Wednesday, October 1, 2008

San Francisco Oyster Race 2008

So as many of you know due to my last minute pledge drive, I signed up to do the San Francisco Oyster Urban Adventure Race. This race bills itself as the ultimate urban adventure race. Up until now all of my adventure races have been in the great outdoors where there's bears and stuff, so I figured this should be a piece of cake. What's that about the ego and the fall? Read on...

So as the southernmost member of team Google Gears, and the one with the biggest vehicle, I volunteered to pick up my teammates, Alan Yu and Erin Shea, on my way into SF. We had decided that we wanted to be up in SF early to get a good place to setup, and that meant being there at about 0600. At that time in the morning it takes between 1.25 and 1.5 hours to get from my place to SF, and since I was picking people up along the way it meant taking off at 0415. I got about 10 minutes down the highway when I had an "oh shit" moment, and immediately did a u-turn because I felt that I should probably bring along the socks I had forgotten to grab in my dash out the door. So now 20 minutes off schedule I dropped the hammer from my place to Alan's in Mountain View, and actually arrived only 5 minutes late. Unfortunately his house was very dark. I grabbed my cell to give him a call, and found the text message he had sent me the night before telling me that he had gotten some other people to reserve us a spot, and that we could sleep in another 45 minutes. I was just settling down in the back of the truck for another 30 minutes of sleep, when Alan came out because he had heard me park in front of his place. We sat down and discussed strategy over a bowl of porridge, and then went and grabbed Erin in Palo Alto, and headed on into the city.

The race was to start from the Crissy Field which is just to the south east of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's right beside the Sports Basement down near Fort Mason. We arrived just about right on time, and found that one of the other Google teams had reserved a really nice spot for us. Alan had actually organized three separate Google teams, so we had one 3 man team, one 6 person co-ed team, and our 3 person co-ed team all dressed up in our spiffy Google jerseys. Just after we arrived, Erin had her "oh shit" moment of the day when she realized she had forgotten her bike cleats. Luckily one of the guys had a spare pair that were only about 5 sizes too big but when cinched down tightly enough seemed to do the trick.

The weather man had promised us 32C (90F) so we were pretty happy when the day started off cool. We all got ready to go and, after a brief rules session and a quick national anthem, we were ready to rumble. One of the biggest differences between urban, or at least the Oyster, and most outdoor adventure races is that you are actually encouraged to use a GPS and/or internet connection. This changes stuff a bit because navigation becomes more a matter of how quickly you can get a decent internet connection and how to carry your phone in such a way that it's easily viewable, as opposed to the map work that I was used to. Also, instead of check points that have UTM coordinates, you get clues that tell you where to go, and they take a little interpreting.

At 0800 we were told that our first clues were hidden amongst the racks of clothing in Sports Basement. We sprinted into the shop and immediately started to ransack the place. Several employees were in there to make sure we didn't do too much damage, but there were probably 75 people tearing apart the racks looking for clues. I finally got one handed to me by another team who had found two, and discovered that our first event was going to be cycling into Golden Gate Park. We ran back to our transition area, hopped onto our bikes and cruised up into the Presidio. We were looking for Stowe lake, and the clue said "Don't falls of your bike". Turns out there's a man made waterfall on a small peninsula that sticks out into the middle of the lake. The usually rule of outdoor adventure races is "if in doubt go up" because they like to make you climb, so I figured that it would be at the top of the falls. Turns out the guy was at the bottom, who then sent us to the top, so we got to climb the hill twice. The next clue sent us off to the Grandview Park Staircase, which is a beautifully mosaiced staircase to take a picture of some bats on the stairs. None of us knew where Grandview Park was, so we turned to the internets which happily gave us directions. Unfortunately the staircase isn't actually in the park, but leads up to the park. After a bit of confusion we found our staircase and took our picture of the bats and headed back to the transition area at Crissy Field.

