Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Amazing Milwaukee Race!

Was, in fact, pretty amazing.  Most amazing was that out of 70 teams we came in 5th.  5th!  If we hadn't missed one of the clues we might have had a shot at 2nd place, which, being our team name, was in theory what we were going for.

(Me and Linda in our "Korinthian Violins & The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra Team Up For Second Place!" T-shirts waiting at the starting point.)

But first things first:  You want to know what I packed, oh yes you do.  Because I like to be prepared but I am also a geek.  How much of a geek am I?  Well, the morning of the race I decided it would be fun to bring my Dr Who sonic screwdriver, but the batteries weren't working.  So I had to pack my SPARE Dr Who sonic screwdriver.  That's how geeky I am.
Because that could come in handy.  (Actually, it doubles as a pen, so maybe it could have.)  I also brought a Rubik's cube.  That only ever becomes useful if I need to keep other people's children distracted in public places for some reason, so I don't know why I always feel compelled to bring along a cube except that it makes me happy.  And happy is good, so why not.

The funny thing about doing the race with Linda is that I love her company and we get along well, but part of that is we think alike in many ways.  Too many ways to be helpful to each other in a team event where maybe a variety of skills might prove important.  We have too many of the same instincts.  For instance, we were both inspired to bring a compass and a fancy whistle.  And Linda approved of my bringing scissors, the sonic screwdriver, the cube, and asked if maybe we should have some twine which had also occurred to me, so I grabbed a thing of dental floss.  We used none of these things.  All we really needed were my bus tickets, some cash, her smart phone, a pencil and paper, and the snacks and water were nice but it's not like we were in the woods and couldn't have picked up something.  (In fact, one of our clues sent us into a grocery store and we got ourselves bananas.)  What we needed was someone with a different approach to substitution cyphers, but it was fun, we were never bored, and we had a great day.

Now let me tell you about the race: (And this is long, so seems like a good idea to add a jump here.)

We started off at Next Act Theater in the Third Ward area of Milwaukee where there was a bar, lots of enthusiastic people, and some interesting hats.

At 11:00am they loaded us onto three school buses, took us up to the Brewer's Hill neighborhood and dropped us off at the Lakefront Brewery where there was another bar, even more people, and they took a group photo.  I wonder if events outside Milwaukee involve this much beer?  I don't drink, so Linda was the team designated lush.  To tell you the truth, we started to believe we might have a chance if most of the teams were on their way to being drunk that early.

After the photo we got a speech about obeying laws and calling 911 if we got hurt, and then every team got a ziploc bag containing the first clue which we got to open at the end of a group countdown.  Linda and I thought we were clever to stand away from the crowd and closer to the door, but it turned out before we could get our first location we had to find the other team in the group with the other half of the beer pictured on our cards.  So we were among the last to find our match and by then they had run out of clues!  They had to just tell us to go to the Row House down the street.

We followed the crowd down to the river where it turned out we also needed waivers (that we also hadn't been given) to use the rowing machines inside the building.  Luckily another team let us add our names to theirs and we were among the last to arrive but we got there.  We had to put in ten good rows on the machines before we could get our next clue.  Linda was thrown off balance by her backpack and toppled backwards at one point.  Not an auspicious beginning to this race!

But we headed out, last of the group, and followed the crowd (now way ahead of us) up the Marsupial Bridge where we had to finger paint little pictures of feet onto a canvas.  The original plan was to have people take off a shoe and leave a real footprint, but the weather was too cold and rainy and nasty to ask anyone to do that and remain good-spirited about the whole thing, so they mercifully went with Plan B.

The next clue was where I think it got clever, because I kept trying to figure out how they were going to break up this big mob that was just tromping from place to place.  Well, we got three things to do in any order we wanted.  One was to buy as many groceries from a list of options for the Hunger Task Force for a minimum of $10 but as close to that amount as we could get.  Another was to head to a branch of the library near where a well known pizza place had burned down.  The last was to identify a minimum of 34 places on this picture of historic Milwaukee buildings:

It's amazing how many things you can recognize and not be able to name.  Linda and I just kept pointing at things and saying, "Hey!  I've seen that!" but we worked on our list on and off as we wandered along.

The mob started splitting apart as some people headed for the library and others started working on the list and the rest of us went into the grocery store.  We bought soup and juice and cereal and granola bars and some canned goods and decided to sort it out when we got to the next location.

The walk to the library was wet and cold and we got a little confused about the direction we were headed despite the help of the GPS, but we laughed about how badly we were doing and ate bananas. 

Once in the library I set to work on the historic locations picture in earnest while Linda assembled a decoder ring and tallied up our groceries.  We wound up crossing the Cheerios off our receipt and settled on 6 items totaling just over $13.  (The winners of that particular task somehow bought 22 items for under $11!  Impressive.)

