"A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow." - General George S. Patton
The Great Urban Race National Championships is definitely the race we look forward to the most each year. The general format is that teams of two are handed a dozen clues at the starting line, and then they have to run around the city and return to the finish line after visiting 11 of the 12 locations revealed by solving the clues. The top eight teams from the morning race get to race again in the "Elite Eight" race in the afternoon, for a grand prize of $10,000.00!
One of the things we like about these types of races is that victory doesn't necessarily go to the team that runs the fastest, or the team that solves the clues the quickest. Instead, because of the inherent complexity of these events, victory often goes to the team that does the best at minimizing their mistakes throughout the day. There are so many ways to accidentally mess up at these things that the race is a constant balancing act between trying to go faster versus trying to ensure that you're actually doing everything correctly.
My teammate Dave and I have an interesting history at this event, in that we've crossed the finish line of the Elite Eight race first on two occasions. And both times, we wound up not winning. In the 2008 championships, we crossed first but had failed to take a picture of ourselves in front of Gameworks. (We'd gone inside and done the checkpoint challenge inside of Gameworks, and collected the required number of game tickets as proof, but we'd overlooked the fact that the clue sheet clearly stated we needed a picture of ourselves, as well.) And in the 2010 championships, we crossed first only to realize we'd left our clue sheet behind on the ground at our last checkpoint, and so we weren't able to present the stamps on the clue sheet as required. It just goes to show you how many things can go wrong at these races, and how the race rewards the teams that can perform the best under pressure.
For this race we traveled from Austin to New Orleans with four other teams. We enjoy forming a "mob" of teams for these things, because it's a lot of fun to race with your friends. So Dave and I would be working together with Marcy and John (the winners of the 2008 and 2009 GUR championships), Art and Robyn (directors of Too Cool Racing), Jim and Darin, and Tom and Spencer. Back home on their computers we had our crack team of clue solvers ready to solve the clues. And each of our teams had their own phone contact that would guide them around the city. Plus we even had a couple of folks onsite to help us out as "ground support", as the race allows certain kinds of assistance from friends on the ground.
The Morning Semi-Finals Race
"3... 2... 1... GO!", yelled the announcer, and we were off! Actually we didn't run very far at all, just a few feet to put some distance between ourselves and the mass of teams at the starting line. Then we stopped, ripped open our clue sheet, and took pictures of it to send in to our crew:
We scanned the clue sheet quickly, but didn't notice any obvious destinations right off the bat other than #2 that was way northwest up Canal Street. We saw Marcy and John take off running, so we figured that we might as well follow them southwest on Bourbon Street. We reached Canal Street and decided to cross over in hopes that some of the checkpoints were located southwest of the French Quarter, while Marcy and John decided instead to head up Canal Street.
We still didn't have a specific destination in mind, but we wandered down to a bus stop just in case it turned out a bus was coming that could take us in a useful direction. While at the bus stop we saw the St. Charles Streetcar come and go, and wondered too late if we should have caught a ride on it. But then our phone contact David Riddick (who I'll henceforth refer to as just "Riddick" to avoid the confusion between the Dave that's my teammate versus the Dave that's our phone contact) mentioned that we should head to #9, New Orleans Party and Costume, which our crew had mapped out as being located on 705 Camp Street.
#9 was only a few short blocks away, so there was certainly no point in waiting for the bus. We took off running and reached the Party and Costume shop soon enough. Here the GUR volunteers gave us a mask and had us glue on ten feathers, sequins, and glitter. Also, we found out that two of the other top teams in the nation were already here and busy working on the challenge: The Nads, and the Denver Agents. These guys always make it into the Elite Eight race and are always in the running for the big money, so we weren't surprised to see them ahead of us. They left with their completed masks, and we quickly slathered our masks with glue and did a messy mass-application of all the required accoutrements. The end result certainly wasn't pretty, but it was good enough to be approved by the volunteers.
We shoved the mask into Dave's backpack, and the volunteers also handed us an inflated balloon that we had to bring to the finish line. Hmmm... well, that certainly wasn't going to fit into the pack. I read the cluesheet to see if it was required that the balloon reach the finish line still inflated, and it didn't say so, so we wondered if we should just deflate it immediately. But I decided I might as well just tie it around my wrist and see how long it lasted, as we could run with it and it didn't really get in the way much.
We headed next towards #5. In talking to Riddick we had some confusion about whether we should head towards "Lafayette Square" or "Lafayette Street", so we took a couple of wrong turns. Then we happened upon a table set up on the sidewalk at Girod and Tchoupitoulas streets. And hey, there were GUR volunteers at the table. Looks like our navigational confusion had caused us to accidentally stumble across checkpoint #6, outside of Lucy's Surfer Bar! That pretty much never happens, but we'll certainly take advantage of ridiculous good luck when it comes our way.