Our next leg was to be a running leg, and required us running back up into the Presidio to the Presidio Golf Course. Once we got there, one of our teammates was required to hit two golf balls into two marked locations on the putting green. After several extremely close shots on a very fast green, Alan managed to put two balls into the rings, and we got our next clue. This time we needed to take a picture of ourselves with the "Welcome to Marin County" sign at the far end of the Golden Gate Bridge. At this point we were neck and neck with our Google Guys team, so the six of us ran off into the fog across the bridge dodging our way through all the tourists. We grabbed our pictures, and headed back to the transition area. Leg 2 was now done.

Leg 3 was a multi part leg that was to be done mostly on inline skates (although we had the option of using running shoes if we needed them). We had three things that we needed to do:
• Take a picture with a drag queen at the Folsom St Fair
• Take a picture of the historic "plaque" in a F-Line street car
• Take a picture of a Giants Fan and a Dodgers fan wearing the appropriate fan gear
Now I knew that wearing blades was part of this race, and I had found some nice blades on Craigslist the week before for $40. I had gotten out on them a few times, and thought I was doing pretty well. As it turns out there's a big difference between blading on the mostly empty Coyote Creek trail down by my house and blading on the Embarcadero through Fisherman's Wharf packed with tourists. Also, Morgan Hill is mostly flat, where SF is kind of known for it's changes in altitude. Finally there are much fewer cars, buses and trolleys flying around Morgan Hill than there is in SF. As it turned out Alan was a very strong skater, and Erin had certainly been on skates before (although she later told me it had been about 5 years), so aside from me, the team was doing pretty well. Anyways, this was by far the most exciting and scary part of the race for me. Nobody died, although I did fall on my ass once, and used several mail boxes, parked cars, and the occasional lamp posts as "stopping aids". My teammates were extremely patient with me and were very good about checking to make sure intersections were "clear" before I went flying through them out of control. Although I quickly discovered that Erin and Alan had very different definitions of "clear". Erin's "clear", meant that it was actually clear whereas Alan's "clear" meant that a car/trolley/bus was coming but it would miss you by a split second if you pushed it hard.

Anyways, our first stop was the F-Line, just the other side of Fisherman's wharf. We hopped on the train on our blades, which really didn't impress the driver, and had one of the other riders take our picture in front of the plaque. A stop later we hopped off and bladed away. Alan used to work in downtown SF, so he had a good idea where we were headed as we went up to Folsom St. The Folsom St. Fair is a outdoor sex fair that happens once a year in SF and covers about 4 city blocks. Luckily we found a drag queen standing at the front of the line to get in and "she" graciously allowed us to take her picture. We also got a great shot of the two guys in their leather harnesses who were kind enough to snap the group picture of our token drag queen and us as her entourage.

With two tasks completed we were on our way, still on blades, to ATT Stadium to see if we could find a Dodgers fan and a Giants fan. As we were dodging through traffic to get there Erin made the play of the day as she spotted a car that contained not only two baseball fans, but amazingly, one Dodgers fan and one Giants fan both wearing their t-shirts. She waved them down mid intersection, and they happily let us take a picture of them. We quickly turned around and headed back to the transition area with all of our precious pixels on the camera to see what our next task would be.

Leg 4 started with us running to East Beach, which was a short hop away. I managed to spot the Merrill flag on the horizon, and we were able to shortcut through a public garden to save some time. Once we got to the beach we found surf boards awaiting us with some buoys out in the ocean. Originally the idea had been that we were going to surf paddle out around the buoys, once for each team member. Surf paddling is where you stand on a surf board with a long paddle in hand, and paddle away. I've done it once, and it requires a fair amount of balance. Unfortunately it turned out that the weather man had lied, and not only was it not 32 C (90 F) it was actually quite windy, and there was a fair amount of chop on the water. Most teams opted out of the standing paddling, and decided to lie down and paddle their board with their hands. Erin went out first for the Gears, and put in a smoking time. We later found out she's quite a competitive swimmer. Alan then hopped on the board and started out for the first buoy. Just as he reached the first buoy he stopped paddling and started quickly drifting away towards Alcatraz. Turns out he dislocated his shoulder paddling, and although he managed to get it back in, it had immediately popped out again. The checkpoint organizer swam out and grabbed Alan while Erin did his lap for him. I helped Alan up onto the beach, and then took my turn paddling through the waves. The water was actually very warm so that was fine, but you ended up with a lot of sand everywhere. Thoroughly soaked, but having a blast, we headed back to the transition area to get the instructions for our final leg.

