to point me the way to the entrance; that was how confusing it was in there.

I finally made it over to Dave, and we went back to find the stone, as Dave had grown antsy while waiting for me and so he'd headed back inwards a bit to find me. Our stone was set down low on the ground, and was hard to read with the faded letters in the bright sun. Good eyes, Dave. We finally took our picture at 2:11pm. It felt like we'd been wandering around the cemetery for a half an hour, though in actuality it was more like 15 minutes.

Right as we left the cemetery and started running back to the start, it turns out that our crew managed to find a picture of our tombstone online! The online site didn't show the exact location of the stone, but from the picture you could at least tell that it was set low to the ground, which would have been a good hint to help us search more efficiently. Ah, well, thanks for trying, guys! They probably would have found it sooner if we'd spelled the name correctly while reading it to them over the phone... (D'oh!)

We got back to the start and showed our tombstone picture to the volunteers. It's pretty hard to see an indistinct name on of a tiny digital camera viewscreen, so we weren't sure what they would do if they couldn't read it. But they said they could see it well enough, and so we got our clues. We expected that Marcy and John would have already gotten pictures of the clue sheets sent in by then, but apparently there were some technical problems with that. So Dave and I took pictures of our clue sheets and sent them in.

Through communicating with Marcy and John, our crew had gathered enough of a sense of the clues to determine that we'd pretty much be staying in the same areas as the morning race: Between the French Quarter and the Garden District. Well, getting the Garden District clues first had worked out well enough for us in the morning, so we decided to go with that strategy again. We ran down Bourbon Street to Canal Street, and saw that we'd lucked out with transportation once again, as there was a streetcar loading up to head down Saint Charles Avenue.

At first the streetcar was quite slow, as it had to stop at every block and let people on. We could actually see another streetcar right in front of us, and we noticed there was another team on it wearing green shirts. There were points where the streetcars were stopped and they were close enough together that we could easily have left ours and ran up to catch the one in front of us... but since it was very likely that the streetcar was full and wouldn't let on any more passengers, we didn't dare take the risk.

We scanned the clue sheets and started working on a plan. At this point we noticed that the cutoff times for the mandatory checkpoints were much more aggressive than normal. Typically if you're running a decent race the cutoff times never come into play at all, as there's generally plenty of time to reach all the mandatory points. Not so in this race. Reaching all the mandatory points before their cutoff times would be nearly impossible. #8 was back behind us in the French Quarter, and had a cutoff time of 3:30. While #9 was way, way in front of us, almost all the way to Audubon Park, and it had a cutoff time of 4:00. And points #2 and #6 also had to completed by 4:00. By now it was about 2:30, and we were riding on the streetcar towards #9.

We realized that the fact that we'd left #8 back in the French Quarter was going to be a huge problem, as it had the strictest cutoff time. We knew the only way we could get it by 3:30 was if we got off the streetcar right now, and made our way back to the French Quarter. The problem with that plan was, if we turned around at this point, while we could get #8 (and #2 and #6) there was no way we'd have enough time to then get all the way back down to #9. Especially because the streetcars and buses were getting more and more full with Halloween partiers, so we'd most likely have to run the entire way.

Then we read the clue sheets more carefully and found another wrinkle to factor into our planning. We assume the line right above clue #9 was intended to state that #9 was mandatory and must be completed by 4:00. But that's not what it actually said... instead it said #8 was mandatory. This was obviously a typo (as #8 had already been declared to be mandatory with its own line), but it became an important issue: Since technically the clue sheet did not say that #9 was mandatory, could we skip it and not be disqualified? (Normally if you skip any of the mandatory points you are out of the running to officially finish the race. Skipping a non-mandatory point is fine, except that you'll receive a 30 minute penalty if it's a skip in addition to your one free skip point.)

Well, since it was obvious at this point that there was no way we could reach both #8 and #9 by their mandatory time cutoffs, we decided that our best course of action was to try and argue that the race management should honor the typo, and allow us to use our free skip point on #9 despite the fact that it was (supposed to be) mandatory. And since #9 was also the clue that was farthest away, it was a good one to skip, anyways.

(Begin mini-rant...)

I'm not sure whether the race director intended for the mandatory cutoff times to be so incredibly difficult to make in this race, or not. With the cutoff times set up as they were you had to do the three mandatory French Quarter points first, then the far point on Magazine Street next, and then return back to the French Quarter (picking up the remaining points along the way). Usually these races are setup to allow teams to take different overall route choices... but with this race, there was really only one route that would work and still make the required times. Perhaps he wasn't aware how much slower and unreliable the public transportation is in New Orleans on holiday weekend afternoons as compared to other times of the week, so he didn't realize teams would likely be forced to run all the way to #9 to make the 4:00 cutoff (which is what Marcy and John did).

