Monday, September 26, 2011

2011 San Francisco Oyster Race

Sue and Kirsten, tied together, wearing bike helmets,
inside A.T.&T Park, solving a puzzle. 

Ah, Adventure. By thy very name you are the unexpected. And we were expecting the unexpected. But we were anticipating it during the Oyster Race - not on the way there, at 6am on a cold, foggy dawn on the shoulder of the freeway.

Adventure, you win this round.

Last year the four of us were part of the Las Vegas Triathlon (see blogpost HERE). Sue, Kirsten and I as competitors and Karen as our roadie/cheerleader. We had a great time training for the Tri, but the race itself was a poorly coordinated, heat-stricken endurance contest out in Lake Mead and the long, steep hills around it. Not fun.

So this year we decided to have as much fun AT the race as we did during the training. The Oyster Race seemed to fit this bill perfectly. It is one of the new wave of “Urban Adventure” Races where the emphasis is on your brains as much as your brawn and the gimmick is that you do not know what you’ll be doing beforehand.

All they told us for our level of race was “20-30 miles, Running and Biking and we reserve the right to get you wet.” Other than that they provide a long list of wacky activities that you MIGHT be doing. The actual goals are given to you in a series of passports. Your team is handed the first immediately before the start of the race. You finish that – whatever and wherever it is – and then head back to the transition area to pick up passport number two. And so on, throughout the day.

Hard to train for, right? How do you prepare for a race where you have no idea what you’ll be doing? Well, we each individually decided to prepare for the Oyster Race by having other events in our lives overwhelm us. Events such as losing a job, abdominal surgery a month before and having a house burn down with every possession inside. So we were laughably unprepared for this race. Luckily laughter is one of the requirements.

Image Copyright Dagobah Tourist Authority
When it came time to register our three person team, I thought back to our grim experience at the Vegas Tri and named us team “Do, or do not.” And we wore t-shirts that thumbed our noses at last years race: “Do, or do not. There is no Try.” I hoped Master Yoda would forgive us. Other teams were better dressed, but none were as obviously geeky as ours, so I think we pick up some bonus points for that.

Team Do, or Do Not met – for the very first time – at 5:30am on race day. (5:30 being the magic hour that Starbucks opens). We met in Scotts Valley, which is 80 miles from where the race would start at 8am. We loaded up our three bikes onto Captain Kirsten’s new bike rack, which had not been tested before. But that fit in perfectly with Sue and Kirsten’s bikes, each of which were less than two weeks old. (One had been stolen from a train station and the other melted in the house fire.)

Bikes loaded, Sue returned to her car to get her bag and returned with a small green frog that had hopped into her open door. And you know, it kinda looked like Yoda. A good sign. We released it into a bush and we were on our way.

Pre-Adventure Adventure

Team Good Sign lasted a full half hour, until 6am when we hit a rough section of road and then noticed that the bike rack was swaying back and forth like a gigantic, drunken hula dancer. Yikes!

It's Team 'Do', not 'Do it Pretty'
A quick lookover in the pre-dawn darkness showed that the new, three bike bikerack was simply not up to the task of holding three large, hybrid bicycles. Two of its three supporting belts had snapped cleaned through. We had been moments away from jettisoning our bikes all over the dark freeway.

What to do? We already had four people and four large gear bags in a small sedan. The bike rack was clearly toast. Plus we had also picked up a flat tire on one of the bikes. We ended up with the 3 bikes lying on top of each other in the back of the trunk, with the remaining pieces of the straps used to hold the hatch down. The gear bags were put on laps and Team Stuffed Like a Christmas Turkey was back underway, albeit slowly and nervously.

Golden Gate Bridge, quickly disappearing in the fog.
The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, which means that construction on the roads leading up to the bridge has been going on for close to 75 years now. So it was a bit of teamwork and guesswork just getting down to sea level. A toboggan run of mystery.