The last leg turned out to be a biking leg that had a couple of requirements:
• go to three different Zip car drop off locations, and search the cars for clues that would give us our final checkpoint
• one team member must wear a bright yellow "Batter Blaster" pancake mix t-shirt for the entire leg
• we must go to a specific Whole Foods and buy a can of "Batter Blaster" and bring it with us across the finish line
I grabbed the shirt and pulled it on, finding out that it was a VERY tight medium, and we rode off to the first of the Zip car locations.

It turns out that the Zip car clues were hidden inside the cars in different locations and were little puzzle pieces that you had to put together to give you the full clue. We managed to find the clues at the first two locations without any troubles, and decided to go get our can of 'Batter Blaster' before we grabbed the last clue. The Whole foods turned out to be basically at the top of one of the steepest hills in SF. We all had our heart rates spike as we ground our way up the hills. Once we got to the Whole Foods, we ran in (with our bikes) and quickly located our can of "Blaster". Just as we were starting to head to the final Zip car point Erin noticed that the other clues we had collected had gotten soaking wet because her clothes were still wet from going paddling. The clues were almost illegible. So we went back to all the zip cars and collected up all the clues yet again. Once we assembled the clues we could see that they spelled out "Vesuvio's" which we later found out is a relatively famous cafe in SF. We had never heard of it, but Google saved our skins. Turns out that several of the racers who knew SF reasonably well knew that it was Vesuvio's right after they saw the first clue, and didn't even bother getting the rest of them. Anyways we raced over to Vesuvio's, took the picture and headed back to the finish line.

We came in 11th place overall (5th in our category) after 6 hours 10 minutes and 33 seconds of running/biking/blading/paddling our way around SF. If we had been in 3 minutes earlier we would've been in 7th overall. Doesn't really matter, because we all had a great time. Click here for all the results.

Alan made a great attempt to win the "Biggest Bite" award with his dislocated shoulder story, but lost out to a guy who ran into a trolley and on top of having many bumps and bruises may have broken his arm. After grabbing some pizza, Erin and I headed home, while Alan grabbed a ride later with his brother. I got home just in time for dinner, which was wonderful.

Thanks again to everyone who sponsored us. We really appreciate it. Big thanks to Jen for babysitting for the day, while I went off and played. Finally massive thanks to my teammates Erin and Alan who rock! Also congrats to the other Google teams for doing so well, and looking so stylish while you did it ;-)

For those of you who want to see pictures, download this file: sf-oyster-2008 and open it in Google Earth. It's got a full map of the race course, and I've added pushpins at the various locations. Click on the pin, and you'll get a quick description, and a picture if I've got one (Thanks to Erin for all the great pics!). It's definitely worth a look.

If you need to get Google Earth, click here.


Don said...

Wild story. Sounds like the course checkpoint monitors were neat people too.
Tried to get the results (4th last paragraph) and only got a black blank page- my problem or yours?

Dave said...

I think it's your problem. Showing up fine here. Do you have the Acrobat plugin installed? That could be the issue. Maybe try removing it.

Randal said...

Hi!! I have participated in the Urban Dare Challenge held at Phoenix early this year but this is the first time I am hearing about the Oyster race. A cocktail of running, cycling, rollerblading, kayaking, swimming, and games…great!! I would love to participate whenever I can. Thanks for the detailed description. Now I know what to expect. But then someone told me that in these races, you get to see the most unexpected things! Anyways thanks for the comprehensive post!! All the best for the next one!