"Smile and see what happens." This was my fortune while eating lunch at China Moon Wok on Friday. We were taking a break from scouting the French Quarter for the Urban Challenge race the following day. I decided to take this advice to heart, so no matter what stress or problem came up the next day I tried to remember to smile. When I did remember, I always felt better. And what happened? Well...
John and I were racing on an automatic qualification due to making the finals in the previous year's Las Vegas race. A group of friends and co-participants from the Las Vegas race qualified during the September race in Austin, so we headed to New Orleans together to have some fun. We expected lots of competition and only a slim chance at the $50,000 grand prize.
Friday scouting took us around the French Quarter, looking for statues and stores or restaurants with interesting names, then further out to a couple parks, universities, and the Garden District. There is so much to see in New Orleans! Our scouting notes ended up around 7 pages long, and there was still so much else we could have done.
Saturday started out cool and clear, perfect running weather. We gathered in the Blue Room of the Fairmont hotel and found a spot on the floor for the trivia portion. My brother Kip had raced and qualified in Austin, but his teammate Jason couldn't make the trip with us, so Kip turned into Ground Support. Our friend Dave, who lives in New Orleans, joined him and they waited outside the hotel and talked strategy. The rest of us suffered through some difficult trivia, sans a Brady Bunch question this time. Luckily John didn't hear all my whispering guesses, and his own thoughts turned out better. Three of our teams ended up in the second group to be released, a real shock to us.
Outside the hotel we received an instruction card that told us to run to the finish line by Jackson Square, about half a mile away. All of the passports were punched simultaneously, and we were off! I immediately got on tow with John and we headed across Canal Street and into the French Quarter. Quick consultation about running directions, and then all we had to concentrate on was getting there.
John and I, along with most of the racers we hang out with, are adventure racers. We are used to traveling in teams and doing whatever is needed so the team as a whole can move faster. Each of us has experienced situations where we tow each other, carry gear for each other, encourage each other, and help each other mentally and physically. For this race, having John tow me, working with our racing friends, and getting help from a wonderful crew (across the US and in France!) was the order of the day.
Everyone grabbed a clue tube from the box and we proceeded to read in as much as possible to our folks on the phone. I studying the cryptogram for clue #5 and tried to work out a couple words to this 'literary work', while jumping back and forth to clue #1 which our team (along with Richard/Gayla and Jim/Becky) needed first. Rob and Spencer focused on clue #2, a particularly difficult one-word anagram of FOAMY BARN. We had recorded quite a number of business names for the French Quarter, but none of them fit the bill for the anagram.
Kip took off after the Fluffy Bunny team and Dave waited for Jake and Jeff (a super-fast team from LA), while someone's ground support was obviously watching us. None of us besides Kip and the Bunnies were going anywhere - these were some tough clues, harder than I remember from the Vegas races. John talked with our crew about the person who 'lurked around Fine Hall,' trying to get them to drop the Young Einstein thread they were on, while asking to get them to look into Phantom of the Opera (neither of which was correct).
People scribbled anagram possibilities (was it a BAR?) and John and I finally decoded 'One two, one two, and through and through' for #5 but still neglected to explain to the crew what I was doing. After getting another line 'we left it dead, and with its head' (although the word 'we' is actually 'he'), I casually asked whether it could be the poem Jabberwocky. We were onto something, but still didn't have a good answer for it, nor did we communicate the clue context to the crew.
Finally we had Dave trail a couple other racers and we started jogging east only because it was generally away from the direction Fluffy Bunnies had taken (presumably they were going to CP3). We continued to work on various ideas, when finally we got a call with the location of CP1 - a place called DBA (with the same initials as the actor who placed John Nash Jr. as a teenager on 'A Beautiful Mind'). It wasn't far, so we flew there and snapped a photo, then jogged back toward Royal Street trying to determine if anyone knew where to go next.
We met up with another of our teams, and somehow John realized that we hadn't gotten the clue tube in our first photo as the rules state! We had practiced this and reviewed it over and over with our friends, but still managed to forget. Luckily John remembered and we didn't have far to go for the re-shoot. Nothing like a little adrenaline to wake you up in the morning.