This is where things started to get complicated.  After assembling the decoder ring we got a slip of paper that said 'St John's Infirmary' on one side, and 'Old North Point Water Tower' on the other.  Underneath those headers were a series of dashes that represented words, and we recognized these as the historical markers at those locations.  I put on my rain pants (because it was really wet out and darn it, I packed rain pants) and we headed toward the lake where other teams were already assembled, busily scribbling down information from the markers and studying their decoders.  Linda took a picture of each one with her phone and we settled in for a few minutes on a cold porch at the old Infirmary to try and solve the puzzle but to no avail.  No one else taking shelter on that porch seemed to be faring any better than we were, and eventually we decided this was a task better done somewhere warm and dry.  We went across the street to the entryway of the hospital where more teams were working together trying to solve the cypher.

Now, we tried.  I swear we did.  But we both attacked the problem the exact same way and were no real help to each other.  We figured out that just the highlighted letters and numbers were the ones we needed off the signs, and that the three wheels on the decoder when lined up the right way spelled the word 'RACE' so that was the logical way to set it.  But nothing we wrote down using a basic substitution cypher made any sense and we were stuck.  Stuck I tell you!  And even now, after someone showed me how to do it I don't get how we were supposed to see this, but here it is:

Supposedly if we used the code on the black wheel and wrote down the letters on either side, we got two rows of nonsense, that if we somehow knew to jump back and forth between in a random fashion, we would get the word 'Lighthouse.'  Linda and I did not get the word Lighthouse. 

We did, however, have the sense to follow the group when they all got up at once and headed north toward the bookstore, which was the answer to the other decoder clue.  This saved us, otherwise we would still be out there, somewhere, in the rain or some lobby, staring at our wheel of doom feeling lost and old and dumb.  Instead we decided the decoder was a hopeless use of our time and used our brilliant skills of observation to just follow people who seemed to know where they were going.

At Boswell Books we were able to drop off our food donation for the Hunger Task Force, and then we got a slip of paper on which we were supposed to type a little poem about the flame light on the top of the gas building downtown.  There were about half a dozen old fashioned manual typewriters with teams of people busily clacking away at them.  Linda dictated while I typed, and I'd forgotten just how different using an old typewriter is from a computer keyboard.  Not just in the physical aspect of really having to push down on the keys, but it's arranged differently.  There was no '1' because (as I learned in 7th grade back in another century) you use a lower case 'L' for that, and since there was no '1' key there was no '!' above it.  It came back to me that in order to make an exclamation point you had to type an apostrophe and go back and put a period under it.  That slows things down.  Plus it's alarming to realize just how sloppy you can allow yourself to be when you're used to corrections being practically instantaneous.

Anyway, here is my crappy typing job, along with some instructions that I am quite sure I did not need to type, but Linda and I just got carried away so there we are.

We flipped through a book about Milwaukee while we were in the bookstore and found another building on our sheet, and then Linda tried to find a few more using her smart phone while I memorized the poem on our bus ride downtown.  There was a small group of us on the bus who all hopped out at the same stop and headed for the gas building.  Once inside, race volunteers started checking our answers on the building list (thankfully even with a few wrong we got the minimum we needed) and then let us take turns going up the elevator to the 17th floor.

It was wonderful to see the glorious view, and I managed to recite the poem in front of a video camera without forgetting everything, and we were proud of ourselves for identifying as many historic Milwaukee buildings as we did, but the best part about the gas building stop on the race?  Finding out we were no longer in last place as we had assumed.  Far from it.  The volunteers in the lobby said not only were we the first group to arrive at that location, but so many people were having trouble with the decoder ring that there was a big crowd still stuck at a bar called The Roman Coin where you could get hints if you bought a drink. 

This gave us so much hope!  We were not the absolute worst players in the race!  It didn't make sense, but we were somehow doing well!

To celebrate we wandered the wrong direction for a couple of blocks before figuring out what way we were facing and then headed toward the Milwaukee Public Market back in the Third Ward for our next task.  On the way we were stopped by a man with a question about how to find a gas station and we told him quickly, adding, "But now we have to go!  We are in a race!"

At the Public Market we were given the choice between solving some kind of puzzle on a checkerboard with other teams or eating a Limburger cheese sandwich.  Much easier to just split a sandwich, and we were hungry and it was good.  But maybe playing mandolin music has damaged our sense of smell or something, because Linda and I both found the cheese rather mild and not unpleasant in any way, and everyone else we ran into at the finish line had found it appalling.  One woman just kept saying, "Oh, don't get too close to me, I ate that stinky sandwich!"  I still don't quite know what to make of that.

Anyway!  From the Public Market we got to go to Spin, which is a Ping Pong bar.  Our task there was to play a four person ping pong match against any two opponents of our choosing.  I scanned the room and spotted a dad playing with his kid and figured they'd be willing to play along with our game and asked them if they would like to join us.  They were happy to oblige and we beat them 21 to 10, which we would take more gleeful pride in if one of the players hadn't been only about nine.  But it was a race, and I thought beating a kid would be quicker than playing anyone else available at Spin, so it was a sound if somewhat heartless strategy.  