We sat down on opposite sides of the table and the volunteers explained we had to use the miniature surfboard as a see-saw to "flip" the tiny plastic mermaid and monkey into the cup on the table. I managed to get one of them in on my first shot, and we thought that this was going to be easy. But it turns out that the first shot was a lucky fluke, as it took us many, many more tries before Dave finally got the second plastic toy to land into the target. We gathered up the toys as our reward (and proof of checkpoint completion), and headed on out of there.
Next we continued over to #5, at M's Coffee and Cafe on Lafayette Street. Here the volunteer handed us a sheet with five trivia questions we had to answer:
We got Riddick to look up the answers for us on the internet, and soon enough we'd filled in the sheet. The volunteer approved our answers and stamped our cluesheet, and also gave us a flyer to bring with us to the finish line.
At this point all the checkpoints that our crew had solved were back towards the French Quarter or up Canal Street, so we headed back that direction. We decided to head up Canal and get the points in that remote area. There are streetcars that follow along Canal Street, and luckily enough we were able to catch one at the French Quarter. Unfortunately the streetcar kept stopping to let more opposing teams on, so soon we had lots of competition onboard with us. Well, at least we'd all be moving at the same speed.
We spent our time on the streetcar talking to Riddick and marking upcoming checkpoints on our map. We got off a couple of blocks before #1, Chickie Wah Wah. We figured we could sprint the last couple of blocks and reach the checkpoint before the rest of the teams still in the streetcar. And we were correct... but when we got to the checkpoint, the dance instructor kept waiting for the other teams to catch up so that he could start us doing a dance lesson all at the same time. Finally everyone arrived, and the instructor said we'd have to do the dance for three minutes. The steps were pretty simple, so as we were dancing we looked around for the sign "This is not that kind of place". We knew we needed a picture of us with the sign to get credit for checkpoint, so Dave actually managed to take this picture of us, with the sign in the background, during our dance lesson. Now that's some good multi-tasking!
After three minutes were up we headed out, grabbing the two required flyers as we left. We headed west, cutting diagonally across the city blocks in an attempt to lose the teams that had been dancing with us. About eight blocks later we made it to #3, Voodoux Tattoo. Here we had to take a picture with "Bruce Willis", who apparently is a skull. Or an alligator, I'm not sure which.
We then had to get a temporary tattoo, and Dave volunteered his arm for this duty. The tattoo artist quickly applied a purple fleur-de-lis on Dave's arm, and then we were out of there with the requisite business flyer.
Outside of Voodoux Tattoo in the grassy median of Jefferson Davis Parkway we saw a couple of other teams taking their picture in front of a big marble monument. We weren't sure how that related to the race, but we figured it couldn't hurt to take our picture there as well, and see if we could figure out how it fit into the checkpoint clues later.
We scanned the clues as we ran, on the theory that the monument might be for the tic-tac-toe clue #10. We figured it might have been an attempt at the center square, which was a tomb showing a birth date prior to 1900. Well, we didn't really think that the monument was a tomb, so we certainly weren't about to presume that the picture was going to be good enough to be the center square. But while we were looking at the tic-tac-toe clues, we realized that "Jefferson Davis" parkway was a street sign that contained at least 13 letters, for the bottom right square:
Onward, along the parkway to #8, which was at the Bayou Beer Garden. We went to the back patio and saw that there was a bunch of teams there working on the checkpoint challenge. It had obviously been taking them a while, so we figured it might be tough. We learned that we'd have to anagram eight different beer names from this big collection of letters:
Yikes. Jim and Darin, one of our mob teams, was already there working on the puzzle, so we sat next to them and worked on it together. But we weren't making much progress. Jim and Darin are both beer aficionados and Jim even owns his own brewery, Twisted X Brewing Company. We figured that if even they were having trouble with this beer-related puzzle, then it was probably a very tough challenge. After a few minutes of trying we decided to give up for now, and instead continue up Canal to the farthest point. We figured we could always revisit the Beer Garden again on our way back, and perhaps by then our crew would have been able to solve the puzzle.
We ran to 4001 Canal Street for #2, where we had to donate some needed items to a charity. Conveniently enough the drop off point was located right by a Walgreens, so it wasn't difficult at all to procure the necessary goods. In fact, we wound up donating more than the race required, which we figured could only help our karma.
We ran back to the Beer Garden and surveyed the scene. Jim and Darin were still there, having been working continuously on the challenge since before we had arrived here the first time. Many other teams were also still there, and nobody seemed to be having any luck. Our support crew had no good estimate on how long it would take them to finish it. Well, then, it was time for a big decision... should we abandon this checkpoint, and head back to the French Quarter? Since we were so far from the finish line, it would be a shame to abandon this area only to find out that our crew managed to solve it later, as it would take a long time to travel back here again.
But, since the only other option was to sit tight and keep working on this difficult puzzle, Dave and I decided to keep moving and have this be one free "skip point" for the race. We headed back to Canal Street, and debated whether we should run or wait for a Canal Streetcar. The debate was settled when we spotted a streetcar in the distance coming towards us, and we were happy to wait for it to save us the long run back downtown.