For the next 30 minutes or however long it turned out to be, I wasn't smiling much. The group of us, including Dave who couldn't find anyone who knew where they were going, scoured the blocks between CP1 and the middle of the French Quarter looking for an anagram for FOAMY BARN. We asked our crew to do searches based on the clue title ('Shady'), looking for sunglasses dealers or private investigators or arborists. One of our teams traded information for a hint that it was on a purple sign on Esplanade (which turned out to be false). Spencer walked into a bar and asked for help from three guys who were hanging out drinking (and who actually got the answer later and called him about it!). Rob and Spencer were caught on video in a hilarious sequence where they pointed in various directions and then wandered in circles while talking on the phone.
Finally one of us suggested that we had to skip this one and move on, even though it was really early to be skipping a point. Reluctantly John and I agreed, heading on for #3 (Kaboom Books) and #4 (an address on Royal St obtained from an equation related to the temperature where Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same number). Later we found out that the equation was slightly different for other teams, depending on which version of clue tube each was carrying. This was a perfect way for the race organizers to reduce the effectiveness of following other teams, making everyone figure things out for themselves in some cases.
Our crew thought they had an answer to the Jabberwocky problem, something about Through the Looking Glass, but when we got to the address on Royal Street there was nothing there by that name. A growing crowd of teams congregated there, asking each other if anyone had any clue for CP5. We got back on the phone with Ronda and asked her to grab the entire poem from the web. She read it to John in hopes that it might trigger something from our scouting, but we didn't match it directly with the code on the tube or we might have noticed the line that didn't match the poem and would have provided the answer.
We had been working with clues #1-5 for over an hour (it seemed like 2 hours, not sure) when Spencer came up saying that #2 had been located. Yes! It took no time for John and I to decide that we would skip 5 and go back and get 2 plus 3 and 4 again. They were not very far apart and we needed to get moving if we were going to finish this race before the 5-hour time limit. Back and forth along Royal and Bourbon Street we ran, passing our friends going in both directions doing the same thing.
And for those of you wondering about the FOAMY BARN answer, the sign was small and hard to read, all I could say until recently is that it starts with an 'F'! And next time we need the business White Pages available for our crew to do the most crude of searches - by hand. Crazy! Update: the answer is 'Framboyan', an antique store.
Finally we burst out of the French Quarter and crossed back over Canal Street, aiming for the Skip Lady who was sitting near the bus stop. We got a quick picture with her and then trotted to wait for the bus with a group of other racers. They recognized us and we chatted a little before the bus arrived (apparently our timing was great, as this was not a frequent occurrence). A bunch of teams piled on the bus and we headed west down the long Magazine Street.
The bus driver took in the loud, colorful teams with amusement and engaged in conversation with some of the women in the front of the bus. At one point, some racers in the back of the bus started yelling 'No, bus driver, no!' and everyone turned to see a team hoofing it to get on. The bus briefly sped up, and then the driver decided to be nice and stop. The team received an ovation as they boarded and appeared very happy to be on the moving party bus.
As we neared the next checkpoint, 'Le Bon Temps Roulé' restaurant, a team jumped out 8 blocks early and started running. One of the racers on the bus told the driver that they were trying to beat the bus, eliciting a 'yeah, right!' as she gunned the engine. The high point, however, was when she was talked into stopping the bus right in front of our checkpoint, letting everyone out, waiting for each team to take their picture, and then letting us all back on. It truly made everyone's day.
Back on the bus again, John continued to talk with Ronda to gather information about our next checkpoints. I pulled out the Tulane map to pinpoint the location of the Blarney Stone (CP 8) and we were ready to go when the bus pulled up at Exposition Blvd. It was a bit strange finding a footpath where we expected a street, but upon seeing Audubon Park I knew we were in the right place, so we started running north. There were houses next to the path, we just had to find #1347 (the answer to a math problem).
We were among the first teams from the bus to reach the house and take our photo, and then we pushed the pace some more while running north toward the universities. I called out directions while John led the way, flying over the trolley tracks and into a courtyard at Tulane. We spotted a team coming away from the area where the Blarney Stone was located and rushed over there. Another team traded photo-taking duty with us - they wanted a photo with them kissing the stone, so they had to wait with their lips on the rock while John got their camera turned on. 'Yuck, that didn't taste too good,' one said as we hurried off back toward the trolley tracks.
