For the first time ever, we had the opportunity to race in two urban race championships on consecutive weekends. This time the prize was $12,345.67, definitely worth playing for. We have had good luck in Las Vegas in past races - what would be in the cards for us today?
Cards, indeed. As soon as we checked in for the race at the Cheeseburger Restaurant in the Miracle Mile shops, we were given 10 playing cards and ushered into a room with long tables. Various theories floating about regarding the cards, but I liked the one proposed by the team next to us - building a house of cards. She remarked that the cards were pretty slippery for that, so I sat there rubbing on them a bit to try to give them some traction just in case.
While we were waiting for the start, we studied the rules sheet we had been given:
There was nothing more about the rule from the High Trek website: "Teams may not follow/spy on other teams to aid another team. The following of other teams is not allowed in either championship race (1st or 2nd race): Team A follows team B. Team A then tells team C what TREKpoint team B found." We had already pledged that if for some strange reason we actually ended up following another team in order to figure out a clue, we would make sure to follow the website rule and not tell anyone else what we had found.
What did matter was that "ground support" (friends helping us on the course) was not allowed. We had a friend who was in town anyway who was going to help, but we let him know that he could no longer do that. At least we had not brought anyone to Las Vegas just for this, but it would have been nice to know this rule ahead of time.
OK, time to get started. The race director told us we would indeed be building a tower of cards, with three upside-down V's on the bottom floor, two flat cards for the inter-layer, and one more upside-down V on top. If we couldn't do it in 20 minutes, they would give us our clue sheets anyway. We cleared some space, slid our table away from the next one to allow people to stand between then, and readied our hands and cards. And... go!
The racers next to us were definitely the experts on card stacking, and they were among the first to finish. I started working on the bottom floor, casually asking if John had done this very much. Never in his life, he replied. What? Really? So much for my challenge ace in the hole, I guess this one was up to me. I got the first 3 V's in place and John gently dropped two cards flat on top of them. The top V gave me fits - the cards kept sliding apart and soon the whole tower toppled.
Let's try again - my hands were shaking but I tried to stay calm. Another 3 V's, 2 cards from John, then he suggested I make the top V rather steep. Carefully, gently, I set the cards down and got them to stay. "Done!" we cried, and we got our clue sheets somewhere in the mid-pack. The tower from the team next to us was still standing through all of this - impressive!
Time to check out our clue sheets:
The first thing I noticed was "UNLV" in a couple of the clues, so we started in that direction, running east on Harmon Avenue. I juggled the three clue sheets to get a better idea of what we would be doing. I also got on the phone with Sheila at that point, as our phone reception in the starting room wasn't very good. A bit more juggling and we were finally just running as I continued to try to read.
I saw that the bonus required a photo with a real live celebrity (and the Amazing Racers who were racing apparently didn't count, which is really for the best, for their sake!). We were pretty sure we were going to ignore that one, even though the bonus time wasn't stated on the clue sheet. We have been in Las Vegas a couple times and never spotted anyone famous just wandering around.
Q9 was supposed to be relatively close to the Hard Rock Cafe, and we were running right by it when I noticed this. I started reading the clue closer, finally deciding we were looking for something related to a Double Eagle. I don't watch a lot of golf, but occasionally I know a little bit about sports. We didn't see anything like that on Harmon Avenue, so we continued into UNLV.
It looked like we would find two clues here: Q1 and Q4. We had seen the wheelchair sports course in the previous week, I just needed to figure out the right route to get to the North Mall. I led the way around a building and spotted the grassy area I was looking for. Score! There were several signs along the course, so John and I checked them until we found the right one:
The Alta Ham Fine Arts building was on the other end of the North Mall, so we headed east. Along the way we noticed groups of spectators and some signs about some kind of walk. People started cheering for us, which was pretty funny. We even passed a water station, but didn't see the walkers starting yet.
