Wednesday, June 16, 2004


I've been meaning to deliver my full report on last Saturday's Urban Challenge. So here we go. As a quick reminder, this was the second year I've run the race, which is sponsored by Verizon. Last year, I placed 13th. This year, after initially placing 10th, I, along with my racing partner, placed 8th place after two teams were apparently disqualified. Official results go up on the Urban Challenge website on Friday.

So what is the Urban Challenge? It's part road-race, part trivia challenge, part urban orienteering exercise. You can run, or take public transportation to clear the 12 checkpoints, all of which are reached after figuring out sometimes very complicated clues. Take a photo of the checkpoint with your Verizon camera phone, in the correct order and race back to headquarters.

Part One: Trivia Challenge ...
From a quick estimate, there were at least 96 teams of two, but probably more. To prevent the entire mass from starting at the exact same time and going to the same checkpoint, urban Challenge staggers the start by releasing 12 teams at a time who start off going to different checkpoints on the route. To break teams into their starting groups, teams participate in a trivia challenge of 30 multiple choice questions. The highest scoring teams start out with a significant time advantage. After placing in the top group last year, I was shocked to find out that me in my racing partner got 14 questions wrong, which placed us in one of the last groups to leave home base, which was the Grand Slam sports bar at the Grand Hyatt Hotel at 11th and H streets. Sucking up the initial defeat, we left the hotel determined to make up time.

On to the Race ... Our first stop was Checkpoint No. 4. "Rhyme time! Checkpoint 4 is an establishment with a two-word name in which the second rhymes with the first. Find it in Georgetown near Wisconsin Avenue."

The answer was Commander Salamander, the clothing store on Wisconsin near 0 Street. So we ran down to the Orange and Blue lines, caught a train within two minutes and made it to Foggy Bottom fairly quickly. We ran from 23rd and I streets to Wisconsin Avenue and O Street.

The next stop, Checkpoint No. 5 was at the Georgetown Booeymonger at Potomac and Prospect streets. And after that, the Moby Dick kebab house on 31st Street between M and K streets.

Knowing that Checkpoint No. 7 was somewhere near the State Department, I decided that the quickest way from the Georgetown waterfront was via the Thompson's Boathouse access bridge over Rock Creek and then along Virginia Avenue to 23rd Street. I noticed that other runners after clearing the Moby Dick checkpoint were heading back to M Street and then over the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge. The Thompson's Boathouse bridge saved us a few minutes.

Violating Security at the State Department. But what about Checkpoint No. 7? "We Wonder If That's Ed ... Find the statue of a man with a discus within 1/2 mile east of the PAHO."

PAHO is the Pan American Health Organization, and the statue in question turns out to be the giant discus man in the State Department courtyard. It appears that the folks over at Urban challenge never thought that the security officials protecting the State Department might get a bit angry with a bunch of people on a giant scavenger hunt with camera phones.

In fact, one guard took my clue sheet and took down the information of the good folks at Urban Challenge. While you could see the discus man sort of through the State Department's glass C Street lobby, the agitated guard would only allow us to take a photo from across the street. The photo was out of focus, but was still accepted by the Urban Challenge officials.

Dodging Perplexed Tourists on the Mall. The next clue was fairly straightforward. Take a photo of the World War II Memorial from the Pacific Arch looking toward the Atlantic Arch, without straying into the monument proper itself. Perhaps they didn't want us disrupting the World War II vets and other tourists who were looking at the new memorial. But that was hard to avoid as tourists flooded the precinct. I nearly ran down one octogenarian who could have doubled at Rosie the Riveter back at the Willow Run plant who got in my way.

The next stop, Checkpoint No. 9, was at the Andrew Jackson Downey urn in the garden at the Smithsonian Castle.

Winning With Public Transportation. As I've said before, part of any winning strategy for the race is knowing when to use public transportation to save time. The next checkpoint after the Smithsonian urn was in Dupont Circle, so using the subway was the obvious choice, even with the Red Line being delayed for NewYoFla-related trackwork. After, Checkpoint No. 10 ("We've Read Them? Checkpoint 10 shares its name, but not its spelling, with what the following have in common: Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, The Rule of Four; Find it within 1/2 mile of Dupont Circle"), Best Cellars wine shop at Connecticut Avenue at R and 20th streets, we knew the next checkpoint was at Madam's Organ on 18th Street. While many people cut down R Street to 18th Street, I thought that hopping on a 42 bus to 18th Street and Columbia Road would save some time.

Sure enough, the trusty 42 bus came in two minutes and we were on our way. But another team, wearing American flag dew rags, saw us climb aboard. They ran after the bus and up near the Washington Hilton, climbed aboard to follow us. Instead of getting off at 18th and Columbia, we got off at Mintwood Place and ran down the alleyway to 18th Street, which put us 60 seconds ahead of the flag dew rag team in reaching Madam's Organ. Then there was a mad dash along Calvert Street to Woodley Park, where Checkpoint No. 12 ("Stop whining! Checkpoint 12 shares its name with a one-word song title containing the following lyric: '... we'll dance the night away...' Find it west of the Duke Ellington bridge"), Sherry's liquor store on the corner of Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue. We then caught a Red Line train back downtown to finish up the first three checkpoints. (Remember, we started at Checkpoint No. 4.) This is where we put our minds, bodies and instincts to work.

The last three checkpoints to clear were the pen store on F Street between 13th and 14th streets; a scultpure in the National Gallery's sculpture garden at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue; and Fado at Seventh and H streets. After running to the pen store and then to Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street, we saw a 34 bus heading east. With other runners nearby, we slowly approached the bus stop and climbed on without anyone noticing. Still, as we passed by a series of runners who were going in the direction of the sculpture garden, we ducked (and took a photo of the unfortunate souls running down the sidewalk). When we disembarked at Seventh Street, the bus driver asked us: "Are you in some race? And you're taking the bus!?!"

He started laughing, bewildered but admiring our savvy bus skills, thinking that we were cheating. Of course, we weren't.

As we cleared the sculpture garden checkpoint, we noticed a 70 bus heading north on Seventh Street, but it was approaching too quickly for us to catch. Somehow, using the last energy reserves from this winter's hibernation, I managed to run all the way to catch the bus at Seventh Street and Indiana Avenue. It took us to Fado, we snapped a photo and hauled ass on H Street to make it to the finish line. We had just missed a P6 bus, which would have dropped us off in front of the Grand Hyatt, but alas, we had to run the last leg. We crossed the finish line in about 2 hours and 47 minutes. (When results are posted on Friday, I'll confirm that.)


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