The Oyster Race began at Crissy Field, at the base of the Presidio, in the shadow of the Bridge. This is where the Transition Area was, in the parking lot of the Sports Basement, which knows a good marketing ploy when it sees one. San Francisco did not skimp on the weather either: Cold, dreary, foggy, breezy with more than a hint of rain in the air. Yay…….
The Transition Area (TA) with stalls for each team.
We parked the car with less than a half hour to go before the start of the race. While Roadie / Cheerleader Karen raced off to pick up our Race Packets. Kirsten took off across the parking lot and into the Sports Basement, dragging her flat-tired bike with her. Sue took some more cold medication while I set up the transition area with the other bikes, our gear bags, food and water, charged smart phones, change of clothes and towels (“We reserve the right to get you wet”) and a chair for our roadie / gear guard.

Quick! Take the picture - we've got to get out of here!
As the other teams were gathered at the starting line to hear the rules and instructions, Team Spaz was back in our stall frantically pinning our numbers on and trying to figure out if we were running or biking first. Sue and I got up to the front to get the first passport. As the announcer thanked the sponsors and get everyone fired up for the start we saw Kirsten emerge from the store with her fixed bike and fly across the parking lot to our stall at the transition area. The go signal was given while Karen pinned Kirsten’s number to her jersey, a quick team portrait and Team We’re Already Last was off and running.

Passport #1: Pick Your Poison

The running lasted the length of the parking lot. We quickly settled into a fast walk as we tried to read the first passport. It was lengthy and complicated. We had three tasks to accomplish:

  1. Go rock climbing
  2. Do a routine on a trampoline
  3. Earn twelve points by taking pictures of the team engaged in several of 17 different activities, such as:
a.    hugging a policeman (2 pts)
b.    Burying a team member in sand (5 pts)
c.     Photo of entire team decked out in orange roadside construction gear (4 pts)
d.    Kissing a dog on the mouth (2 pts)
e.    Each team member doing a different yoga pose (3 pts)
f.      Standing in the ocean (3 pts)
g.    Standing on a bridge (2 pts)
h.    Buying a box of Rice-a-Roni (4 pts)
i.      Taking a pie in the face (6 points!!)
j.      A team picture with Alcatraz in the background (2 pts)

Captain Kirsten rock climbing
The last we took care of right away, courtesy of another team who took our picture for us. It’s a good thing we did too, as the morning fog then descended completely and The Rock was closed off to future photographers.

Number 1 was pretty straightforward as there was a rock climbing gym at the other end of Crissy Field with volunteers waiting for us. Captain Kirsten was elected to do this task. Meanwhile Sue and I had spotted a dog and his owner going by. This poor retriever was suddenly surrounded by several other teams who now desperately wanted to kiss it on the mouth. The owner explained that his dog was a bit skittish, and all this activity wasn’t helping him. The crowd let him go, and then spotted another dog and owner across the field. Tally ho!
Sue takes one for the Team.

Hudson the basset hound was much more amenable to kissing and very soon he was having the very best day of his doggie life as he quickly became the most popular dog in San Francisco. Sue later said that she had never had a drier kiss from a dog, but that may have been due to tongue overuse by that point.

Back at the Climbing Gym we met Captain Kirsten who was now as hot and sweaty as we were cold and wet from the dew on the field. She had climbed a 50 foot wall and retrieved a stuffed elephant toy at the top. Team Do or Do Not then headed next door to the trampoline place, where we waited in a line with a lot of other giddy teams. We planned the rest of our photo options (Where can we get a pie around here?), and picked off the yoga photo right there in line.

Tree, Warrior and Downward Dog, More or less.
The trampolining was fairly difficult. We were all given individual trampolines. I was across from Kirsten, and Sue was across from our very cute male guide – who showed us how to do various tricks, from touching our toes in mid air, to the quick stop, to how to land on our butts. Once we had passed all these tests we had to do a routine that consisted of one jump of bringing our knees up to our chest, then one where touched our toes with our legs out and finally we had to bounce on our butts and land on our feet. Kirsten and I did these pretty easily but Sue was having difficulty pulling off the routine. She had Mr. Cute Boy show her over and over again, and confessed later that she was pretty much just stringing him along to watch him bounce some more.

Out of the trampoline place we headed to the seaside to pick off the last two items on our picture safari. We spotted a team who had just finished a rudimentary sand castle and was headed out into the surf to get a group photo. We volunteered to take their picture in return for a favor. We took their camera and then the last guy on the team sees what we’re after and obliterates their sand castle. No fair! We were trying to cheat fair and square.
We are so in the ocean. This totally counts.

