Urban Challenge 2003 San Francisco

Seven months late, I finally found all the hardcopy materials my teammate and I had picked up when we ran the Urban Challenge race in San Francisco way back on July 19, 2003.

First, what is an Urban Challenge? It’s an exciting race within the bounds of a given city, where two-person teams locate and take pictures of themselves at twelve hidden checkpoints in numerical order — either on foot or using whatever public transportation is available. No taxis, no bikes, no scooters, no skateboards. The only private outside help you can get is a support team sitting back home that can help you with any of the checkpoint riddles in whatever way necessary. The first team back to race headquarters wins. You’ve also only got five hours; after that you are disqualified. There are usually races in at least 20 cities around the United States, with the top finishers of each city invited to participate in the National Championships. The first-place champs get $50,000.

Sean and I, team Geonox, had a rocky start. The race begins with a trivia game; those teams that do the best get to leave headquarters (in 2003 it was at Jillian’s in the Metreon) with their clue sheets first. Every three minutes, another group of teams departs. We trotted out somewhere in the fourth or fifth group, about 15 minutes later than the front-runners. Considering there were hundreds of teams, we didn’t do THAT bad I suppose. To add in an additional wrinkle, teams are given Official Passports when they depart that tell teams which checkpoint they must visit first. We started with checkpoint #4.