Another lucky break - the trolley pulled up as we approached, so we jumped on, almost making a comical mistake by boarding on either side of a support pole... while still on tow. The trolley moved slower than a bus, but it went almost directly to our next checkpoint and it was available immediately, so we took it instead of trying to find a bus on a parallel path. Other teams joined us and we worked on the next checkpoints while catching our breath. Our crew came through in a timely way for every checkpoint after #5 (including realizing that there were different versions of clue tubes out there) so all we had to do was plot a running route.
As we neared Lee Circle John suddenly realized that the trolley was about to turn left one block before continuing toward town. We could get as close as one block from CP9 (Steve Martin Studios) but only after riding the trolley around the circle and 3 more blocks. If we got off before the circle, we would have to run 2 blocks. Quick calculations determined that we should get off immediately, so we jumped up and hopped off. Other teams consulted their maps but no one followed.
So we were suddenly alone as we bolted around the Robert E Lee monument and took off along a rough sidewalk toward Julia Street. Rounding the corner, we found the studio, took a picture, and continued running toward the river. Looking back, I didn't see anyone in the near vicinity. Looking forward, we could see a couple teams leaving our next checkpoint, 'True Brew.' Another photo, another mad dash along another street. Kip met us to direct us into CP11, the Spanish Fountain where we needed to select the correct crest and take a photo. He continued to run with us toward our last CP, a choice between two statues in the riverfront park. Teams were snapping pictures at various crests and at both statues, further affirming that not everyone had the same answers for some checkpoints.
All along the way, we saw teams taking pictures, talking on the phone, consulting maps, and making their way along the course. There were so many racers around that a top 7 finish for us seemed highly unlikely, but we continued to race as if it mattered. In EVERY SINGLE Urban Challenge race I had done, I have had a feeling that we were out of the running. So many things can happen to slow you down, trip you up, and give you fits, but this apparently happens to everybody. So we never give up.
And so we kept on running, John kept pulling, and I gave up trying to breathe comfortably. We cut across a parking lot, found Decatur Street and dodged people while heading toward the park... one more corner, one more street, almost there! Someone yelled that we weren't necessarily out of it - what?? We crossed the line and were handed a piece of paper with the number 13 on it, presumably making us the 13th team across the line.
As we walked to catch our breath, it came to light that there were a few DQ's on the list of teams who had finished before us. Most notably, Jake and Jeff had crossed the line first but had taken the wrong photo at CP12. The Fluffy Bunnies, the Google Guys, and Oozing Monkeys were in the finals again. I watched as the co-ed team just ahead of us had their photos verified and were pronounced 'in' - they were ecstatic. Kevin worked with his list on the clipboard, and then when he determined that there was still at least one place left he turned to find the next team in line.
'Look who's here!' he told us, taking our camera and carefully reviewing our handiwork while checking the clue tube. It was not the prettiest set of photos - re-takes of the first 4 pictures for various reasons, body parts in the way of signs and more retakes, and exhausted, exasperated expressions on our faces. But I smiled because we were finished, and then Kevin said 'you better rest up, you need to race tonight,' and I smiled even more. Yay!! Unbelievable. Incredibly close, after 4 hours of racing. That had to be one of the more amazing comebacks in Urban Challenge history! Although the way this race goes, I'm SURE there are other stories like this one just waiting to be told.
Back at the Fairmont we enjoyed a reunion with teams from last year's finals, met a couple more, then boarded a minibus that took the group of us north on Canal Street. The bus came to a stop in front of Metairie Cemetery, where a lone jazz trumpeter played soulful music as we approached the tombs. A cameraman captured our moments of preparation and the 15-question trivia quiz. John and I surprised ourselves again with a 3rd place standing and only 6 minutes of waiting after Team Google received their clue tube.
Then with clue tube in hand, we trotted over by one of the mausoleums and found a spot to 'set up shop.' John started calling in the clues while I worked on our first one, CP1. It was a number sequence: 0 2 1 3 1 5 2 7 x x, where we needed to determine the last two numbers. As an alternating series, the prime numbers stood out, but I wasn't sure what to do with the other part. 0 1 1 2 ... 2? Some subtraction between the prime numbers and the following digits suggested a progression where 7 - 4 would yield 3 (but why did the sequence start with a 0?). Various people on the crew were called. Nothing seemed solid. I saw a couple white jerseys fly by, probably the Google Guys on the way out. I suggested the 3 to Scott, who said that it fit with a Fibonacci series (which also explained the 0 at the start), so that was enough for me. Using the 3 and the next prime number, 11, I took the sum and added it to 15 as instructed, getting 29 as our answer.