Their team heads out into the surf, and they could not have been from the West Coast, as we locals all know that you never go out too far, and you NEVER turn your back on the ocean. Sure enough a quick swell came up behind them and soaked the lower half of ‘em. Serves ‘em right for squishing their sand castle. 

A few yards up the beach though we came across a young man who had made a sand castle all by himself. He seemed a bit confused as to why these three strangers with numbers on their chests were so complimentary to his masterpiece, but he gamely took the camera we handed him and took a picture of us with his sand castle. Score! And hey, nowhere in the passport did it state that the sand castle had to be of OUR design and creation.

We found a dog water faucet, rinsed our feet in the bowl, dumped and refilled it and headed back to the Transition Area.

Passport #2: Balls and Buoys

Not pictured: The guy who actually built this.
We were surprised to see the TA empty when we returned. Karen informed us, diplomatically, that just about everybody was here and gone already. That was a sobering thought while we all ate sports bars, bananas and hi-tech gels. We were going to have to get a move on if we were going to do this race at all. Too late and the volunteers simply close the activity and “fast forward” you to the next thing. And we didn’t want that. At least, not yet.

#2 was the big biking stage. We had to get to Pier #40 and A.T.&T. park, in either order. We had no idea where that particular wharf was, but I know darned well where the ballpark was, and it wasn’t close. Worse, there were some world famous hills between us and the home of the Giants. (If San Francisco is your right hand, then your thumb is the Golden Gate bridge. The transition area is the inside base of your thumb. and A.T.&T park is the tip of your pinkie. Holy cow.)

Team Wide Eyes was not about to bike across San Francisco. So we biked all the way around it, simply keeping the ocean on our left. We got down to the water just North of Fisherman’s Wharf and then on to the gigantic tourist trap of pier 39, and then, um, pier 41. Did we miss something? Where was pier 40? Was it between the worlds? Did we have to close our eyes and ride our bikes into a pier piling like in Harry Potter?

A local took pity on us and explained that odd numbered piers were on one side of the Ferry Building and the even numbered piers were on the other. This makes perfect sense if you’re in the Navy and you are looking at the waterfront from the water. For the other 99.9% of the world’s population though it seems dumb and stupid and arbitrary and ohmygod we are suddenly so many miles from where we need to be right now.

Not pictured: Any other team of racers.
So now we flew along the Embarcadero, weaving in and out of tourists, taxis, a farmers market and what came to be known as the Suddenly Stopping Stroller Syndrome. We passed the ferry building and finally the pier numbers started going our way. Pier 40 was nothing much to look at, but it had chairs and tables in front of it, and that looked like Heaven. Unfortunately over the side and down in the water was the kayak dock, and that was the destination for two of us.

Sue quickly reminded us that she was still fighting off a cold, so Captain Kirsten and I parked our bikes, handed over our helmets and phones and gamely walked down to the heaving deck below. We watched other kayak teams returning, some of whom were totally soaked. Ulp. We found a guide who held the boat against the dock while we got in, Kirsten up front and me back in steerage. The guide asked me if I had ever kayaked before. I cheerfully told him that I had canoed at Disneyland. Once. When I was 9. He gave me a stoic look and said “Good Luck” with an air of sad finality.

Team Titanic got away from the dock and turned around the right way and then I asked the guy where the hell we were going. He pointed. “Just head out beyond the breakwater and then turn right.” Ummm....okay......

Okay, admittedly not the super-best angle for docking.
Kirsten and I turned out to be a dynamite kayak team. In short order we were out of the breakwater and into the San Francisco Bay, but that’s where the swells and currents and winds were more serious. Our biggest obstacle however was coming right at us, in the form of other kayak teams who were zig-zagging all over the place, smacking their paddles into one another, dowsing water on themselves and generally working as much against themselves as with each other. And each one seemed to be magnetically attracted to our tiny vessel. 

Eventually we slalomed through these kamikazes and found our brave volunteer, who cheerfully answered my question by saying that she had no idea this morning that she would be spending a cold, gray day sitting in a kayak on the San Francisco Bay, with frantic teams crashing into her on all sides.