We were the first ones inside the Fine Arts building, which I think was a blessing AND a curse. The Improv Troupe explained that we had to play an improv game and that we would only fail if we just refused to play along. In our case, we had to look at a pen cap and throw out all the possible things someone might do with that pen cap. With help from the volunteer, we started yelling various random thoughts that were really not funny (although John would have used it as a rappel device, which I appreciated). Every time we started to think that might be good enough, the guy kept wanting us to do more. It didn't help that no one else had come in the room yet. I was thinking, "You're going to spend 10 minutes with each of the teams this morning??"
Finally he got to the point where we had to sing a little pen cap song, then he let us go. We asked about a stamp or something to prove we were there? Oh, you need a picture with the guy on stage, they said - OK, now we were finally done!
Sheila told us that the next spot was on Flamingo Road, and we had missed a bus going back to the west. Time to run a bit. I led the way out of the campus and down Flamingo, reviewing our next two targets. When we found Verona Pizza we stopped for our Q2 photo:
The "Double Eagle" answer was on Koval Lane, so we turned north on Koval and ran toward the Double Eagle Steak House for our answer to Q9:
Next we had a discussion about route choices - going north vs. south, and which clue to skip. We had a bit of miscommunication about where the finish line was located, and we thought there was a clue up at the Circus Circus casino. We knew Circus Circus was quite a ways north, so we finally decided to skip that one. Lucky we did, because both the crew and I had that one wrong - Q8 was actually at New York, New York casino (d'oh!).
Crisis Unknowingly Averted, we ran north to Sands Avenue and then toward the Fashion Show Mall on Las Vegas Boulevard (which I'll just call the Strip from now on, and I'm sure I could have gotten away with it this time too). We crossed over to the mall and located Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba. I totally didn't realize we actually needed to find the Stripburger with the awning that said "Burgers, Shakes, and Cakes. We got this photo instead:
So, a couple of things:
1) Stripburger seems to be owned by Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba and might be the same restaurant? On their website they are called "Stripburger at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba" and they have the same location number on the Fashion Show Mall map. Then again, it might be a separate entity right next door. I will have to go back to Las Vegas sometime and check this out.
2) The RD could have easily given us a 30-minute penalty for this photo. But we still would have made it into the top 10 and the afternoon race, so the end result was effectively the same.
Phew! Another Crisis Unknowingly Averted. That's a lot more CUA's per hour than we normally have. Or maybe not, and we just don't know about all of them...
Now it was time to really start focusing on the one-dollar bills that we needed for Q7 (with "L" or "V" in the serial number). I had two in my pocket but we would have to swap some cash for 8 more. We debated going inside the mall but decided instead to try something closer to our running route.
Heading south, John first tried asking the guys selling water ($1 each). They apparently weren't doing much business, or didn't want to get involved in whatever it was we were doing, because they all said they didn't have any dollar bills. Then he tried the Salvation Army bell ringer, who apparently wasn't doing much business either (even though John started offering a tip for the help). A group of tourists seemed to take interest in John's explanation, but didn't end up pulling bills out of their pockets. Nice tries, but it was time to move on and find a real store later.
We also had to get a photo with 20 people on a crosswalk over or next to the Strip. It would have been much more interesting and fun getting 5 people in front of the Bellagio fountains while the fountains were actually running, but the fountain show didn't start until noon and we just didn't have a whole hour to sit around and wait for that. So we would have to round up 20 people, again.
Neither John nor I felt much like gathering up a crowd at that point, so we continued south to Caesar's Palace and the Brahma Shrine for Q5:
Then it was more southern running toward New York, New York. Staying on the west side of the Strip involved running through a construction zone and narrow walkway, but that seemed quicker than trying to cross the street at that point. We dodged tourists, ran when we could, walked when we had to, and mostly had good luck getting through there. I was just happy we only had to do that one time.
Finally we found the casino and Rich Little's star:
Now we had one more shot at the pedestrian walkway picture as we crossed the Strip toward MGM Grand. We hoped to wait for a large group of people traveling together, but there were only a few at a time and finally we started shouting that we needed help, we were on a race (like the Amazing Race!) and we needed 20 people. Yay! Please help us! The nice thing is that if you can snag a couple enthusiastic people, they start getting into the fun of it and calling people over too. Finally we had 20 helpful folks and someone take this shot:
Thank you everyone!