Two streetcar rides in one race... for us, this was a nice change of pace from our usual poor timing when it comes to public transportation. We again made good use of our time on the rails by writing down most of the information we needed to visit the remaining points. When we made it back into the French Quarter we decided to run the rest of the way, as we knew the dense traffic in the area would slow the streetcar to a crawl. We continued towards St. Charles Avenue and found ourselves running alongside yet another opposing team that we've competed against at these things many times in the past, the father-and-son team Avenging Narwhals. We exchanged friendly banter and John Zobel mentioned that they'd had good luck in the past catching public transportation when they were running with our team, so we hoped that that pattern would continue here.
Our two teams turned the corner on to St. Charles, and sure enough... there was a streetcar ahead. It was stopped, but it looked pretty full, and there was a line of people still waiting to get on board. But as we caught up to it, we saw that a few blocks ahead of it on the track was... yet another streetcar! Should we stay with this one, or try to run up to the one ahead of us? Either choice was a risk, as it was hard to tell if either/both cars were too full to allow us to squeeze in. Since there was a line of people waiting to slowly board the trailing streetcar we decided to risk it and go for it, and run to try and catch the leading streetcar. We ran pretty fast, and fortunately the streetcar got caught at enough red lights that we were able to catch it. Well actually Eric Zobel caught it... thanks, Eric! And it turned out that there was still room enough onboard for both of our teams to fit in... whew!
So this was now our third ride of the day, which meant that our race was officially going quite well, despite the fact that we knew we hadn't visited the checkpoints in the most optimal order. It took us a while to get through the lights at Lee Circle, but then the car moved quickly, and we drove past several teams that were running in the same direction. It was nice for us not be the ones running and being passed up, for once. The only bad thing about this ride was that the balloon, which had been tied to my wrist ever since we visited our first checkpoint, finally popped. (I know you can't see it in any of our previous pictures after the checkpoint where we initially received it, but believe me, it was always with us. You can see some of the remains of the popped balloon dangling from my wrist compass in some of our next shots.) We picked up the pieces of the balloon and put them in Dave's pack, hoping that the race staff would agree with us that the clue sheet didn't say the balloon had to still be inflated (or in one piece) at the end of the race, as long as you still had it with you.
We got out and started running a couple of blocks early, and the Zobels came right along with us. At the final intersection we managed to turn the correct way to make it to #4, Magnolia Mansion, just before the Narwhals. Here we had to take our picture holding wedding umbrellas. And the volunteer also put beads around our neck here, as what would a race in New Orleans be without bead necklaces?
We ran down to Magazine Street to #11, Juan's Flying Burrito. Here they grilled up a burrito for us to eat. We told them we didn't care if it was still cold, we just wanted to get our hands on it as soon as we could. The cook handed us the burrito, and we got the required picture of us about to dig into it:
The cook then said we had to eat the entire thing. So both of us shoved half of the burrito into our mouths and we mumbled through the food "we're done". The guy laughed and handed us our sticker, and we headed out of there. The burrito actually tasted really good, but once we started running again it was too hard to eat and swallow it (and attempt to talk to Riddick at the same time), so we just spit it out and kept on moving.
We ran north on Magazine Street, crossed under the expressway, and cut over to Tchoupitoulas Street. #12 was at the Preservation Resource Center. Inside we met a couple of yoga instructors who guided us through some moves that we then had to duplicate. It wasn't too hard and it didn't take all that long to finish, and then we had to take our picture with this steamboat style dollhouse.
It was now time to head back into the French Quarter, which meant that we must be getting close to finishing! We made our way to the House of Blues for #7. Here we had yet another puzzle to solve. There were posters on the wall marked with these "hints":
We were also given a piece of paper with many blanks that had to be filled in. We probably should have taken a picture before I started filling in all the blanks with the answers, especially since the method I was using to guess the answers was all wrong, but anyways, here's what it looked like after my first misguided attempt to solve the thing:
OK, the volunteer said that was all quite incorrect, so we started communicating with Riddick and figured out that we had to look up more information on the internet to fill in the blanks correctly. I crossed out all the wrong answers, and one by one we researched the right answers, and we finally pieced it all together. The volunteer was much happier with our second attempt, and said it was indeed all correct. So we took our needed picture under the "See Good Say Good" sign.
From here it was just a few short blocks through the French Quarter to the finish line. Our ground support crew was there waiting for us, as they had procured the items we needed to complete the final tic-tac-toe clue for #10. First, they had the Cafe du Monde hats for us to wear for this photo:
And then, they had a guitar, and three harmonicas, and they rounded up four strangers to pose with us for this photo:
And just like that, we had our tic-tac-toe done, which was the final clue that we needed. We ran across the finish line and they told us that we were the first team back. Yes! Of course, we still had to verify that all of our photos were good, and that we'd brought back all the required items. Since there were a lot of items to check, this was going to take a while. Dave and I congratulated each other and joked that however we managed to get disqualified yet again today, that we would still be happy with how we'd run a good race.