We had a map of the cemetery with all of the major statues/crypts indicated by numbers. Each team would have different numbers as answers to CP's 1 to 4, leading them to particular gravesites for their photos. Starting with #29, we started running around the roads. It took us until the second CP to realize that the map had the names of the important graves listed by number, which we had to match up for the photo (instead of just trying to figure out which grave in the block was the one they wanted). After getting our picture at CP's 2 and 3, John headed back to CP1 to verify that we had chosen the correct one, while I ran back to the entrance where we would find our 4th target.
On the way back I ran (alone) by a film crew, wondering what they were thinking. John met me by CP4, and then we headed out of the cemetery and started east. John told me we were aiming for Bud's Broiler, so we hooked up the towline and ran. The Fluffy Bunnies in orange shirts suddenly appeared ahead of us, walking and discussing things on the phone. As we neared, they started running and arrived at CP5 just before us. One picture and then we were off toward City Park. On our way we met Terrence and Cathy Lee (Oozing Monkeys) heading in the other direction.
At the park entrance we headed in. John told me we were looking for the museum, so when I spotted Storytown I knew we had to go to the right. A quick glance at a park map confirmed this, and soon we were at the museum looking for a statue called 'The Wave'. The Fluffy Bunnies were taking their picture in front of a fountain. John checked the plaque there but didn't think it was the right statue for our photo (each team could have had a different answer since it was a multiple choice question). We checked some other statues until John realized he had not read far enough down the plaque to see the title, so we rechecked the fountain and found that it was indeed 'The Wave'.
In the meantime, our crew was researching bus routes, guiding us out of the park to the east. I asked John to question them about the schedules, since it might make a different in choice of routes and there must be a reason the Lee's had been running the other way. As we approached the bus stop, we chatted with one of the Urban Challenge guys who was following us on a bike. We found a couple women waiting for the bus and confirmed that it would head downtown; plus it should arrive soon, they told us, since they had been waiting for a while.
Public transportation gods were still with us that evening, as the bus arrived only a couple minutes later. We found the Lee's on the bus and took our place near the back to continue phone conversations with the crew. John read in the rest of the clues while I confirmed the bus destination with Scott. At this point I should have focused on CP8, but got caught up in watching where the bus was going.
At Canal Street we jumped off and ran with Terrence and Cathy back to the Fairmont. CP7 was a guy in the Blue Room - we had his photo on the clue tube. Seemed like an easy enough task. Someone told us we were the second and third teams to arrive, and then we walked into the middle of the finish line party. Whoa!
Why did I expect this person to just be standing by the door? People in the party seemed to have an idea what was going on, asking us who we were looking for. We shared our clue tube with various helpful people who started searching faces with us. We were pointed one way, then another into the middle of the room. We stopped in front of a guy with an innocent face, and John and I studied the black and white photo. John asked him to stick out his tongue, while I wondered why the heck that was important. Then John pointed out that this could be our SKIP person - oh! The skip person photo was a much closer match. The man's girlfriend chimed in that it was definitely him, look at the receding hairline (which elicited a 'gee thanks' kind of response from him). So someone took our photo with him and we moved on to finding the checkpoint guy. John spotted him almost immediately, so we got another photo and headed out of the room to cheers. Very cool!
Phew! Back on the phone, John explained to Ronda what had been going on, while we ran in the general direction of the French Quarter. The crew was still working on CP8, although they thought they knew the name of the stalker (Jack) in the wacky equation. I worked on the first part, coming up with Mister, for a possible answer of 'Mister Jacks'. However, there were no hits in the online yellow pages - just Mister Alex the Fourth and Mister John. Nothing in the near vicinity. It seemed that 'Jack' wasn't working for them either. We wandered and pondered. What else could it be? Finally I asked John to ask Ronda whether they were searching under 'Mister' or 'Mr.', and whichever it was, to try the other one. That was it! Mr. Jacks, a hair stylist on Decatur Street. We were on our way again!