She punched our passport and we headed back to our dock, this time giving way to a couple of sailboats, who looked like aircraft carriers from our point of view. All was smiles and laughter at the dock until I tried to lift myself out of the kayak and found that my shoulders and arms would just barely support me. After half an hour of hard rowing my upper body had turned to Jell-O.

We picked up a rested Sue and pointed our bikes towards A.T.&T park, which was right next door. Unfortunately, between us and our destination, with time running out, was the start of the Walk to End Alzheimers Disease. A worthy cause no doubt, and popular too: There was about 10,000 earnest people in purple between us and the ballpark. Ay-yi-yi.

Passport #3: Food With Integrity

We did an end around towards the water and eventually got to our volunteer at the side entrance to the yard. She points us up one of the ramps. We enter and I have grand dreams of being able to run the bases and slide into home. Alas, all we see coming down are teams that do not look dirty but who ARE rubbing their wrists. One of them tells us “THAT was an ordeal.” Gee, thanks.

Fine. YOU take a perfect Olan Mills portrait one-handed
with an iPhone while your tied to somebody else.
At the top of the ramp a volunteer with a mad gleam in his eye hands us a piece of paper, a pencil and two sets of industrial rubber bands. He then ties us all together at the wrists, Captain Kirsten in the middle. He then waves us into the park with a scary little chuckle. 

We emerge into the wide seating area at the third base foul pole. Another volunteer tells us that our next destination is a Chipotle’s restaurant – but which one is to be found via the sentence puzzle that we will solve, somehow, somewhere in this section.

We wander around pathetically for awhile until one of park employees takes pity on us and tells us that the clues are clip art pictures that are inside the cup holders behind the seats. So we begin a quest that is less ‘systematic grid search’ and more ‘spaz-out in three different directions’.

It is fast approaching the 11am cut off when we find about half of the clues. We then use one of the master lists at the top of the aisle to substitute letters for our pictures. We plug in the letters into the spaces on our paper and see that the Chipotle’s is somewhere “On _ _ f f _ _ _ _ _  Street By The Wharf.” But which street is that? Ack!

Another wild-guess-one-handed
portrait shows us a cupholder instead.
We try cheating by using our smart phones – and yeah, try that when your hands are all tied together – and find that this particular franchise IS NOT ON THE GOOGLE MAP. Yosemite Sam levels of swearing then ensue. We head back to the seats and try to find more clues (with the park employees looking at their watches) and then Kirsten shows why she is the team Captain by searching the web for newly opened restaurants in the city and sure enough a Chipotle’s opened three weeks ago, on JEFFERSON street at Fisherman’s Wharf. Too soon to have made it on the Google map. Well played, Oyster Race. Well played, indeed.

And because we had dropped into the Embarcadero just north of Fisherman’s Wharf we had just missed it coming up. No matter – the horrid rubber band bondage is through and we are off South, back the way we had come. On the way we were pleased to be in traffic with other Oyster racers. We renamed ourselves Team So Not In Last Place.

At Chipotle’s the activity was to taste four different flavors of salsa and then name four ingredients in each flavor. By this time though our brains were shot, along with our taste buds. Plus being one of the last teams meant that almost all of the guacamole was gone. So Sue and I ate the chips and the other three salsas while Kirsten cruised the Chipotle’s website until she found the ingredient lists for their salsas. Cheating? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. All I know was that calories never tasted so good.

Fort Mason. Not pictured: 20 mph headwind.
From there we biked back to the Transition Area, straight into a stiff headwind. It was almost Noon. We had three passports under our belts. Unfortunately we eventually found out that there were SEVEN in all, meaning that we were less than halfway done. 

Karen noted that the last time we had entered camp we were all smiley and laughing. Now we were grim and spacy. We told her a little of the epicness of passport #2 but everytime we stopped moving we noticed that the day was actually pretty cold and breezy, so we parked the bikes and walked on to…..

Also, make sure you have your
stuffed animal with you.
Passport #4: Noah’s Ark

This destination we had to guess from the following lyrics:

“Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself up off the ground.”

Which was pretty obvious if you are a gay man or if you lived through 1979, or both. We were headed for the YMCA in the Presidio. Tellingly Passport #4 also told us “Remember, we reserve the right to get you wet.”