One by one we showed the GUR staff the required photos and items. We found everything but the flyer from #3, Voodoux Tattoo. Uh oh, here we go again, getting ourselves knocked out of the big race by overlooking something simple like that. We looked through all of our pockets, and backpack compartments, and maps, and still couldn't find it. One GUR staffer stayed with us and kept encouraging us to just dump everything we had out on the table, as it was likely to be in there somewhere. Finally, Dave removed the empty water bladder from his Camelback, and sure enough, hiding in its folds was the final missing item. The GUR staffer screamed out in delight, "there it is!" and I swear she was somehow happier than we were to see that we'd finished without a penalty. Whew!
The Nads came in soon afterwards in second place, to nobody's great surprise. Looks like we'd be facing off against them in the Elite Eight yet again. Our mob teams of Tom and Spencer and Art and Robyn finished third and fourth. Marcy and John finished shortly afterwards... but then it turns out that they had left a different required flyer behind. Oh, man, we know exactly how that feels... and let me tell you, it's not a good feeling. Our final team of Jim and Darin didn't finish in time to be in the Elite Eight, either... but at least their perseverance paid off, because they finally did manage to finish the infamous beer anagram puzzle! (Most teams in the race wound up giving up and using that puzzle as their skip point, we learned.)
Alright, three of our five teams had qualified for the afternoon's Elite Eight race. Let's get right to it, shall we?
In Between Races
We managed to get a bit of food and drink into our systems and started reorganizing ourselves for the afternoon race. Our team thanked Riddick for being a most excellent phone contact for us in the morning race, as we'd be switching back to our usual phone contact Chris for the afternoon race. But Riddick sure did an amazing job, guiding us to win the preliminary race on his very first time as a phone contact for one of these things! In our opinion, being the phone contact is by far the toughest job when it comes to supporting a team. In fact, I'd say that being a racer is pretty much easier than being any other part of the crew...
About an hour before the second race they held the costume contest. Some of the teams were sporting fantastic and clever costumes, which is always fun to see. After the costume contest they made the official announcement of which teams had made it into the Elite Eight. The top eight teams gathered around and nervously waited for the insanity to start all over again.
Soon enough it was time for the afternoon race. The teams were led onto a "VIP Bus" that looked like a normal bus on the outside, but was decked out like a party limousine on the inside. Too bad we wouldn't be able to properly enjoy the luxury, though, as once we were all onboard they had us turn off our cellphones and put on blindfolds.
We sat in darkness as the bus drove around and around. It never felt like we got onto any major freeways, so it was difficult to guess where we were heading. After about a half an hour we were finally escorted off the bus, still blindfolded, and they arranged us in a line to await further instructions.
We took off our blindfolds to find that we were standing in front of rectangular blocks of ice. The GUR staff told us that within the ice blocks we would find six puzzle pieces, and we'd have to extract the pieces and put them together to earn our clue sheets. Each team was given a screwdriver to help break the ice. We were told we couldn't throw the ice block, or pick up rocks or other items to use against it. We were allowed to turn on our phones again, and we were instructed that once they gave the command to start we would have three hours to make it back to the finish line, or we'd be disqualified from the race. So we got our stopwatches ready, and then it was time to...
The Afternoon Finals Race
..."Go!" The eight teams started attacking their ice blocks. Dave and I first set our block on top of the screwdriver and jumped on it, which broke the ice in half. That technique didn't work well to break it down any further, though, so we switched to chipping away at the pieces with a screwdriver like everyone else. Here's our friend Tom hacking on his team's ice:
It didn't take as long as we thought it would to clear the ice down to the point where we could get to the pieces. We found our six pieces and started trying to fit them together in the required cube. We didn't have much initial luck, as it was the type of puzzle where you could easily get most of the pieces into place but then the remaining ones wouldn't fit. Here's a picture of a partially put-together cube, but who knows if it's actually on track to being completely solved:
Our team of Art and Robyn were the first in the group to solve the puzzle, and they were off and running. Great job, fellow mob team! Since we weren't making any obvious progress getting our cube together we asked the GUR folks if we could use this challenge as our skip point for the afternoon race. They replied that if we still hadn't solved the puzzle after 15 minutes from the time they said first said "go", that we would get our clue sheet at that point. To us, that's a great example of a well-thought-out structure for an initial challenge for these types of races... it gives a nice bonus to the teams that solve the puzzle quickly, but it doesn't unduly punish teams that can't solve it. If they had chosen instead to set it up so that you had to finish the puzzle before you could do any of the rest of the race, well then, a team that got stuck could very well be completely out of the running just because of one single unskippable challenge, and that (in our minds) would be very poor race design. I only mention this because we've done enough races that were poorly designed that we really appreciate the race directors that do these sorts of things right!