  • #4 — Can You See the Truth? Checkpoint 4 is an organizational symbol surrounded by red brick in the Civic Center area. This organization shares the same purpose as the beauty pageant contestants in “Miss Congeniality”. Well, I knew where the Civic Center was from the Metreon, so we dashed off on foot, eventually heading southwest on Market. It probably would have been a good idea to use the one-day MUNI passport I had purchased the week before and go with public transportation in order to have sped up our arrival to Van Ness. Some other teams were already on their second checkpoint by the time we got there! Ah, well. Sean picked up on the possible reference to world peace. We knew we were in the right general area and asked a small group of policeman hanging around where any red brick might be. One kindly pointed us in the right direction, and we soon came across a large United Nations symbol inlaid into the pavement. Our first success!!
  • #5 — They’re Geoff Yaw’s Favorite! Checkpoint 5 shares its name with a variety of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Find this hotel within a half-mile of race headquarters. Stupid me — I misled our two-person team on this one. We couldn’t think of a list of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and I immediately thought of the Hotel Monaco a few blocks from Union Square, and almost exactly a half mile from headquarters as the crow flies. It sounded like it could have been one of the cookie names, and we didn’t come up with anything better early on. En route, I managed to get on the Internet with my Palm Tungsten T (connected through my Sony-Ericsson T68i cell phone) and visited the Pepperidge Farm website. It was almost impossible to find a list of cookies with a little PDA screen, and we had to rely on a phone call to figure out the quite easy question. We lost about half an hour and almost an extra mile on foot on this one. We should have headed straight for Hotel Milano, less than a quarter mile from HQ. Unluckily, due mainly to lack of cellular signal strength and a technical problem with the Google WAP website, Google-on-the-go was not an option for us for a while; we were running blind. However, luckily, it was also a block from here that we found Francesca, the “Skip Chick”. Find her, take a picture with her, and the rules say that you can skip any checkpoint in the race. Came in very handy for us later!
  • #6 — You Go, Girl! Checkpoint 6 is a memorial to the person who is credited with rallying the good people of San Francisco in the ’40s to save the cable cars. Find the memorial on the Barbary Coast Trail near the American birthplace of Irish Coffee. Sean knew about the US birthplace of Irish Coffee being at the Buena Vista Café, and I knew a bit of the trail of the Barbary Coast plus the cable car runs, so it was a dash off to North Point. This time, via bus. We could have done better on this one as we spent a bit too much time planning ahead and working out the answer to the seventh checkpoint. Turns out that we walked right by #7 on our winding route to #6. Not only that but we got off the first bus too early (which we have taken us right to checkpoint #6!), hopped on a second bus to Fisherman’s Wharf and hiked the half mile back to where we should have been in the first place. The memorial to Friedel Klussman was at the end of the cable car line near Ghirardelli Square. Hindsight is 20/20.
  • #7 — Use the Force… A certain series of seven alpha-numeric characters always appears in movies by George Lucas. Checkpoint 7 is the establishment on Fisherman’s Wharf at the address that corresponds to the last numeric character in that series. Sean knew about the “THX 1138” appearing in every George Lucas movie, so I had nothing to contribute on this one, other than spotting the huge number 8 on the front of Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. Just in case, Sean called the phone into use to verify the characters. He was correct. A spot of trivia: Lucas made a film while in college called “Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB.” It took first prize at the 1967-1968 National Student Film Festival.
  • #8 — The BLANK in ____ in America or ____ Highway, PLUS to establish and organize something for the future, esp. an institution EQUALS Checkpoint 8. Find this saloon in North Beach. Obviously LOST plus FOUND. Took a bit of wrangling and a phone call to determine that we were heading to the Lost & Found Saloon outside China Town.
  • #9 — Forget it, it’s Chinatown… Find the Chinatown establishment that shares its name with the major work of an author who lost his head for asserting that the English Parliament did not have the right to usurp papal authority in favor of the king. It was at this point that I really started to feel useless. My Google wasn’t working, my cell phone wasn’t working, my brain wasn’t working, my legs were just starting to fail — and the race was only half over. Thankfully these last two checkpoints were only 700 feet apart! Utopia Café was only a quick jaunt away, thanks to another phone call from Sean’s cell to what limited, yet vital, support resources were at hand.
  • #10 — Cast of Hogan’s Heroes… Checkpoint 10 is an establishment in the Haight area. HINT: Elijah Price, Max Cady, Noah Cross. Get your photo with signage cuz it’s Checkpoint 10. Redeemed myself on this one out of pure luck. Google on my Palm kicked back on while on the bus, riding towards Haight-Ashbury. It was great on those checkpoints that allowed us the opportunity to head towards a vague direction and then solve the finer details on the way, hopefully at leisure like this one. Sean at least vaguely knew of the names of the movie characters mentioned in the checkpoint puzzle, but it was Google that lead us to the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains with Noah Cross as Villain #16, Max Cady as #28. We weren’t sure about Elijah, but that was enough to get us going in the right direction. We first thought that we were going to use the Skip on this checkpoint, but stumbled upon a store called Villains Vault. We gambled on taking the picture, and won. Glad we waited to take the Skip!
  • #11 — En Guard! True or false, in fencing, the épée is heavier than the foil? If true, then the Cervantes bust is Checkpoint 11. If false, then the Beethoven bust is Checkpoint 11. Find them both near the California Academy of Sciences. I never did figure out why it wasn’t spelled “En Garde”, as would have been expected. I guess it was just a misspelling rather than what I first thought was a clue. The answer to this one was thanks to Sean’s wife, Tina, one of the unofficial at-home support team members, who Googled for the equipment answer. I found the mention of the statues near the Academy on my portable Google. And it was Sean who found the small permanently fixtured guide to the statues around the Academy. Here, we caught up to another older couple who had started on checkpoint three; they were one full checkpoint ahead of us! We picked up some speed to gain some momentum, and some distance. This checkpoint was definitely solved with teamwork!
  • #12 — Light the Fire… Find a lantern from the garden of the Seasons in or near the Takamine Garden at the Strybing Arboretum. Get a photo with it cuz it is Checkpoint 12. Of all the fine work done on creating this generally well-planned race, this was the biggest flaw I found on that day, despite the slightly misleading reference to Hogan’s Heroes. Turns out that “Seasons” should have read “Sesnons”, mentioned in a plaque laid in memory of the Sesnons (a family who had donated a large collection of Japanese stone lanterns to both the Strybing Arboretum and to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park). Apparently it was Urban Challenge’s first spelling mistake in its short history. Not knowing that the near spelling was a typo led us (and many other teams) to waste time looking for a lantern that better fit the clue. Precious minutes were spent running through multiple paths, even searching in vain for lanterns in herb gardens. Get it? Herbs? Seasons? Turns out that the first lantern we found was the intended one, but we left after resignedly snapping the photo anyway and thinking that we had failed that checkpoint.
  • #1 — Is it Accredited? Find the University of Wisdom in bronze in the financial district. It was here that we pulled the biggest bonehead move of all: we quit. We had less than half an hour remaining to get back to the headquarters even though we still had three more checkpoints to find. Knowing that we had “failed” #12 and needed to use the Skip Chick for it, we knew we would have to complete all three remaining clues to finish properly. We also knew we’d be lucky to even get back to the HQ in the half hour we had, although the long bus ride back down Market was a welcome relief to our aching bones and aching brains. We slowly trudged back down 4th Street to headquarters and — with only minutes to spare — accepted the ticket that stated that we were the 25th team to complete the race. Yippee. After idly chatting with one of the timekeepers, I discovered that our race clocks were not synchronized! We still had 45 minutes left according to the officials! Sean and I looked at each other, quickly turned around, and began heading towards checkpoint #1 only blocks away. Fortunately, my time at Philips in the mid-’90s gave me reasonable knowledge of the financial district and we beat a path to the named statue, despite wasting a few precious minutes looking for it on the wrong side of the building!
  • #2 — Of Socks, Slacks, or Shoes? Checkpoint 2 shares its name with a variety of Pyrus communis. Find this restaurant north of Market within a mile of Union Square. Still thinking that we had failed #12, we decided to go for #2 anyway since it was so close to #1 and the headquarters — more importantly, The End! Tina, Sean’s wife, had Googled for “Pyrus communis” and discovered that it was a common pear. How she leapt so quickly from pears to finding the tiny Anjou Restaurant that was located in an alley just off Stockton Street in the Union Square area is beyond me! And it wasn’t until now, seven months later, that I bothered noticing the reference to “pairs” in the clue. *sigh*
  • #3 — That Guy Owes Me Money! Unscramble the words below to form the name of Checkpoint 3. Find it northwest of Union Square. “Ed Youth” We had already worked out on one of our longer bus rides by a combination of brute force and some on-site Googling that the solution to this puzzle was the HydeOut bar in Hyde Street. We were done. Spent. This time we really did only have a few minutes left to get back to the race headquarters. We skipped this one completely.