Here it gets a little iffy again, because the last clue they handed us said to put our clues in order and go to the finish line.  But there was nothing to indicate where the finish line was.  I laid out all the clues to see if they spelled something or provided some additional information, but nothing came of it.  So we spotted another team heading toward the Milwaukee Ale House (which seemed like a reasonable place for all the teams to meet up again) and decided to follow them there, and it did turn out to be the final location.  (Other people told us their clue slips clearly stated 'Milwaukee Ale House' on them, so I don't understand what happened to us.  However, there is a certain symmetry in not getting either a first clue or a last clue, but hey!  We finished!)

We were actually among the first three teams to arrive, getting to the restaurant a good hour before the designated end time for the race.  But!  All three teams were missing the lighthouse clue.  Apparently we were supposed to go to the North Point Lighthouse and buy a frisbee and throw it to each other from a certain distance or something, and none of us had done it because none of us had solved the cypher.  We'd all just gone straight to the bookstore.  I don't think it was until the eleventh team showed up that someone had also made it to the lighthouse and had all the clues.  The rest of us were given a time penalty, and the status of Second Place was relegated to Fifth Place. 

Which was fine.  Better than fine.  Freakin' unbelievable if you ask me.  Linda and I hung around for another couple of hours and watched the rest of the teams slowly pour in from the cold as we ate chocolate cake (which we deserved because we were in a race!) and clapped as people won door prizes of beer and gift certificates and received their plaques for first, second, and third place.

What a day!  Next year's race will be on bikes, and there is talk of the violin store maybe getting to be a location on a future course sometime.  How fun would that be?

So that was my Amazing Milwaukee Race adventure.  Loved it.  (Thanks again, Linda!  You were awesome!)

I'm already thinking it might be fun to plot out a mini version in our neighborhood for the kids this summer.  (Jump rope this many times, eat an apple slice by the blue slide in the park, play tic tac toe.... Lots of possibilities!)

Now if you'll excuse me, I need sleep.


  1. YOU are awesome! What a totally fun day, and a wonderful excuse to hang out together. I'm impelled to use exclamation points since I'm not typing this with a vintage Royal typewriter!!!! one more...!
    -Linda, designated beer drinker

  2. Sounds like it was a fabulous day, despite the weather. Thanks for the lively descriptions!

  3. Now I am really sorry I was not the alternate!
    The race was a triumph of good over whatever else was there. Probably more good.
    Nonetheless I am a proud mother of the second Place- fifth place winner (sounds a lot like that funny 3rd 5th bank that I have never understood)
    cheers!!!!from themamamam

  4. Just like when I watch action movies and think about how quickly I'd be dead, all I could think about as I read your post was how badly I would have done. Nice work! Also good job kicking that nine-year-old's butt at ping pong. I'm sure he deserved it.

  5. Thanks for sharing! Sounds awesome! (And if you ever do make up a neighborhood one for the kids, count us in!)

  6. How fun! When I first read the title, I thought it was a marathon and you were one of "those people" who like running. If you ever need another designated drinker, I'm there. Yes, I would do that for you. :)

  7. This sounds like so much fun!! What a great way to (re)explore your city. (I wanna do one in Boston!)

  8. Oh my gosh! How fun is that?? Love this.

  9. Great recap! I had to laugh when I saw your comment about not being the worst team - I do believe that honor goes to me and my husband. Even though we thought we came in 67th, the official roster has us in 69th place. And, well...we got to skip the ping pong. So I'm pretty sure we would have come in last. But we had so much fun, can't wait to do it again!

    Oh, and after we spent a horrible amount of time on that cipher, we called Adam. He explained how it worked, and we realized that we were very close to having it right but were missing the fact that we could pick either letter. We got the first 2 letters and my husband shouted "lighthouse!" The GPS confirmed there was a lighthouse nearby, so we went. We had no idea if we were on the right track, but when we got there we saw other teams and breathed a sigh of relief!

    1. I'm impressed you figured out 'lighthouse'! I think the only thing that killed you was walking to downtown instead of taking the bus, otherwise you coulda been a contenda.

  10. I'm totally in if you decide to do a neighborhood race! I'm so bummed I didn't find out about the Milwaukee Race until after the fact. If you find out about it early next year will you let me know? I think if I got my two sista's back into town for it we could be a pretty dang good team. :o) Nice job~ I will always think of you as 2nd place in the Great Race! (until you take first of course)

  11. Speaking as a member of the 6th place team, I understand ALL of the dilemmas you mentioned (probably far too well). And I was glad to know (sort of) that the only reason anyone solved the cypher was because they got a hint. How that was considered logical I will never understand. :)

    I love the idea of a kid race around the neighborhood, too...may have to do some brainstorming on that.