Enough of that. Time to finish this thing up! We just needed 8 dollar bills and we would be done. John took off on a mission, passing up a couple possible places like McDonalds and Denny's. He was aiming for the convenience stores, possibly even the Miya Biya (Urban Challenge 2002 finals checkpoint, for all you urban racing buffs).
He tried one store while I went next door. Two women at the counter did not appear busy and there were only a couple people in the store, so I went up to explain how they could perhaps help us if they didn't mind? No, definitely not, replied the storeowner, because she was busy. I pleaded with her, joined by John who came in behind me. We told her we would give her extra money back, and it was really important, a race for $12,000!
A random shopper behind us offered to help, and the woman finally relented, looking at me suspiciously. They went through the cash drawer and quickly came up with the singles that we needed. We gave huge thanks and an extra couple of bucks. I don't think I'd want to work on the Strip with all these crazy tourists!
We ran along the closed lane of the street, which worked much better than the sidewalk. That was a nice change from the crowds. We turned up Harmon Avenue and dashed into the side entrance to the Miracle Mile shops. Crossing the finish line, we learned we were in second place behind Kip and Dave. Nice job, guys! Our photos were deemed to be good and we were in the finals.
We weren't given a precise time for the start of the finals race, just an estimate of 45 minutes after the 10th place team finished. John stayed around that area while I hurried back to our room to recharge our various electronic items and get a bite to eat. It turned out that the other three Austin teams also qualified for the afternoon race - well done!
Soon we were all back in the race room at the Cheeseburger restaurant. The afternoon race started with the playing cards again, but this time we had a dealer to help with the starting challenge. One person from each team would play Blackjack until they won three hands. Neat! There was a small twist in that the first 5 teams from the morning race would play first, then the second 5 would begin their game a few minutes later and on a separate "race clock". So it might not be immediately clear at the finish line who the winning team would be. If only the ending were that simple.
A larger twist appeared in the form of some local cross-country runners. Each racing team would be assigned a "kid" who would follow them around the course, apparently to ensure that no one cheated (as long as the runners could keep up with everyone, which wasn't exactly the case across the board). Kyle was assigned to us, and he was plenty fast. He was fun to have around, plus we highly support the idea of making sure no one does anything outside the rules.
Time for some Blackjack! We didn't have a ton of luck, and we ended up the final of the first five teams to get our clue sheets, but we didn't lose too much time. We ran out of the restaurant and scanned our first clue sheet to see where to start:
Q1 was again on UNLV, so again we bolted in that direction. We figured that three of the five clues were back in the area of the Strip, so we would get Q1 and Q4 first and then return there. We were allowed one skip out of 10 TREKpoints, but wanted to save it for the second half or unless our crew had any problems figuring something out. But wait! Where will we need to pick up our second clue sheet? I quickly looked at the bottom of the clues and found that we would be going to Margaritaville on the Strip. OK, no problem going to UNLV first.
On the way our crew solved Q4 and Sheila gave us directions to the correct building where we took this picture:
Then we ran up the East Mall to the Rose Garden for our Q1 photo:
We briefly discussed heading out to Flamingo Road to try to catch a bus, but then Sheila told us that Q3 was back on Harmon Avenue. So we cut back across to the road we had run in on, and started back west. Along the way we passed a couple teams running in the other direction. Go teams!
I still couldn't keep up with John's monster pace, but he finally felt good enough about his knee to hand me the towline. Sweet! With the assistance from the tow, I was so much more comfortable on the way back from UNLV. Thank you, John!
We found the answer to Q3 and took our photo (with Kyle!):
Next we cut down Audrie Street to avoid the Strip as long as possible. I briefly wondered if this was a mistake, as there were extra fences and security guys all over the place for the big boxing match that evening. But the street out to the Strip was still clear, so we were good to go.