And if a team had difficulty during the initial cemetery search (and there were teams still looking when Dave and I left there), by the time they got their clue sheet it would have been impossible for them to make all four mandatory points (and complete the special tests at each one) before the cutoff times. That would be a rather arbitrary reason for a team to be disqualified. I suspect Jason assumed that the second race would start earlier than it actually did, and so he didn't figure that the cutoff times would be such an overriding factor. If so, it was a bad assumption, and it was a problem that could have easily been avoided.

A plea to race directors in general: Please get someone on your staff (other than yourself!) to proof-read your instruction sheets. A little typo can make a huge difference. When the typo is in a critical spot (like this one was) it can affect teams' strategies to the point where it changes the outcome of the race. In my experience these type of race-changing typos seem to happen a lot more often in adventure races, when there are typos in the UTM coordinates, but that's a whole 'nother subject. So let me end this plea/rant and try to get the report back on track...

(...end mini-rant)

Ok, so where were we? Right, we were riding a streetcar down Saint Charles Avenue, and deciding to skip the farthest out maybe-mandatory point #9. Even if we were successful in arguing #9 wasn't mandatory, our route still had problems, as we wouldn't be back to get the 3:30 point #8 in the French Quarter in time. But there was nothing to do about that now, as we were pretty much committed to getting the far points first.

Our streetcar reached Napolean Avenue. We could have stayed on it for 4 more blocks to get a little closer to our checkpoint, but we figured the traffic light at Napolean might take a while to change so we just got out there and started running. Diagonally southwest to Magazine Street, to #1, which was Le Bon Temps Roule:

Whadaya know, this was also a checkpoint that Marcy and John visited way back in the 2003 Urban Challenge championships! It was neat to be following in their footsteps seven years later. We ran east on Magazine Street towards the next point. Speaking of Marcy and John... Hey, there they were, running west on Magazine Street towards us! We waved at each other and kept running. As is fairly typical for our teams, we'd obviously decided to do the points in a slightly different order.

We would occasionally glance backwards over our shoulders to see if a bus was coming our way, but we knew it was overly optimistic to expect regular buses by this time of day. We passed a store that had a couple mannequins dressed up for Halloween. Since #3 required us to get pictures of people wearing specific costumes, we took pictures of a witch and a ghost. We hoped to eventually get better pictures of actual people in costume, not mannequins, but figured we may as well take the mannequin photos as a backup just in case tracking down costumed people turned out to be difficult. But really, we weren't too worried about satisfying this clue... as we'd be back in the French Quarter before long, where people are always dressed up even when it's not Halloween weekend!

Just a couple blocks off of Magazine Street was #10, Atchafalaya:

From there we had to zigzag northeast a bit to reach #7, Commander's Palace Restaurant. This establishment was actually large enough to already be pre-marked on the map that we were carrying, so it wasn't too hard to locate:

Funny side-note... after driving back to Austin on Sunday, I noticed in Dave's house there was a painting hanging on his wall... and that painting was of the Commander's Palace Restaurant! What are the odds? We took another photo of us in front of the painting, just for kicks... I wonder if this picture would have satisfied the checkpoint requirement?!:

We got on Saint Charles Avenue again and jogged back towards downtown. We figured we'd give ourselves a chance to catch another streetcar, but we quickly realized that that wasn't going to happen. For one thing, we could see a long way down the tracks behind us, and there were no streetcars in sight. For another thing, we kept passing long lines of folks waiting at the stops, so any streetcar that did come would likely already be full. So, we resigned ourselves to running back the whole way. Ah, well, we still had much better luck overall catching public transportation compared to the last time we raced in New Orleans.

After a long, uneventful jog, we were finally back in the French Quarter. Time to start collecting those costume pictures! This is the first picture we got of a costumed witch (that was a human instead of a mannequin):

Now we needed to complete those mandatory challenges before the 4:00 cutoff time. Our first challenge was at #2, Meltdown Gourmet Popsicles. Here a volunteer handed us this instruction sheet for the challenge:

We immediately asked if we could satisfy the challenge by just buying ten popsicles ourselves, and the volunteer said no. (Though talking to other teams afterwards, we learned that at least one team did exactly that... they just paid for ten popsicles themselves, and got credit for the point. Darn those inconsistent volunteers!) So, we walked outside to try and find some folks willing to help us out. The rules didn't say anything about us paying the customers to play along with our game, and we figured it would be practically impossible to (quickly) convince ten strangers to buy the treats with their own money, so we started shouting to folks that we were giving away free popsicles.

