Great Urban Racers (June 8, 2014)

For the past decade, I’ve tried to entice certain members of the friend and family circle to audition for The Amazing Race with me. Repeated pleas were issued to those with whom I’d work best, with lesser (but still important) consideration given to teammates with the potential to give good TV. Initial enthusiasm runs high….but then a would-be partner encounters the actual application, a behemoth of a document that calls for more evidence and stamina than the state Bar exam, with a lower pass rate. At that point, the initial “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!” turns into a “Well, maybe later.”

In 2011, unable to tamp down competitive scavenger hunt urges any longer, Gary and I registered for the Chicago heat of the Great Urban Race. The event’s website describes the race as, “a fun and challenging puzzle where your city holds the pieces. Teams solve clues, tackle challenges and race for cash prizes in this all-out test of smarts and speed…hundreds of Masterminds take to the streets to complete a variety of exciting mental and physical challenges at unique stops throughout the city. Your team is free to choose your own route as you hustle from clue to clue on foot or by using public transportation.”

Yep, that’s about it. GUR has three major mental and physical components: a initial set of 12 clues and puzzles used to determine race destinations, quick instincts and research leveraged to create a course map, then speed and skills to execute, hopefully fast enough to finish in the Top 25. Teams in that elite bracket are invited to compete against the other top racers from that year’s host cities in a contest for the national championship. In 2014 qualifying heats occurred in: Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, San Francisco, Tampa, Jacksonville, Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Portland, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Chicago and Toronto.

In 2011, at 32 years of age, Gary and I ran our first race and enjoyed some beginner’s luck. We finished 41st – respectable enough to whet our appetites for more. We saw that with improved running speed (from me) and a few other tinkers, we had the goods. 2012 would be our qualifying year! …Only it wasn’t – not by a long shot. A more challenging course, more teams and some key errors on our part resulted in a completion time nearly 45 minutes behind the previous one.

In 2013, an unnaturally chilly July day in Chicago, we fared much better, only to be undone near the end by The Clark Bus That Never Came. Team Monsters Are Real was getting older, wiser, and settling into its niche of near-miss tragedy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014 was about as perfect as one could ask: warm sunshine without humidity, not a cloud in the sky. One half of Monsters Are Real awoke that morning full of optimism. Not six weeks before, the deteriorating and painful state of my hands made the consideration of withdrawal a serious one. Gary deserved a real shot at achieving our mutual dream of qualifying for the finals, and I no longer believed I was the partner to help him get there. But that was all before the miracle of beet juice. I’d slept well and hydrated the night before and arrived at the GUR starting point, Lizzie McNeil’s, with a sense of performance promise. I shared as much with Gary, not that I had to. Over the course of 22 years of friendship, we’ve developed a seamless ability to read each other and collaborate without explication.

We ran a great race. There was more walking in certain parts (from me) than I would have liked and I’ll never love Kraft Singles again the way I did before. But once we completed our first task nearly 45 minutes into the competition, we checked them off fast and furiously until we crossed the finish line.

It was clear we’d done well. There were very few teams checked in, enjoying their free-for-racing bottles of Miller Lite. However, while Team Monsters Are Real is in possession of a collectively healthy ego, it stops short of delusion. At best we hoped to match our finish from 2011. Hundreds of groups of competitors kept expectations low. We didn’t even stick around for the award ceremony.

In hindsight, I don’t know what would have been more delicious: hearing live and sweaty that we’d finally done it, we’d cracked the Top 25, or the Jesse Pinkman “Yeah bitch!” moment I experienced in an office conference room the following Monday morning – in front of my new boss and a senior graphic designer. When Gary sent the text message that we’d reached our goal, the euphoria overtook any semblance of professional decorum.

This afternoon, we booked our trip to Vancouver. We fly from Chicago on August 8, the day of my 36th birthday. The GUR national championship kicks off the following morning at 9:00 am in the downtown area of the city nicknamed, “Vansterdam.” This has all the makings of a most triumphant birthday weekend, no matter where Monsters Are Real ultimately finishes. In the ensuing weeks, I’ll be working on my speed sprints while Gary and I research Vancouver’s public transit, major landmarks and streets.

Six weeks ago I couldn’t dance vigorously without cracking, bleeding, burning hands. Today I am planning a training schedule for a competitive Canadian adventure with one of the people I love most. I’ve already won.