We came around the corner and turned into GameWorks, heading down the escalators to the arcade. We hit a bit of a roadblock when we couldn't get the card purchase machine to accept dollar bills, the lady at the counter was really busy, and then none of the Skeeball machines would accept the card we just bought. John finally cajoled the woman to come help us, and she asked (rather miffed) just what we were doing this scavenger hunt for? "$12,000," John answered, and that got her attention. She swiped the card a couple times, I watched to figure out how to make it work, and finally the game was on.
John was rolling balls up the ramp while I began a game next to him. We both started hitting 30-40 pointers, tickets were popping out of the machines, and soon we had more than 20 total. Nice! Skeeball is one of my favorite arcade games. Maybe next year we'll have to play Dance Dance Revolution - fun to play, even more fun to watch John.
We collected the tickets and ran up the escalator to get our required photo:
One more photo before we could get our next clue sheet - we needed to find a Deuce bus in front of a bus stop. That was the hard part. The "10 strangers" requirement would be easy - there were always crowds of people waiting to get on the Deuce. We found the closest bus stop and looked south to see a bus approaching. Sweet! We talked to a couple people at the stop, and they were ready and very willing to help us with our photo.
The bus took a while to approach because the traffic was moving extremely slowly. Suddenly we realized that the construction lane might prevent the bus from pulling over at the stop. John ran toward the bus, waving as if to ask if the bus was going to pull in. Luckily the driver was willing to give a response in the form of a gesture, but unluckily the gesture was, "Sorry, I can't stop there." And the bus would be too far from the stop to make the photo work.
Arrgh. Time to run. Looking north we saw gridlocked traffic, so we figured we might outrun the bus to the next stop. We took off along the closed construction lane, which worked well until the lane ended near Planet Hollywood. I dodged pedestrians along the sidewalk and John tried to keep up. We watched the bus, which was moving a bit faster now, but we were still staying slightly ahead of it.
Finally I found the next bus stop, and there were also a ton of people there. I called back to John to get up there, because the bus was pulling in. Not that it was leaving anytime soon... After apologizing to the first folks in line to let them know I wasn't trying to cut, we got the camera set up. Then we yelled, "Hey, look over here!" as loud as we could, looked up at the camera, and got this shot:
From there we ran north some more, just missing the light at Flamingo Road, and therefore crossing over the top on the crosswalk. Running around Flamingo casino, I saw a sign for Margaritaville and headed in. Ooh, this place is big! John noted that we were still in the casino, not in Margaritaville. That's better!
We finally found the bar and started searching for the woman who had been the dealer for our earlier Blackjack game. Kip and Dave appeared and we all searched around. Finally John motioned that they had found her at the bar. She didn't seem all that concerned about my asking, "May I please have my next five clues," she just needed to see our camera to verify that we had five different photos of something on it.
That done, we got our clues and headed outside. Suddenly Dave said something about needing to take a picture with the lady too - right! Too many things to think about at once! We all went back inside and gathered around the woman, who seemed surprised that we needed a photo with her. She was game to hang out with us for that, even with two cameras pointed at her from different directions:
One more clue sheet!
It was immediately clear that we needed to go downtown for at least a couple of these clues. We all started running north, Kyle keeping up as we dodged more pedestrians and ran on the side of the road for a bit. John mentioned that his knee probably couldn't handle running all the way to downtown. OK, then we need to get on a bus. Sheila checked the bus schedules and found we had just missed the #116 bus. Bummer! Now we have to wait for the Deuce.
We found a stop next to the Venetian where we caught our breath and caught up on the clue sheet. John had seen the church mural while walking around downtown, so I called in the approximate location. I knew the answer to Q7 and we had a pretty good idea where to find it. I read in Q9, with the explanation that it would be like wrestling, professional vs. Greco-Roman. We all decided we'd prefer to skip Q8 compared to the other three easier clues. If we could have been instantly transported to downtown, we would have been golden.
As it was, we had to wait a while for the bus, and then we had to wait while a ton of people got on and paid and finally someone got out of the stairwell so the bus could move again. We went to the top level and started plotting a route around downtown. We suspected that there were at least two other teams on the bus with us, but it was so packed it was hard to know for sure. I looked back to see Dannel and Joel from Portland and we waved at each other.