Our team of Tom and Spencer solved their cube a little later, and so they were off. There was apparently a photographer for the race nearby, as these pictures of Team Werewolves made it into the next day's Times-Picayune Metro newspaper:
When the 15 minute puzzle timer had wound down to under two minutes left, Dave and I stopped attempting to solve the cube puzzle altogether, and instead focused on getting ourselves organized and ready to run again. At the end of the 15 minutes it was only us and one other team left, and then the other team solved their cube with only a second to spare! Ah, well, that makes us the only Elite Eight team that wasn't able to perform at a very elite level so far, I suppose. That's OK, we were ready to set off and try and chase down the competition. We finally got our clue sheets for the race:
We talked with Chris, figured out our location and gained our bearings, and he told us to head west. Hey, we were running into the French Quarter again. It turns out that on the bus ride when we felt like we were riding in circles, we literally were riding in circles, as we'd driven a long ways but then wound up just a few blocks away from the start. These GUR folks sure are tricky!
Chris initially had us heading towards one checkpoint, but then as we were running through the French Market he changed his mind and started turning us about so we could head instead to #3, Margaritaville. At that point something very surreal happened... a random vendor in the French Market heard us asking Chris on the phone which way we should go to get to Margaritaville, and the vendor interrupted us and excitedly told us he would take us right there. Um, OK, but would he be able to move as quickly as we wanted? Turns out, he could move even faster than that... he took off sprinting through the market, yelling, "Follow me, boys!" And so we did. He dodged his way through the pedestrian traffic like he was doing the race himself, and we barely managed to keep up with him. True to his word, he led us directly to Margaritaville. I'm not sure why he was so eager to help us (perhaps he thought we were doing The Amazing Race and he was hoping to be on TV?), but we were certainly glad that he did, and we thanked him profusely. What a very cool random act of kindness.
At Margaritaville we were handed two instruction sheets for the next challenge:
We started talking to Chris and trying to figure out which cities were in the right time zone. We figured out a couple of the major cities, but a lot of the cities were very small and so it turned out to be a bit difficult to quickly research where they were located. Tom and Spencer then entered the bar, and took one look at the challenge instructions and decided to use a brute force solution by not even making any guesses, and instead immediately opted to take the maximum penalty, which was drinking four frozen daiquiris. We saw the size of the drinks and decided that that wasn't a bad strategy at all (thanks for the idea, Tom and Spencer!). But we also figured we might as well guess at the cities and see if we'd get lucky and minimize the amount we had to drink.
So we circled 20 cities on the paper at random and turned it in. We wound up guessing 11 correctly, so we only had to drink two daiquiris. Considering you had to drink one daiquiri even if you got them all correct, that wasn't that bad of a penalty at all. Dave and I quickly polished off the first drink. By the time we started on the second one, though, it was much slower going because the "brain freeze" started kicking in. But we kept at it and were through it reasonably quickly. We were glad that we didn't have to drink all four. And our crew was glad that they got to stop working on the time zone puzzle.
Next we headed to #4, at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Well actually we accidentally went into the wrong Voodoo store first... turns out that there's several Voodoo shops located close together in the French Quarter so it's easy to get confused like that. Only in New Orleans! The owner of the incorrect store was apparently used to this sort of thing as he immediately gave us perfect directions on how to get to the one we were actually looking for.
Inside the Voodoo Museum, we found a man holding a snake for us to take our picture with. I had to hold the snake while Dave kissed it on the head. It almost looks like I'm kissing Dave's head in the picture, which we figure should be good for some kind of bonus points:
We left the Voodoo district and headed up to Rampart Street for #5, at the New Orleans Courtyard Hotel. Here the GUR staffer gave us a murder mystery to solve. We were given a hotel room key, a couple of black lights, and a sheet that had pictures of the six suspects. And there was another sheet that gave us background information about the murder. We quickly skimmed through the story, and nothing really stood out in the story as being obviously a clue to solving the murder, so we went into the challenge figuring the tale was mostly designed to throw us off track:
Obviously we needed to go to the hotel room and figure out more if we were to solve this mystery. The room was up the stairs, then along a winding outside balcony. We used the key to get in, and did an initial search of the room. The room was pristine and nothing was out of place, so there were no obvious clues laying out. But we figured that surely the black lights were going to come into play here, so we turned off all the lights in the room and started shining the black lights around. Sure enough, in the bathroom I spotted some hidden ink that showed up in the ultraviolet light, that said "necklace" (and also had a drawing of a necklace). Then Dave found another glowing note in the bedroom that said "hat" (and also had a drawing of a hat). Looking at the suspect's pictures sheet, some were wearing necklaces (and some weren't), and some were wearing hats (and some weren't), so obviously these clues meant we could narrow the murderer down to the ones with both a necklace and a hat.