At first even that wasn't enough... people just stared at us skeptically, convinced we were running some kind of scam. So we started waving our money around, saying, "look, there's no scam here, we're begging you to please take our money". Eventually a couple folks decided to listen to our explanation, and then they were game to take our three dollars and walk inside and buy a popsicle with it. Once they started the ball rolling, other people followed suit, so we were making good progress. After about 7 popsicles we were running out of nearby people, so we just asked the same folks coming out if they would take another three bucks and turn right back in to buy a second popsicle, and they said sure. Man, we should have thought of that earlier, we could have just had the first person buy all ten. But anyways, we still managed to finish it all fairly quickly... it only took us about five minutes to sell them. To document that we'd completed the challenge, we took a picture of us with the volunteer:

It was just a couple blocks over to #8, Molly's at the Market. Here we were supposed to do some sort of challenge with the Brown Improv Troupe. But since the clue said the challenge must be completed by 3:30, and we were about twenty minutes too late for that, we settled for just taking our picture of the business sign, hoping that would be worth some sort of credit:

But we could still finish the final mandatory point in time, as #6 stayed open until 4:00. We ran to the French Market and wandered around until we found the guy administering the pumpkin carving challenge. He told us we had to carve a "CS" (for CitySolve) in the pumpkin, deep enough so that light could shine through. Also we had to scoop all the seeds out. Dave got to work carving with the knife, and I got to scooping. The plastic scoop didn't work well to get the last straggler seeds, so eventually I just switched to using my bare hands. The volunteer approved our work and told us that we'd completed it faster than any other team so far, so that was something:

Then I looked around for something to use to clean off the pumpkin guts. There was a towel hanging off the back of the chair right next to us, so I wiped my hands on it, figuring that's what it was for. Turns out it wasn't a towel... it was the volunteer's T-shirt that he'd received as thanks for running the test. The volunteer saw me befouling his shirt and he said to me "Really...?". Oops, my bad. I apologized profusely, but quickly, as we still had a race to finish. Sorry about that, Mr. Nice Volunteer!

Just a couple blocks away was #4, an impressive witch decoration in front of a house on Barracks Street:

The good thing about the French Quarter is that everything in it is close together. It was only a couple more blocks up Esplanade Avenue to get to #5, Port of Call:

Ok, all that we had to do now was complete #3 by getting four more pictures of random people wearing costumes. Chris told us to head back to Maskarade to see if they could help with the costumes, and because there was a costume parade that was supposed to be happening around there. Along the way we passed this baby wearing a witch's cap. We weren't sure if this costume counted as a "witch" or a "baby", but figured it must at least count for one of them:

We reread clue #3 and decided that it didn't specify that we had to get five different types of costumes, so getting pictures of multiple witches should be ok. Good, because a couple of the eight valid costume options would have been hard to find. On the other hand, if one of the costume options had been "devil", we would have been done already, as we kept running into girls wearing devil horns. Running back to Decatur Street, we saw a girl wearing cat ears. We didn't know if that's the costume was actually supposed to be cat ears, but since we needed a picture of a cat we figured it would be close enough. We asked her if we could take a picture with her, and she countered by asking if we'd give her a dollar. Well, we'd just thrown away 30 bucks on popsicles for strangers, so a dollar for a picture seemed like a fair enough trade to us:

By Jackson Square we ran into a nice clown that let us also take his picture. A witch, a baby witch, a cat, and a clown... just one more costumed character to go:

On the way back to the finish line at we hit two more witches in rapid succession, bringing our total costume pics up to six:

But we were still nervous about whether all of our costume pictures would be considered acceptable. Especially the baby witch and the cat. So we ran right past the side entrance to Pat O'Brien's, causing the race photographer who was stationed there to take a bunch of photos of us. But we figured we could easily get one final picture of a costumed character on Bourbon Street. And sure enough, we quickly found this lady dressed as a cat, and she was happy to let us take her picture while explaining to us, "I'm not a cat, I'm a cougar!":

Alright, we figured at least five of those pictures would be considered acceptable. So we entered Pat O's from the main Bourbon Street entrance, and made our way to the courtyard where the finish line was set up. And we were the first team there! Yay! However, we learned that the race wasn't over yet... we still had to do four cryptogram / rebus puzzles. Boo! Each cryptogram had a trivia question that lead to a numeric "key", which would represent how many times you had to shift the letters of the alphabet to transform the code into english. Once you broke the code and made it readable, you were left with a series of clues whose answers would be words, which would fit in designated places within a rebus. Then you would solve the rebus to arrive at the final word or phrase that was the ultimate answer.