It was clear that we had better have a good idea how we were getting back from downtown, as the teams were starting to pile into one big group. Kip and Dave decided to take one route and we would go in reverse, each trying a different bus back to give our group more chances of picking the fastest way.
Along the way, we noticed the team in white shirts running alongside the bus. We figured they would get on, but then the bus would stop and they would be running ahead of it again. We leapfrogged them a couple times, not finding out until later that the bus driver was no longer letting people on because the bus was too full. Ouch.
The bus made an unexpected turn up 4th Street, which was odd but didn't seem to matter too much. Kip and Dave plus Richard and Chris got off near Bonneville Avenue to start on the south end. We rode a couple blocks north and got off near Fremont Street. We initially took an incorrect turn, as I forgot we were on 4th Street and not Las Vegas Boulevard, but soon corrected ourselves and went back to find the neon milkman:
Back on track, we made short work on the run to the church. John was hobbling noticeably and I was suddenly running faster than he was, but we were soon at the next checkpoint:
We saw other teams as we headed south to our final downtown location:
That was fast! Time to get back. We had planned to try to catch the #108 bus on Main Street, but we wondered whether the #116 bus on Casino Center Boulevard might not have gone by yet - we thought we had missed it, but we had not seen it while running south on that street. So we headed to Casino Center first, but we didn't see any bus stops there and the street appeared to be under construction.
We gave up and returned to Main Street to wait for the #108 bus. I crossed Bonneville, expecting to see a bus stop just past the intersection like all the other bus stops I had found so far in Las Vegas. But there wasn't a bus stop there! And in the distance up Main Street, there was a bus coming! Uh oh...
Apparently I hadn't noticed the bus stop just BEFORE the intersection. Plus I didn't realize that the bus routes were all supposed to head west on Bonneville from there. Ignorantly, I started running south on Main Street, looking for the next bus stop. John cantered along behind me, as I ran as hard as I could.
I started glancing back, and the bus was still coming. No bus stop, bus still coming, no bus stop, yikes! Desperately, I turned around and started waving my arms, giving the driver a pleading look. A miracle!! He decided to stop. As we got on, I told him I loved him. He didn't seem all that impressed.
We collapsed in the seats (except Kyle who was hardly breathing hard at all) and collected ourselves. I told Sheila we had caught the bus, thank goodness. John asked the bus driver where we could get off to catch the Monorail, but the driver told him that the bus wouldn't come near the Strip until the Fashion Show Mall area. Huh? Which bus are we on, exactly? We had somehow caught the #116 bus, which had been on detour due to the construction, and we didn't even know it until then. We were the only team on the bus, and we were headed almost directly back to the finish line. How stupidly lucky can you get?
Apparently a bunch of other teams took the Deuce back, including the Portland team who had just missed the bus we were now riding. Some moved over to the Monorail and others went all the way back on the Deuce.
Our bus made good time until just before Harmon Avenue where we hit traffic, but we were close enough to get off a bit early and run. John was stoked to push the last couple of blocks, and he was now in the lead again, even handing me the towline! What a trooper. Hopefully the ibuprofen he had taken was kicking in. My legs, on the other hand, were getting pretty weary. I think the race miles were adding up. Good thing we had only one short run left.
We ran up the stairs to the parking garage, into Miracle Mile, and back to the finish at Cheeseburger. I was practically wheezing by the time we arrived. The race director told us we had one more task - we had to find a napkin like the one he was holding up. It was red and said "Heart Bar, Planet Hollywood" on it.
We took off toward the Planet Hollywood casino, which is attached to the Miracle Mile shops. I pulled out our map and located the bar in the middle of the ground floor. Straight in, grab a napkin, straight back out. Someone yelled at John not to run, so we speedwalked past that point (John thought it was some random passerby and not security) and then ran back to Cheeseburger.