That left us with two suspects, one wearing sunglasses and one not. We kept shining our blacklights around, looking for the final clue that would narrow it down to just one suspect. The problem was that the front room of the suite had too much sunlight coming in the window for the blacklights to work. When we first came into the hotel room we hadn't noticed that outside the main door there were actually wooden shutters on the windows you could close (I guess we're not the most observant detectives), so we looked for other ways to block out the sunlight. Dave grabbed one of the bedspreads and held it up to cover the window, while I wandered around looking for the clue, but it was still too bright. Finally, while we still couldn't find the third clue, we reasoned that it was almost certainly would say "sunglasses" (and have a drawing of a pair of sunglasses), because you couldn't very well draw a picture representing the absence of sunglasses, could you?
So we circled our guess, suspect #2. We headed out and back down the stairs, and then spied Tom and Spencer going down the stairs ahead of us as well. Ah, each of the eight teams got their own room to work with, how very cool! Tom and Spencer showed the GUR staffer their guess, and it was correct. Then we held our breath as the staffer looked at our guess, and... whew, it was correct, as well! So we'd taken a bit of a risk on that puzzle, but it was a fairly educated guess, so it wasn't that reckless, in my mind.
Chris announced it was time for us to head out of the French Quarter to the northwest. He gave us the option of running to Canal Street and hoping for a trolley, or taking a more direct route by running straight up Orleans Avenue. We didn't want to travel extra blocks over to Canal and back if we couldn't be sure of getting lucky with the streetcars, so we opted for the direct running option. We initially tried to cut through Louis Armstrong Park, but the entrance was very much fenced off, so we ran around the park instead. Time for a long jog up Orleans. As we ran Dave and I skimmed the "bingo" clues for #12, trying to figure out which scavenger hunt items could make for an easy five-in-a-row in the grid.
One of the bingo clues that seemed like it should be easy was the photo of one of us on a low-hanging tree branch, so we started looking for good trees as we ran. We passed several dozen that were too small and scraggly for the job, but then Dave spotted a more solid one and he told me to hop up onto it:
Well, that's one bingo part done, only four more to go if we were lucky enough to do it optimally (or three, if we used the diagonal through the "free spot" in the center). We finally made it to #10, which was a challenge set up on a bayou. One of us had to paddle a kayak and one of us had to run around to the other side of the bayou. Well, that was an easy decision for our team, as I love to run and Dave loves to paddle, so I took off running while Dave set about getting situated in the boat. It turns out Dave had to move the kayak without using a paddle, instead he was given these fin-mitten things to wear on his hands, and he had to hand-paddle his way across. Not as fun as real paddling, so Dave kind of got the raw end of that deal.
When Dave made it over to the other bank he had to sit still in the boat while I attempted to throw a hula hoop around him from about 20 feet away. I must confess that my throwing pretty much sucked, and then the wind started kicking up and it sucked even more. It probably took us about 20 tries before one lucky hoop bounced off the ground in front of Dave, and then it hopped up and over his body. We looked to the volunteer and asked if that was good enough, and he decided to be merciful since he could tell we'd probably be out there all day otherwise, so we were set. We fetched all the hoops out of the water and placed them back behind the throw line, then traveled back to the other side where we'd started.
We asked the kayak volunteers if we were the first team there, and they said no, more like the third or fourth. Bummer, we hadn't even seen the lead teams anywhere around as we were coming into this area. We wondered if they'd gotten lucky with a well-timed streetcar up Canal Street on their way here. We also supposed that they could have gotten here faster if they'd just come here first instead of getting the checkpoints we'd already done back in the French Quarter. Or, you know, they could have already finished the whole race because we were so slow on the initial ice puzzle. Whatever, there was no way of knowing for sure, and nothing we could do about it anyways, so we might as well keep on racing like we were in it to win it.
#6 was less than two blocks away at Armstrong's Supply. Here one of us would be blindfolded in a car, and the other teammate had to guide him to parallel park between two cones. We decided Dave should drive and I should give instructions. After an initial over-steer we quickly got into the groove in communicating directions to each other, and we efficiently executed a perfect parallel park on our first try. Sweet.
That was it for the checkpoints way up here, so it was time to travel back south again. This time there was no reason to stay on Orleans Avenue, so we gladly cut over to Canal Street and hoped that we get lucky with streetcars yet again. As we were approaching Canal we saw a little kid's playground slide, and we asked Chris if we should get our photo on it as we knew that that was another Bingo clue. Chris told us not to bother, as our ground support crew had already gathered up all the items required for us to get a five in a row in another direction. Wow, that's awesome, one less thing to worry about!
Then it seemed that luck was against us as we saw a streetcar go by when we were still a good two blocks away from Canal, and it wasn't slowing down. We turned the corner and thought that we had no chance to catch it, but then it started slowing down for a light further on. Well, it was now quite a ways in front of us, but we figured we might as well give it a shot. We sprinted all out, chasing after the trolley. It started moving again and we figured all was lost, but then it stopped at the next light and we redoubled our running efforts. When I got within a couple of blocks of it I started yelling my head off for it to wait, hoping that the driver would hear me (and decide to be nice). Fortunately, it didn't move again until we reached it and got on board, which was good because if we had to chase it any longer we probably wouldn't have been able to keep up anymore.