Now here’s what you may not know; The Presidio of San Francisco is pretty much a city unto itself. It covers 1,500 acres and is home to about 800 buildings, any one of which could be the YMCA. Luckily for us other teams were also looking through the presidio and many of them had distinctive outfits. So we trailed along behind Team Argyle Socks, Team Gold Lame Shorts, Team Green Headbands and Team Neon Orange Socks. And eventually we found the main gym of the Y.

Which wasn’t even close. We needed the pool, which they told us was (vague hand wave towards the bay) down-that-a-way. So we wandered around some more until we spotted Team Neon Orange socks again. They led us to one of the generic buildings that had a good sized line sticking out of it. Bingo.

We checked in with the volunteer and happily took up our places. We loved the line. You didn’t have to think in the line. You didn’t have to go anywhere. You didn’t have to do anything. The line was exactly what we needed then. Aaaaahhh.....

It was also the one place that all the various Oyster Races visited – hence the line. So we met lots of other teams and heard about the Oyster Shooter, which is the junior version. These lucky folks got all of their (few) destinations spelled out for them on one sheet of paper. There was also the Half Oyster, which, as the name implies, was only half the misery and terror that we were facing. Finally there was the Relay, wherein the biking and running parts of your team ALTERNATE doing the challenges, with the non-active parts staying back at the transition area, sipping margaritas or something. We suddenly felt like Team Total Idiots.

Captain Kirsten and stuffed elephant
Once inside the poolhouse though our gloom disappeared as we saw what exactly “Noah’s Ark” meant. Remember that stuffed elephant that Kirsten had plucked from the top of the climbing wall? Now was his moment in the spotlight. Our quest was for one of us to don an inflatable life ring and swim across the pool while transporting our plushie without getting him wet. At the end of the pool we handed off the elephant and the pool toy to the next person relay-style, who brought it back and handed it off to the last person.

It was easily one of the silliest things I have ever done, and I have a pretty long list of ridiculous accomplishments. Finished, we handed in our plush toy, put our shoes and socks back on and sloshed and squished our way back to the Transition Area, where it now seemed we had been living for years.

Passport #5: Beach Bum

Karen noted that our demeanor had moved from Smiley to Grim and was now down to Basic Life Support. We told her about all these other races that we should have signed up for instead of Full-on Super Stud Muffin, and she responded that DUH, she had been watching them come and go all day. Team Total Idiot then looked at Passport #5, which sounded like fun. It was a bike ride South to Baker Beach where we get to solve another puzzle which will lead us to Passport #6. Unfortunately it also said that we had to complete this part by 1pm, which was, oh my, a tidy 10 minutes from now. Captain Kirsten went to find a judge.

The last thing a team wants to do is be fast-forwarded, but Team Do, Or Do Not was pretty much DONE. The nice lady offered us either Passport 6 or 7. Captain K did not hesitate to hyperspace us to the grand finale. She got no arguments from the rest of the team.

Passport #7: Canvas and Cocktails

Sue added in the sun, noting that this was the only
appearance it was gonna make that day,
We walked back toward the city, but this time we entered San Francisco proper for the first time. We saw other teams on the road and we were delighted to be Team So Not In Last Place once more. A mile and a half later we found Izzy’s bar. Inside we were handed a free vodka lemonade and piece of paper to finger paint on. And it tells you something about this race and our mindset at this point that we didn’t really even raise an eyebrow at this. We just set down the drinks (alcohol would have had us catatonic in no time) and got to the finger painting.

Our instructions were to paint the name of the sponsor Vodka company and fill up 75% of the canvas. We did our best, painting a free-form version of our kayak, two stick figures and a lot of water around us. Finished, we hand in our masterpiece to the judges, who promptly fail us. We are sent back to add in more color. I had visions of hoisting this art critic up by his shirt, slamming him against the wall and screaming in his face: “Listen, Mister smug little volunteer pants! You have NO IDEA what I’ve been through today! I’m going to pour this red finger paint down your throat and then squeeze you until you shit a Mark Rothko!!”

