one city, one day, one continent
a local race that was still, in its way, amazing
by michelle von euw
What do you get the girl who dreams of being a contestant on "The Amazing Race?" If you're my husband, the answer is a practice run. Call it an innocent mistake, call it a misguided good intention, call it pure insanity, but we spent an otherwise lovely September Saturday racing around Washington, D.C. as part of what can best be described as an urban scavenger hunt on speed.
The website for this grand adventure urges us to "wear comfortable clothes." It takes my husband roughly twenty minutes to talk me out of my pastel plaid Keds and into my Reeboks.
“But the Keds are cuter,” I whine.
Registration for the race begins at noon in a bar in Adams Morgan. It is not until this moment that we decide we need to purchase all-day metro passes and a map of DC. I get into pre-race form by body-checking a woman reaching for the last pocket neighborhood map, and after a stern lecture from the Borders employee, have to settle for one of those annoying generic folding ones.
We are about the 20th team to check in, and we get our registration numbers and sign a waiver promising to obey all local traffic laws and not sue if we suddenly drop dead on the race.
I get my first taste of misapprehension when I read the line that certifies we are both in excellent shape and above average physical health.
Second taste of misapprehension occurs when Team Hard Core, seated next to us and decked out in matching spandex, begins their stretching exercises.
The rules. They are pretty simple: each team is given a sheet of six clues and a sealed envelope. They must unravel the clues in order, then proceed to the six locations by foot or public transportation, and take a picture that includes both teammates outside the destination. After stop six, they may open the sealed envelope and read the final six clues, and do the same. Each team is allowed to skip one stop. The race is estimated to take between two and a half and five hours.
All teams are handed a trivia test of 20 questions, which will be scored while we’re running like idiots all over Washington. For each question right, we’ll get a minute knocked off our race time. Joe and I plow through the quiz in our typical fashion: I talk too loud, he takes too long on the questions and tells me to stop doing long division in the margins. We somehow get through all the questions in five minutes without strangling each other.
The teams are sent out to begin the race in the order we arrived.
“I’m going to get Mark on the phone, so he’s ready for the first five clues,” the male half of Team Hard Core tells his partner. Across the room, someone else whips out a Blackberry.
I pry my husband away from the Michigan football game blaring from one of the bar's televisions. “Uh, Joe? Do we know anyone who is home on a Saturday afternoon?”
It’s our turn to race. Our first clue is part of a Police song title, or Slavic way of saying yes, twice, and right across the street is a furniture store named Dada.
This thing will be a breeze.
Joe struggles with our next clue -– “Talk Show Host Pioneer/Any Given Sunday Actor/Peony” as I run across the bridge toward the general direction (near Woodley Park Metro, south of the zoo) the clue also offers.
“Carson! Letterman! That guy before Carson!” Joe is yelling as I hesitate on the corner of Connecticut Avenue. North or South?
“Diaz! Foxx! Pacino!”
A team comes from our right, headed toward downtown, smiles on their faces. “They found it –- it’s this way!” I scream at Joe, and drag him right.
“Quaid! Modine! Stone!”
We come to a stop in front of Allan Woods Florist. Money!
Picture taken, we savor our victory a little too long, and barely escape before the next team arrives. I pretend I don't hear them asking us to snap their picture as I take off down Connecticut, working on three clues at a time.
“This one is Justin Timberlake,” I tell Joe. “Call Jael, and ask her what in Dupont Circle is called Timberlakes. Or, ah, Justin’s.”
“Maybe it's Britney,” Joe muses, reading the Mickey Mouse Club clue over my shoulder.
“No questions! Call!” I bark. Twenty minutes into the race and I’m already a drill sergeant. Fabulous. Phil would be so proud.
“We’re in the right direction, just straight down Connecticut until we reach Dupont,” Joe reports.
“Good. Since you’ve got her on the phone, ask her about X marks the spot and a city in Florida.” At this point, I am clutching our clue sheet to my chest. We are on destination number three, and I’m already desperately wishing I’d worn a sports bra.
“Mark and Orlando's!” Jael says immediately. I’m instantly grateful we had the good sense to have a friend who knows the DC social scene better than we do.
Having knocked off destinations three and four in record time, we lope on down toward GW, my home turf, and stop for a picture outside the Black Rooster (“If Foghorn Leghorn were covered in melanoma…”), the bar where I discovered that I had a fantastic skill for darts after about six beers back in my college days.
“The next clue is in the middle of my campus,” I crow. Not even an hour in, and we’ve knocked off almost half our destinations. We’re spending the prize money as I lead my sweaty husband through an air-conditioned shortcut.
The hometown curse is infamous on "The Amazing Race." The team from Brooklyn who got tripped up on the New York subway. The Louisiana natives who stumbled in New Orleans. We had our own version: The George Washington Massacre of ’06.
“The Internet says the American Meridian is at 21st and H.” Joe repeats. We decided to give Jael a rest, and went with another friend, who looked up the address of our next destination on line. Four phone calls and several excruciating searches across a two-block radius, and we still hadn’t found the plaque. We were on my campus, my own campus, where not only had I gone to school for four years, but now teach.
Finally, I ask a security guard, who directs us to 24th and H. Damn Internet!
We take our first break of the day. Now that we can open our next clue envelope, we have six new clues to ponder over. I immediately select the one in Virginia as the destination we’ll skip.
“I don’t get this.” I shove the clue sheet at Joe, gasping for air. He immediately unscrambles Booeymonger, a Georgetown restaurant about ten blocks from where we are, as clue number eight. We get his mother, my father, Alex, and Jael working on how many US Presidents died in office; the year Georgetown University was founded; and where a paleontologist (Ross Geller in the clue) would catch a show.
But we’re stuck on clue number seven.