We sat down for our well-earned mid-race rest and got busy figuring out the layout of the rest of the course. We took the streetcar all the way back to the French Quarter, then when it started going too slow through the heavy traffic there we got out a couple blocks early and ran the rest of the way towards the river. We were heading to the Riverwalk Marketplace for #7 and #9. They'd already told us at the start that the original challenge for #7 had been cancelled. #7 involved us looking through binoculars to read a trivia question posted on a banner on the other side of river. Unfortunately, a cruise ship had parked itself in front of the banner, making this challenge impossible to complete! So instead they said we now just had to find a volunteer by the binoculars who would give us the trivia question, and we had to write the question and the answer on our clue sheet. It turns out that the question was "What is the official State Dog of Louisiana?" and the answer was "Catahoula Leopard Dog". We're bummed we didn't get to use the binoculars, as that was a very cool idea for a challenge! This checkpoint also required a picture of us in front of a Riverwalk sign:
We headed into Southern Food & Beverage Museum for #9. Here we had to stomp grapes until we'd produced a certain amount of juice. The volunteer instructed us to take our shoes off for this, and Dave asked if we were allowed to keep them on, and the volunteer said sure. Great call, Dave, as not only did we not waste time removing our shoes, but the stomping of the grapes was a lot more effective with a larger and more solid surface area. We both had our own buckets to work with, and after only about a minute of stomping we had more than enough juice to be done with the challenge.
Our last out-and-back checkpoint was south to #1, at 800 Race Street. An appropriate street name for this event, indeed. Here we were strapped onto stilts that were about four feet tall. Neat! The volunteers helped us stand up and even held us up a bit to keep us balanced. We had to walk across the large room, grab a balloon that was taped to the far wall, and turn around and come back with it. While this would have been very difficult if the volunteers didn't give us any balancing help, with them assisting us it was easy. So Dave and I got into a good walking rhythm and we raced each other across and back. Fun!
From here it was pretty much a straight shot run back to the finish line. But, we would have to hit a couple of checkpoints along the way. First was #8 at a hotel on 700 Tchoupitoulas. As we were running that way we came across John Zobel. His Avenging Narwhals team hadn't made it into the Elite Eight this time, and so he was doing ground support for the Nads now instead of racing. We asked him how the Nads were doing, and he admitted that we were probably just ahead of them, as they were on their way to the stilts challenge. Well, if they'd already completed the final checkpoints that we still had to do ourselves, we could only hope that we were able to finish our remaining challenges quick enough to stay ahead of them! (After it was all over we later found out that at this point in the race, the Nads only had the stilts checkpoint left to do!)
We ran into the hotel and found the conference room with the memory challenge. We were given 35 foam tiles that had pictures of teams doing fun things at various GUR races. We had to run over to the other side of the room, study a master solution board that told us where to position each of the tiles, and then run back over to our table and attempt to recreate the solution with our 35 tiles. Each time we went back to consult the master board we had to do five jumping jacks and five pushups as a penalty. Well, that penalty wasn't too bad, so we only attempted to memorize a row at a time on each trip. It's not like we were in any condition to memorize any more than that by that time in the race, anyways. We made a few mistakes, but figured out a decent method to double-check and correct them, and we were through the challenge fairly quickly.
We hoped we were still ahead of the Nads (not to mention all the other teams, that we'd pretty much not seen at all since the start of this race) as we headed back into the French Quarter for #2, at Acme Oyster House. We climbed up the stairs to find the volunteers inside, who told us we had to arrange some dominoes. We had to have the domino path hit a couple of points marked on the floor, and then finish by hitting a lever on a little plastic toy that released an oyster that rolled down a ramp. I started setting up dominoes from the front, and Dave started at the back. Dave accidentally knocked over his dominoes early on, which turned out to be a happy accident as that accidental knock-down failed to hit the lever hard enough to release the oyster.
So now we knew we needed to make a better solution at the end to ensure the lever would go off. Dave set up double-dominoes at the end, and put them close together, and ran a quick test, and it turned out that that that was enough weight to do the job. So he quickly set up the double-dominoes at the end again, and by now my chain from the beginning was just about ready to reach his point, so we carefully connected the line together. We made sure the volunteer was watching, and set off the domino chain. We held our breath as the dominoes made it around each corner, and then they hit the lever, and... success! The pearl rolled down the ramp, and we received some pearls as proof of finishing it. Plus, we had to take our picture outside of the place:
We were so close to the finish line at this point, less than three blocks away! Marcy had shown up as ground support to lead us in. She made sure we were running the right way and then sprinted ahead to alert the rest of our ground support crew that we were coming. They needed to be ready for us because they had all of the remaining scavenger hunt items we needed for the #10 bingo clue. We spotted them waiting for us and they quickly took over, taking our camera and guiding us through the final pictures in a whirlwind of efficient activity. First they put green feathered boas on us and took this picture:
Then they gave us bottles of Tabasco hot sauce and told us to pretend we were feeding the sauce to each other for this photo:
Then they handed us a Mardi Gras beaded necklace, and a penny, and told us to go cross that finish line! So fifteen feet later, that's what we did. Hoowah! Everyone was cheering really loudly, and we didn't see any other teams hanging around there yet, so that was a good sign. We asked if we were the first team back, and the camera checker replied that we were, so that was another good sign.