But I was too tired to go through with it. Back at the table we kinda painted the rest of the boat and I sorta added in a black border. The judges were nicer this time (or maybe our glares were intimidating) and we were allowed to leave. The game now was to get our painting back to the Transition area in one piece. No painting means no finish. But the breeze of the morning had shifted into a steady 20 mph wind by this point, and our ‘Kayak in Sullen Red #1’ was dripping wet and slippery (probably due to the face that we had spilled a vodka lemonade all over the paper before we even began). It tore once in the wind and another time it flew out of Kirsten’s hands and she had to go jump on it to stop it. So with the tear and some gravel and a big footprint it had morphed from Willen De Kooning expressionism to full-on Jackson Pollack mixed media.

Got the cowbell! But lordy am I tired.
But, as with everything we had done today it was just good enough. Back at the transition area we showed our painting to the judges and got a big smile and a cheesy cowbell to show our completion of the Oyster Race. Team 1,2 Skip-A-Few, 99, 100 had triumphed.

Oh no, More Adventure

Back in the transition area we were positively stupid with exhaustion. But we still had to find a better way to get our bikes back home. Kirsten went off to buy a new bike rack at the Sports Basement. Sue, always the practical one, got a free burrito from the volunteers. Karen packed up all of our gear. And me, I had the bright idea to go change my clothes. 

See, I had been wearing my one-piece bike jumper all day (with the team t-shirt over it). I like the jumper because it has lots of padding in the saddle area. But since my tour through the pool with an elephant plushie in my mouth I had been feeling like I was wearing a big, soggy diaper. And I didn’t want to sit on that all the way home.

So I took my change of clothes, entered the Sports Basement and found one of the changing rooms. Which had no bench in it. So I sat down on the floor (taking my good, sweet time in getting there) and spent the next six hours trying to change my clothes. Or so it seemed. I was almost in tears by the end. Finished, finally, I made my way back to the transition area, and then moved my bike and gear over to where the car was now.

Kirsten had bought a super heavy duty bike rack that would fit 3 bikes, but it would have to be assembled, and we were all so wasted that we couldn’t stand up straight. And the 20mph wind wasn’t helping any either. None of us was in a super-happy mood by this point, but we realized that this one, final challenge would have to be completed, and it would take all of us. It took a lot of pointing and frowning and intense concentration but finally all of the bikes were secured.

We fell into the car and left, leaving behind a kick-ass after party, live music, free beers and vodka, prizes and drawings. But I’m pretty sure the only award we would have won was “Oldest team to actually think they could complete the full course”. I missed most of the ride back to Santa Cruz because I had passed out in the backseat.

Karen and I went to bed at 6:30pm that night and we slept for 12 straight hours. I woke up the next day feeling worse than I did after the Triathlon we had done a year before. Later Captain Kirsten sent us the numbers from her Fitbit tracker and I found out why: Last Years Triathlon was a half mile of swimming, 13 miles of biking and a 3 mile run. Our Full Course Oyster Race - which wasn't even full! - was 15 miles of biking (in city traffic) about 10 miles of walking (almost 30,000 steps!) plus kayaking, rock climbing, trampolining and walking up and down ahelluvalotta stairs while tied together. No wonder we were so wiped out.

Alcatraz over my right shoulder. No, really. Trust me.
But it was also a HELLUVA lot of fun. Next time we’ll actually train for this, even if we do a half course, or a shooter. 

In the meantime I have nothing but praise for the Oyster Race, which puts on a first class show, gave us a course that had us laughing as much as sweating, and had plenty of volunteers who were cheerful and well informed. You gotta love a race that gives each team member a flask of vodka in their goodie bag. And special props to the nice woman who spent all morning floating in a kayak on a cold, gray day. An extra flask for her, I say.

And love and laurels to my hard-working and cool-headed teammates. We may have fast-forwarded through a couple of the challenges but I don’t think any other team had to overcome a broken bike rack, a flat bike tire and a head cold before their race started. Plus bonus points for having a combined age that is somewhat north of 130 years. With all that extra credit, I consider us winners of the first tier.

Team Do, Or Do Not actually did it! We cracked the Oyster! I will wear my cowbell with pride.

And, Adventure? You win this round. But we’ll be back…..

Angus McMahan


  1. That sounds SO FUN. I'm adding it to my 2012 calendar!

  2. It was a ton of fun. We just weren't ready for that level. But we'll definitely do it next year and be better prepared.

  3. That sounds amazing! I think I'll stick to reading about your adventure next year however ;P