We looked at the four puzzles and decided that it was involved enough where it would probably take us longer than half an hour to finish it. Since this race allows you to skip any clue for a 30 minute penalty, we decided it made sense to just skip it altogether. So we called over the race director and told him that that's what we would like to do. He informed us that if we skipped it, the penalty would be 90 minutes, not 30 minutes. We pointed out that in the CitySolve races it was always the case that a missed clue or challenge would result in a 30 minute penalty, but Jason stated that this puzzle was an exception to that rule.

So I tried a different tactic. I referred to Jason's official rule sheet for the event:

The circled part of the race instructions stated that the winner of the race would be determined by whoever successfully completed 9 of the 10 clues/challenges, in the fastest time, after factoring in the bonuses (there were no bonuses for the second race). I pointed out that nowhere in there did it say that a final unskippable 11th challenge would factor into determining the winner. Jason said something to the effect that the format for the finals race superceded what was written on the rules sheet, and that it was pointless to argue because our clock was going to keep ticking while we did so. Well, alrighty then.

The race volunteers had taken our phones away at the start of the puzzle, so we couldn't use our support crew or the internet to help us. Unfortunately, three of the four clues to the rebus keys involved trivia questions, such as a football player's Jersey number, and the number of movies in a certain horror series. Now how in the heck are you supposed to solve trivia questions like that without access to the internet? Those are the type of questions you either know the answer to, or you don't. So anyone who happened to know them would have a huge advantage when it came to solving the cryptograms. But, at least there were still other ways to solve them, either by using trial and error to figure out the keys, or by using pattern matching in the words to narrow down the key possibilities. So this final puzzle was a bit better than the end of the previous year's event, which was a trivia based crossword puzzle (that you had no hope of solving by other methods if you didn't know the trivia answers... and it introduced a potential four hours of variance into your finishing time, making it a much larger factor in determining the race winner than the actual race itself).

The one cryptogram key clue that didn't involve trivia involved algebra instead. Well, that was something I could actually do, so I got to working on the equation. Meanwhile Dave looked around to see if we'd be lucky enough to spot somebody wearing a Drew Brees jersey, as that was an answer to one of the trivia questions. Ironically, we actually had seen more than one Drew Brees jersey while racing around town earlier, but neither of us were big enough sports fans to remember the number offhand. The volunteer was confused as to why Dave was looking around, and he figured we must be trying to cheat but couldn't figure out how (as there were no other teams there yet to copy rebus answers off of). But suspecting foul play of some kind, the volunteer told Dave to stop looking around. Ok, so we had to solve a puzzle in a crowded patio pub while surrounded by jabbering drunks, but we'd better not be caught glancing at any of the drunks.

I solved the algebra equation and got the key for one of the four cryptograms. Now we had to shift over each letter the specified amount. The race had provided us with a handy spinning circle thingy which had the alphabet written on two separate rings, so we could spin the ring the proper number of spaces over and then it would display the right substitution. Well, the spinning circle thingy would have been handy if the center didn't shift around (it was only held together by a paperclip punched through paper), and if they'd used a monospaced font so that the letters would all line up properly. As it was, the circle tool was too annoying to use, so we wound up just manually writing out our own conversion chart on paper.

Dave worked on converting the letters over to English, which I worked on trying to determine the other keys without knowing the trivia answers. I wasted a bit too much time using brute force guessing methods before I came up with a much quicker way to determine the key that didn't rely on knowing the trivia answers at all... you could just figure out the key with basic cryptographic solving techniques. It was quite simple, really... the one-letter words in the cryptograms had to be either "A" or "I", and given the format of what we were solving they were all "A". And since you only had to solve one letter to determine the key for the entire cryptogram, the rest was easy.

Easy, but tedious. There were lots of letters we had to convert to English. And unlike most cryptograms you find in puzzle books, they weren't written in all capital letters with plenty of space to write around, instead they were camel cased and typed in a small font, which made the conversion process more annoying. But we plodded on through it, and eventually we had all the clues for the words to the rebuses.