First ones back! But wait... there is one more challenge remaining! Urg, that wasn't on the clue sheet. OK, let's get to it. We went into the back room where there were huge crossword puzzles waiting for us. We had to finish as much of it as we could, and then call "Done" to stop our race clock. Each wrong answer would cost us 5 minutes of penalty time. Ouch. In a race this tight (especially with the bunching due to the bus problems), 5 minutes was huge. 5 minutes times as many as 50+ possible wrong answers basically meant that anyone could win, based on the crossword puzzle alone.
OK, let's get started. It was better to focus on the actual crossword and not dwell on the reasons behind it until later. John and I each took half (across or down) and did as many as we could and then switched. We each had to skip a bunch of them on our first pass, not a good sign. We finally got a bit of help from the crossing words, but it was a pretty sparse grid, meaning that most words crossed only one to three other words, and many of the words were pretty long. Guessing might help a little, or it might just make the crossing word even more confusing.
Here is what I remember about the crossword details (and I wish we had thought to take pictures of it so I could explain it better). Some of these may be wrong, based on my sometimes-faulty memory:
* Three of the clues were "UNLV school color". The answers were 3, 4, and 5 letters long. We had a decent idea that the colors were red and gray, but "gray" didn't work out so great in the 4-letter answer. Then I looked it up later, and it turns out that the actual colors of UNLV are scarlet and gray. I don't understand this at all.
* We had several questions about the movies Oceans 11 to 13, including actor's names. We knew a couple and didn't know the others. This is pretty specialized movie trivia! I am quite certain we would not have come up with "Don Cheadle" no matter how long we sat there.
* Some of the "names of actors" answers were the full name (Don Cheadle) and others were just the last name (Clooney, Sinatra). This is inconsistent crossword etiquette. Believe me when I say that John and I do a lot of crosswords, and this is not normal.
* One of the questions was the name of the famous coach for UNLV. I'm pretty sure you either know the name "Tarkanian" (and how to spell it) or you don't.
* It appeared that all of the High Trek Adventure qualifying cities were answers in the crossword. We managed to find places for Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Denver, and we were probably among the luckier teams in terms of having several qualifying races within our own state.
On the other hand, some of the qualifying cities were somewhat obscure - would you have come up with East Bay or Rochester?
The clues for each city tended to be things that only the locals would be familiar with. There is a sculpture of a spoon with a cherry on it in Minneapolis - I only know this because I supported a team that raced there once.
The clue to one city was something like "Island where there will be a High Trek race next year for the first time." During the award ceremony, the race director announced that they are going to Oahu, but this was apparently the first time anyone had heard this? So how were we supposed to know that, even if we had somehow miraculously thought to study the HTA 2009 race schedule?
"City with The Loop", on the other hand, was not specific enough. Just browsing around Google, I came up with Kansas City, Chicago, St Louis, and Washington D.C. We even have a Loop in Austin, even if it doesn't go all the way around.
We hit quite a mental block coming up with US city names to try in all our blank spaces, and this is one of the reasons we had trouble finishing more of the puzzle. I had to look up the answers later to find the name of a city that ended in a "C" (spoiler - it was Washington, DC, duh).
* The rest of the answers were names of Las Vegas casinos. Many of these clues were actually pretty interesting and reasonable. These are also the ones we are kicking ourselves most for missing. "Gym and Casino" = Bally's, "Casino based on movies" = Planet Hollywood, of course. Sometimes we are stupidly lucky, sometimes we're just stupid.
So now that I have gone on a long rant, if you're still reading, you may have guessed that we didn't do so hot on our crossword/trivia puzzle. The actual penalties per team were never announced, except that the winning team got only 3 wrong. Impressive, to say the least! We dropped from first to third, with Justin and John (the guys in white shirts who ran all the way to downtown) coming in first and Dannel and Joel from Portland in second.
That's how it ends, not always as satisfying as we might like, but we are proud of what we did up to that point. We raced well, John's knee held out, and we didn't argue one little bit. Now it's time to relax and get back to the quieter side of our hobbies - like running in the woods :)
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