Sean was surprisingly holding up a bit better towards the end than I was; I just don’t have the endurance. He was a dozen paces or so ahead, pushing me to keep up, especially during that difficult *second* run to the finish line.

We (as team Geonox) came in 47th place with a time of 4:53:15. Not bad out of a few hundred teams. As we later discovered, the lantern we snapped a photo of ourselves in front of in Strybing Arboretum was the correct lantern. That meant that we could use the Skip Chick we had found for checkpoint #3, the only one we had actually skipped! We made it, but barely squeaked through.

Mistakes are easy to make during the race. Three of the ten fastest teams that finished the race the same day we did were eliminated after they crossed the finish line due to technicalities. Even the team who crossed the line first forgot to snap off a photo at the #8 checkpoint. They were a couple of guys from Chicago who had flown in to San Francisco just for the race. Imagine their disappointment at their disqualification! Even though I asked race officials at the beginning of the race, it didn’t really occur to me that our team could easily have been eliminated for something as simple as running out of room on the memory card in the loaner digital camera.

I’m proud of our 47th place finish. I checked the ‘net for other fellow racers who competed against us in that race and found a few detailed records of their journeys:

  • Fish out of Water finished 6th.
  • Eric and Greg came in not far behind in 10th place.
  • We finished less than seven minutes before the five-hour deadline.
  • Muddy Buddy finished three minutes after the deadline.
  • Team Mumu only completed eight checkpoints before time ran out.

Thanks to Urban Challenge shifting their race dates three times to accommodate their new mega sponsor (Verizon Wireless), I can’t do the race this year. I’m looking forward to participating in the Urban Challenge next year as a one-man support team!

Weird coincidence, but right as I was in the middle of writing this synopsis (at 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday), bouncing back and forth between the Urban Challenge website and my notes, they removed all of the prior year’s data for San Francisco, something they also did last year a few months before the 2003 race. I guess they’re trying to remove any advantages for this year’s racers…

One Response to “Urban Challenge 2003 San Francisco”

  1. Sean

    For the record: The support teams were Tina, bravely soldering on to find lists of Pepperidge Farm cookies and obscure restaurants despite a slow modem connection that occasionally dropped down to 26k, and that noted ramblings commenter and source for sweatshirt quotes (insert link to the ramblings merchandise here), Sean’s Mom who found the relative weights of swords and the identity of Elijah Price. And although I had my moments and one streak of useful knowledge (Buena Vista! THX1138! Thomas More wrote Utopia!) it was Richard who managed the finish for those crucial final checkpoints. I may have been ahead in the final sprint, but I was behind (and generally going “I’m not moving until you tell me where we’re going”) as he led us to the final 2 checkpoints.


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