Most of the clues to the words were fairly easy. Some were trickier, and didn't follow conventional crossword clue protocol. Eventually we had enough words in to start working out the rebuses. The answer to the first rebus we solved was "Tchoupitoulas", which is the name of a street in New Orleans. A street that the race course never traveled on. And the rebus didn't lead to an exact spelling of Tchoupitoulas, instead it was a "sounds like" type of thing. Great, we could only hope that we'd actually heard of the other words or phrases that made up the rebus answers.

Well, we'd heard of at least two of them... "Southern Decadence" and "Crawfish Etouffee" were the next solutions we derived. We wondered if we were getting the spelling of all these answers correct. We also wondered what the penalty would be for misspelling them. For the fourth and final rebus, we couldn't come up with an answer. We figured that we were close, but we didn't know what it could be. We also guessed that one of the words we had for it might be wrong. If that was the case, it would be a three minute penalty for the wrong word, plus a seven minute penalty for not solving the rebus. Well, we could either sit there trying to solve it for another ten minutes, or we could just cut our losses and turn in the puzzle immediately, figuring that we wouldn't solve it in less time than that anyway. By now there were three other teams in the area also working on their rebuses, but we had had a good head start on most of them and none of them were close to finishing yet. So we decided to turn in the puzzle and hope that nobody else finished in the next ten minutes.

Dave started a stopwatch to count the time elapsed since turning in our puzzle. We found out later that the answer to the rebus we didn't get was "Dia de los Muertos", which we probably never would have gotten, because two of our words were indeed wrong. And even if we did get it, our attempted spelling of it would have been so bad we likely wouldn't have received any credit for it, so it was probably good that we'd just given up on it as soon as we did. Well, nothing else to do at this point except wait.

None of the other teams turned in their rebuses within the next ten minutes, so we were beginning to think we might have a chance. But now the bigger issue was: How was the race director going to handle the mandatory checkpoints? Usually, this is a cut and dry situation... if a team doesn't make all the mandatory checkpoints, they are disqualified, so the fastest team that did make all the mandatory checkpoints wins. Pretty simple. However, in most races, plenty of teams have time to make all the mandatory checkpoints. With the cutoffs in this race, we predicted most, if not all teams would miss at least one of the cutoff times. So who wins the race in that case? Do you just draw a name out of a hat?

We had definitely missed mandatory point #8, Molly's at the Market, because we got there twenty minutes after 3:30 and so just took our picture there instead of doing the Improv test. We had also missed point #9, which was probably intended to be a mandatory point, but we were ready to argue that we couldn't be held to that, since the typo accidentally made it so that it wasn't explicitly specified as a mandatory point.

So we could still place in the top three, we supposed, depending on how many other teams skipped mandatory points (which we suspect was most teams), and how Jason scored this thing. Some of our questions on scoring included:

  • Would #9 be counted as a mandatory point, or not (because of the typo)?
  • If a team started a special test before the cutoff time, but finished the test after the cutoff time, would they get credit for it, or not?
  • Did some of the volunteers manning the special tests at the mandatory points choose to stick around past the cutoff times, and if they did, would teams get credit for the points even if they visited them and started the tests after the cutoff?
  • If teams made it to mandatory points after the volunteers had left and the teams just took a picture of the business, would they get credit for the point?
  • If less than three teams got all the mandatory points, how would they determine the top three teams? Would it go first to the team(s) that got all the mandatory points (if any team did), and then to the team that got the next most mandatory points (with the fastest time), etc.?
  • If they decided to relax the requirements for the mandatory points because the cutoff times were deemed too unreasonable, what would now be the new penalty for missing a mandatory point? Would it be 30 minutes, the same as missing a regular point? Or would it be an hour or more, to reward teams more for reaching more mandatory points on time?

It was easy to imagine that different teams could wind up winning the race, depending on how these questions were answered. And with the penalty time for incorrect rebus answers thrown into the mix, there was enough bonus and penalty variables out there to muddle the situation enough to where it was impossible to guess which team had won. It was (sadly) just like last years race... our teams had crossed the finish line first, but we still had absolutely no idea who would win the thing.