But, of course, we still had to show that we had all the required items and pictures. Given that we've been in this exact same position two times before and we'd gotten disqualified each time, we weren't about to celebrate until it was official. She asked for our clue sheet first, and we laughed, as of course she was referring to the previous year when we'd left it behind. This time we still had it! I'm guessing that Marcy went to watch us do the final domino challenge just to make sure we remembered to pick all our stuff up before we left. (Thanks, Marcy!)
One by one she checked off our pictures and items. About half way through checking our stuff, another big cheer erupted as a team in white shirts crossed the line! We congratulated them on finishing right behind us, but they said they weren't actually in the running, as they knew they had at least one penalty. Then the Nads crossed the line! Wow, they were only about five minutes behind us. I guess that pretty much means there's no way we'd win this thing if we got a half hour penalty for screwing up a checkpoint. Not that we had expected that the race would be winnable with a penalty. Our teams took a moment to congratulate each other for being such close competition in both races, as we'd finished one-and-two in the morning race as well.
The GUR lady continued checking our items, and then she stopped and asked where our 20 yellow beads were. 20 yellow beads? What was she talking about? Was she talking about the beaded necklace? No, she was talking about 20 yellow beads. We didn't remember ever receiving beads, or needing them, so we briefly panicked, and then we realized that that was the item required for #11. Which we had skipped. Which was fine, because you're allowed one free skip per race. Whew!
So, continuing on... good picture, good item, good picture, good item... and... we were declared "penalty-free"! We had won! We had actually finally really truly officially won! Wow, what a huge relief. If we'd been disqualified this close to the trophy for a third time in a row I think I would have had to retire out of shame. Though as it turns out, when the final results were announced, it looks like every other one of the Elite Eight teams received at least one 30 minute penalty. That means this was the first year where we actually could have received a checkpoint penalty, and still won the race... so of course we chose this year to be the first year where we managed to not receive a penalty! That's just how we roll.
Speaking of #11, it turns out that that was a pretty good choice to skip, as the challenge was kind of nasty. You had to find the afore-mentioned 20 yellow beads in bowls of rice and flour without using your hands. A pretty messy proposition. Here's pictures of Robyn and Art doing the challenge, and Tom and Spencer after finishing it:
We informed our crew of the great news, that all of their hard work would not be for nothing this year. And there was much rejoicing. They kept working on getting the teams of Tom & Spencer and Art & Robyn back to the finish line, but they also let them know that there was no particular need to hurry anymore if they didn't want to. All the Elite Eight teams started crossing the line fairly soon after that point, as they pretty much had to come and finish before the three hour cutoff even if they still had checkpoints left to get.
We'd finally reached the point where there was nothing left to worry about, no further race details to stress over. We were free! Free to celebrate! GUR was nice enough to not start the party until 8pm, giving all the Elite Eight teams time to go shower and change. The end party at the Oceana Grill was awesome, with free drinks and great food. And great company, as even opposing teams at these things are friendly to each other and just happy to be part of such an amazingly fun event. We got a picture of us posing with the giant check along with our invaluable ground support Zack:
Thanks to the Great Urban Race for yet again setting up an amazing championship race course. Your obsessive attention to detail really elevates your events above those of other race series. Your races are always of the highest quality and incredibly fun to compete in. It's fairly safe to say that we're pretty addicted to your particular brand of wacky entertainment!
As for all of our support crew, and our fellow "mob" racing teams, our phone contacts, and my amazing teammate Dave, it's hard to put into words how thankful I am for you guys. There's no way that Dave and I would have won this thing if it weren't for several dozens of little things you guys did all throughout the day to keep us on track. There are so many ways that you made this victory possible that if I listed them all in detail this report would go on twice as long, and even then I'm sure I'd still be overlooking many contributions that happened behind the scenes that I'm blissfully unaware of. Thanks for being part of our group, thanks for putting up with the frustrations of race day, and thanks for being on our side! The phrase "we couldn't have done it without you" seems like such an inadequate cliché to use here, but it's also ridiculously applicable. Without you, Dave and I would still be out there trying to finish the morning race!
So......... who's looking forward to more racing next year?!
Here's the Times-Picayune Metro article about the event:
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