“It shares part of its name with a Dr. Seuss book,” Joe says. “The Cat and the Hat…Madhatters. It’s right down the street.”
I don’t think it's right. The clue describes a convoluted plot that sounds nothing like my memories of “The Cat and the Hat,” but fatigue has begun to set in. I jog half-heartedly after Joe, and really begin to doubt our decision when Madhatters is the only destination of our day so far where we didn’t encounter another racing pair.
Fatigue has hit big time. It is now roughly 900 degrees, and humid, and M Street is crowded with the type of people who like to saunter by and stop for no reason. My clothes feel like paper, Joe’s legs are beginning to ache, and though we find Booeymongers without a problem, I break the bad news to Joe: we’re nowhere near a metro stop. And our next stop is 16 blocks back toward where we just came from.
I urge Joe onward, promising to carry him the next several blocks, bribing him with Gatorade purchased from a tourist stand. “Are you guys on 'The Amazing Race?'” we are asked for the thirty-seventh time.
Joe resists the urge to tell her, “Yeah, our camera guy is a block behind us” as we trudge toward Lafayette Park.
“This is cool,” I say, sitting on the appointed bench. After we talk a Japanese tourist into taking our picture, I study the map and call information, securing the address of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, our next stop.
The good news is the theatre is straight up Seventeenth, only ten blocks or so from where we are. The bad news? Still not worth it to take the Metro.
We arrive at 1400 Chapel Street to find -– nothing. No Woolly Mammoth theater, just a recently renovated apartment building.
This can’t be. This really can’t be. We have two destinations left, we are four blocks from the end point of the race, and we are standing in front of a giant dead end. Our GW misdirect suddenly feels like a stroll in the park. We call our DC sources, who tell us that the theatre moved several months ago, and is now located downtown, very, very, very far away from where we sit.
“You want to give up?” Joe asks me.
I look at the dirty sidewalk where I’ve sunk in exhaustion, and then up at my husband, who’d been really, really convinced we were a shoo-in for the third place prize, two pairs of New Balance sneakers to replace the ones we’ve spent the afternoon tearing to shreds. For me, there’d be no "Amazing Race," no television cameras, no Phil waiting for me on the mat, just this day, this moment.
“Not a chance in hell,” I told him.
We take off at a quick gait back the way we came, and flag down a bus driver, who, miraculously, is headed a block away from where we need to be. The bus is cool, and we catch our breath. “We’re not out of this thing yet,” Joe says. I think of Team Hard Core, and all the other people who were younger and in better shape than we were, and know he’s probably wrong, but it’s sweet of him to say so.
We leave the Woolly Mammoth, and hop on the Metro for six stops. We congratulate ourselves on figuring out the tricky part of the last clue: it’s a math equation involving the last year the Senators played in DC before moving to Minnesota (most people remember the second incarnation of the Senators, who left for Texas) that directs us to 1528 U Street. We wonder if we’re in dead last place when we hear heavy footsteps behind us and panting. I spin around and gasp.
It’s Team Hard Core.
They pick up their speed and jog straight past both us and, amazingly, #1528. Joe and I look at each other, shrug, compliment each other on our brains, then take our last picture.
We stagger into the final checkpoint, about a block ahead of Team Hard Core. We collapse with a pitcher of water and two $6 beers, practicing our breathing and hoping that someday, our limbs will feel normal again. After all our efforts, it’s sort of a letdown to learn that the team that finished in first ran the whole thing at top speed and completed the race two friggin’ hours before we did.
It’s even more disheartening to hear that third place finished about forty-five minutes ahead of us, roughly the amount of time we lost going to the wrong address for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. So we have to be satisfied with our middle of the pack status -- and the 16 minutes that were shaved off our time for the trivia questions we got right, a high score of the day.
“Check out our brains!” I high-five Joe before my hand collapses in protest.
For the next hour, we applaud the stragglers who stumble across the finish line, catch up on the Race gossip (most interestingly, a team was disqualified for taking a cab), and have our pictures checked. This is when we find out that the Madhatters clue was actually One Fish, Two Fish, and we were not the only team to make that mistake.
We are exhausted, more exhausted than I ever remember being. We've covered several miles of Washington, D.C. in about four hours (3 hours and 47 minutes, with our trivia credit), and we now have a $40 tab at the bar. There is a blister on my heel, I want to trash every item of clothing I'm wearing, and during the next two days I will find it excruciatingly painful to walk to the kitchen.
But, no matter. I spent a whole day being smart while looking foolish with my husband, so what else could a girl ask for?
Bring on Phil!
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
ABOUT MICHELLE VON EUW
more about michelle von euw
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.9.06 @ 3:21a
Wow. What a day! I can only imagine that was a lot of fun and something to totally try! Great piece.
10.9.06 @ 10:36a
It was stressful enough being in on the questions part! The physical challenge of running from place to place would have knocked me right out. I'm so proud of you guys.
Anytime you're looking for a restaurant, I can help. Meridian Line, not so much.
10.9.06 @ 12:05p
What a fun event! (Maybe you'd have saved some time by not taking such great notes along the way?)
10.9.06 @ 4:52p
Oh 'Chelle, this sounds like so much fun! What a riot! I'm sure you guys were just awesome.
Mebbee I can start one in Des Moines... hmmmm.
10.10.06 @ 10:13a
Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun! And to just finish something like that is to win. : )
10.10.06 @ 5:49p
I am now completely tired to death and am going to take a nap. But before I zonk out in well deserved dreams, let me just say that you are sooooooooooo cool!
10.13.06 @ 1:45a
It didn't feel like fun at the time, trust me. I think my body has finally recovered. I do wish we knew then what we know now. Just like the Chicago Cubs, Wait till next year!
10.13.06 @ 11:06a
Would you do it again?