Rounding the corner to the checkpoint, we passed Fluffy Bunny going the other way. Looks like we had a good answer. One photo and then we were off, running east on Decatur. We ran on the edge of the street to avoid the growing crowds on the sidewalks. Pulling in behind a horse-drawn carriage, we slowly gained on them until we were running by. We wondered whether a carriage would count as public transportation in the rules of Urban Challenge, but since we were moving faster it didn't seem to be important.
We had come into the Finals without much thought that we might win, but upon seeing that we were still neck-and-neck with the Lee's and the Bunnies, I started to wonder if maybe we actually were in the race for once! This thought was immediately followed by the realization that I had NEVER experienced this sensation in an Urban Challenge race before, leading me to realize that our good luck might finally be running out... but we didn't slow down, you just never know.
Kip called in a couple bits of information from his scouting - a photo seen taken at 'Serendipitous Masks' and that the Skip Person was in City Park. Neither made much sense to us (thanks Terrence!), so we kept running, hoping anew that we really had found our Skip Guy in the Blue Room. CP9 was the Whirling Dervish, solved by our crew and verified by Kip. CP10 was a really tough code that various people had been working on for us, but still had not solved. No matter, they had the other two figured out (Ronda got one as soon as John read it in on the bus), so it was an easy call to skip #10.
Which meant all we had to do was run - to CP11 on one end of Bourbon Street, and then to CP12 all the way on the other end. Oops, maybe running pell-mell down Bourbon Street in early evening is not such a great idea. It was dark, people were wandering back and forth to the bars, there were still cars on the roads, and I was still on tow. As we made our way back west, it got more and more crowded. John tried a section of road next to a parked car (not sure what that liquid was that I just stepped in, try not to think about it), we went back to the middle of the street, definitely stay off the sidewalk, dodge pedestrians, stay out of the way of the cars trying to get through, follow John's every move exactly in synch, more dodging, oh my goodness are we there yet? People called out various comments, my favorite being 'Pull her harder!' This after I had gasped 'Not... quite... so... fast...' to try to keep the towline from getting too stretched out.
Lights and sounds passed by at record speed (compared to my normal running pace), and then finally we located our last CP, the Red Fish Grille. After we took the photo, a cameraman appeared and asked me how we thought we were doing. 'I don't know yet,' or something to that effect, as we took off back toward the hotel. As we hit Canal Street we saw the Google Guys running the other way, and they yelled questions - had we found CP10? 'No!' What about the Skip Guy? 'In the Blue Room,' John called out, although we were still moving fast and I wasn't sure he had been heard.
Across the street, a bit further north, turn left, aim for the doors of the Fairmont... we ran into the lobby and started yelling 'Excuse us!' to let people know we were tearing through, or at least provide them one more reason to give us a blank stare. Still on tow, we hopped up the stairs to the Blue Room - only to run into the backs of the Fluffy Bunnies! At that exact moment, a Bunnies support person was starting out of the room to watch for any other teams to show up, almost colliding with John. Someone cried 'There they are!' prompting the racers in orange to stop looking at the photos on their camera and book it for the finish line.
John tried a different path down to the floor, but the Bunnies had the direct line scoped out and they crossed the finish line (in the correct direction) while we tried to keep from entangling our towline with any spectators or cameramen. Unofficially we were in second place by about 5 seconds. Wow! Now for the hard part, everyone has to wait...
The Google Guys followed soon after, finding their Skip Person in the crowd and then crossing the line in third place. The guys in green showed up a bit later. Everyone received ovations, various people were interviewed, and there were hugs all around. The Urban Challenge folks disappeared with our cameras and clue tubes. Our crew was told that it could be a bit of a wait.
Finally the awards ceremony! Kevin had everyone come up on stage, announcing that he had learned something about degrees and radians, and then declaring that the Fluffy Bunnies had won. Yay! We learned that our photos were also good, officially putting us in second place. What a race! What a crew we have! Thank you to all of you, everyone we talked to on the phone, our friends in New Orleans (racing and not), the clue researchers, the folks in France who stayed up really late, everyone who helped our teams, it is greatly appreciated.
We had so much fun on that Saturday. I think everyone was exhausted, including our crew. To get so close, then to have David and Damian win this time, it seemed almost unreal. Putting both Urban Challenge seasons together, it feels like a fitting end. Or a continuing story where Jeff and Jake, or the Lee's, or the Google Guys take it all next year. Who knows? We wouldn't miss it for the world!