While most of the teams turned in their rebus puzzles quite a bit later than us, we knew anything was possible, so we didn't get our hopes up much. We figured it would be a while before everything was scored and sorted out, so we went to the car and changed clothes, and drank a couple of Pat O'Brien's Hurricanes while we waited. The awards ceremony came around, and Jason announced that third place went to this team:

Huh, from our guesses about how things would turn out, and based on rumors as far as which teams had managed to complete what parts of the course, we had thought that one of our teams might take third, but no. Then Jason announced that second place went to Marcy and John! Awesome! Unlike last year, this time the race paid out money to three places, so Marcy and John would actually win $2500 for second! Great job!

And the winners were... Kip and Dave! I've gotta say, we were honestly quite surprised. We weren't sure which exact formula Jason used to deal with the mandatory points and all the other questions, but apparently it had worked out in our favor. Woohoo! $5000!

Jason told us he'd collect our tax info and send the checks out to us sometime in December. Much happiness and celebration commenced. We'd won a CitySolve national championship race!

This next picture isn't really relevant to our story at all... it's just that we think it's pretty cool that a team managed to make it into the top ten while in full costume:

Thank you so much to our incredible crew: Our genius clue solvers, our nimble and oh-so-very-patient phone contacts, and everyone else who supports us and cheers us on as we do these wacky races. They're a whole lot of fun for us, and we hope you manage to have some fun being part of our extended team, as well! Despite all the stress on race day!

Epilogue, Part 1

On November 3, four days after the race was over, Jason called me up and told me that he'd decided he was going to change the method they used to score the race. Apparently he wasn't happy with the original method he'd used to address the controversial mandatory checkpoint questions, and his new method was more fair. By the new method, neither us nor Marcy and John would place in the top three.

Now I'm not going to argue that our teams should have rightfully been awarded the win. Dave and I reached mandatory point #8 twenty minutes after the 3:30 cutoff time, so by all rights (and in any less controversial race) according to the rules we should have been disqualified from having an official finish. I would argue that we couldn't be disqualified for skipping maybe-mandatory point #9 because of the typo, but I don't know if that even was a factor in the new decision, or not. And I have no idea if any other team actually made it to all four mandatory points before the original posted cutoff times. I highly suspect most teams did not, but it's not out of the realm of believability that at least one of them had the foresight, luck, and speed to do it.

I also have no opinion on whether the original method Jason used to score the race was more equitable than the revised method, or not. It's impossible for me to say without knowing the details of how he scored the race in the first place, that is to say, how he answered the list of questions we had about scoring (under both the original and revised scoring systems). And of course it's hard to know anything for sure without knowing exactly when all the other teams reached all the mandatory points, and how they all performed on the final rebus challenge. Of course, we never got to see the details about how much penalty time each team received in last year's final crossword puzzle challenge, so I'm not expecting to get all the details for this year's race, either.

What I will say is that awarding the top three prizes to certain teams, and then turning around four days later and awarding them to three different teams, is a terrible way to run an event. Even if your revised scoring system is more fair, it's inexcusable to design and execute a race so ineptly that you're forced to make crucial, controversial scoring decisions on-the-fly right before the awards ceremony. Had Jason better estimated when the second race might start, had the cutoff times not come into play with such overriding force, had there not been a critical typo on the clue sheet, and had there not been such a large variety of penalties and bonuses to factor in, and scoring methods to choose between, the race would not have been so horrendously difficult to score correctly in the first place. And all of these problems could have been easily avoided by designing the race a bit more carefully from the start. But that's just my opinion, which admittedly is probably tainted by the fact that this decision affected my teams and our crew so dramatically.

At any rate, despite everything, we still absolutely love clue solving races, and we're glad that there's so many race series out there that there's never a lack of quality events to chose from. Party on, racing teams... and party on, Wayne and Garth!

Epilogue, Part 2

On November 5, they released the new finals race results. Under the new scoring system our teams wound up in 5th and 6th place. Two other teams apparently made it to all of the mandatory checkpoints before the cutoffs, which is a very impressive accomplishment... our hats are off to them!

Our team was listed as missing two mandatory checkpoints, and therefore receiving 60 minutes of penalty. The only way that makes sense is if the scoring system still counted checkpoint #9 as a mandatory checkpoint, despite the fact that due to the typo, nowhere on the cluesheet was #9 actually listed as mandatory. If #9 was instead not considered a mandatory checkpoint, then it would have become our one free skip point, and we would have only received 30 minutes of penalty... and third place (moving us back into the money).

In Jason's blog post where he posted the updated results, he states: "Our event stands out from other adventure races in one main aspect; anyone can win". Well, at least we all agree on that point. It's certainly felt like just about any team could be awarded the win after both of his championship races.

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