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A race amid L.A. treasures

Times Staff Writer

They squinted into the midmorning sun with the rugged scrub brush of Fryman Canyon plunging beneath them, milling about in nervous anticipation on the north edge of Mulholland Drive. A gaggle of sweatpants, polar fleece, baseball caps and T-shirts, 24 contestants gathered over the weekend in an unfamiliar place looking for adventure. Looking to compete.

They were drawn there by Race/LA, an elaborate citywide scavenger hunt dreamed up and coordinated by 42-year-old graphic designer John Hennessy and based loosely on CBS’ “The Amazing Race” reality show.

Like the TV program, teams of two competed by zooming to a series of colorful destinations, fulfilling tasks and deciphering clues in the quest to make it to the surprise finish line first. Unlike the program, which has contestants hopping continents for weeks in pursuit of a $1-million prize, the 12 teams sprinting from Hollywood to Los Feliz to downtown on Saturday stayed within the expansive boundaries of Los Angeles. They played mostly for the novelty -- and the competition -- rather than the hundreds of dollars in gift certificates awaiting the winners.

The players, several of whom declared themselves “obsessed” with “The Amazing Race,” started their day at 9:30 at the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook on Mulholland, ready for anything. The teams, from their early 20s to pushing 70, included co-workers, married couples, same-sex partners, college buddies and longtime friends who’d ponied up $15 apiece for “a fun way to spend a day,” said Jennifer Kurek, 25, an advocate for the homeless who found a notice about the race on www.craigslist.org.

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Some pairs had the flash of ruthless competition in their eyes: Team Bellagio came armed with a survival kit of supplies such as hand sanitizer, eyedrops and lip balm. Team Topanga wore matching green T-shirts, to the chagrin of the less-coordinated challengers eyeing them warily.

“I think they’re compensating for something that they’re missing,” said Jenny Kaufman, 29, half of Team Bellagio.

Other twosomes were nonchalant about their prospects of winning. “I hope there’s no jogging involved,” said Fiona Shields, a thirtysomething associate production manager for LA Weekly from Los Feliz. “I definitely would not sign up for that on my day off.”

The route’s 17 stops, covering about 35 miles of Los Angeles by car, took the teams from the Biltmore Hotel to Olvera Street, kimono-clad dancers in Little Tokyo and noisy birthday parties at Griffith Park. Snapshots of the city flashed by at high speed, revealing Angelenos in every corner of L.A., spending their Saturday a thousand different ways.

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As Hennessy informed the contestants that running was, indeed, optional, he lined them up and distributed the electric yellow envelopes containing the day’s first clue. The duos frantically attempted to solve the first trivia question: The highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains? With a correct answer of Sandstone Peak, teams were given the next clue and raced to their cars, careening down Mulholland to the La Brea Tar Pits.

Team Venice made it there in an aging Land Rover nicknamed “Grandpa Joe.” “It’s old and reliable,” explained driver Jennifer Bradley, 36, a record company marketing manager from the Hollywood Hills.

After dodging doggies and homeless tabbies on display at the unexpected pet show taking place at the Tar Pits, Bradley and teammate William Neish, 36, found their way to pit No. 9 and their next trivia question: Which mammal’s fossils have been found most often at Rancho La Brea? With several answer cards available, they struck out twice with Columbian mammoth and saber-toothed cat -- the wrong choices sent them on a wild goose chase.

“Should we call for help?” asked Neish, a story analyst, sometime actor and tarot card reader from West Hollywood. “How sad would that be?” said Bradley, who’s known Neish since the third grade in Pacific Grove.

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Undaunted, they kept at it, running up and down the grassy slopes, arms flailing and Neish splashing his black Chucks through a small creek. Finally, the two picked the right answer to the mammal stumper -- the Dire wolf -- and tore open their next clue.

They were on the hunt for a building with an infinity symbol logo on the 6000 block of Santa Monica Boulevard. The two wondered how best to navigate Park La Brea en route to Hollywood. Neish claimed he was wise to a “little-known secret” route. The team peeled down alleys, popped a U-turn on Santa Monica and dodged an elderly woman pushing a shopping cart down the middle of the street.

“Was she planted?” Neish wondered. While Bradley tried to maneuver Grandpa Joe around slow drivers and parked cars, Neish offered helpful suggestions: “Right! Left! Gas! Signal! Pedestrian!”

Team Venice spotted an infinity symbol at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and scrambled to locate the grave of Cecil B. DeMille, as instructed by the cryptic “DEM” written in the clue.

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After some aimless driving, the pair came upon a monumental-looking grave with a reflecting pool. Neish made a beeline for the man sitting on the grass chatting on a cellphone, certain he was one of the race monitors stationed at every stop. The man looked up from his phone, smiled and shook his head. That’s when Neish noticed they were at the graves of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr.

“I’m glad I only had one cup of coffee today,” he said. “I’m already panicking.”

Back to the drawing board, the buddies eventually hitched a ride to DeMille’s tomb on a security guard’s golf cart that threaded the way through a funeral.

At DeMille’s marble marker, Neish spotted the last remaining canary yellow envelope stuffed in a pot of yellow mums, and bounded back to the golf cart. The two were off to DeMille’s original office, in an 1896 barn that now houses the Hollywood Heritage Museum at the foot of the Hollywood Bowl. Bill, the friendly guard, however, insisted on taking them by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer’s grave as the two fidgeted, too polite to protest.

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The duo, now in last place, zipped straight to the museum vaguely hoping to make up lost time. Next stop: the Travel Town railroad in Griffith Park. Bradley hopped on and then off the 101, straight into traffic. “This is misery,” she complained, kicking herself for not taking the Barham Boulevard exit.

Team Venice eventually screeched into a parking spot at the kiddie railroad near the Griffith Park entrance. They took their place in line behind families with strollers, one of three race teams waiting for their turn on the locomotive. Until Team Magnolia, being unexpectedly helpful, turned around and told them to beat it, realizing that this wasn’t the right train ride.

“This is the wrong one!” Neish said, incredulous. “I wonder how many people fell for that,” he said, later learning nearly half of the teams were duped by the twin railroads. Arriving at Travel Town, the three lagging teams made two excruciatingly slow loops on the tiny train through a gravel lot of antique locomotives.

“We’re crossing our fingers for a Fast Pass,” said Austin Block, 24, an executive assistant at Nickelodeon from North Hollywood aboard the Travel Town train. As part of Team Topanga, Block had been crossing paths with Bradley and Neish all day. Two Fast Pass and two Gridlock cards had been hidden among the clues, allowing the teams that discovered them to either skip a stop or set another team back a few minutes.

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Teams Topanga and Venice rushed to the park’s merry-go-round for the day’s first mandatory rest stop, where one team broke out a fried chicken picnic and another munched on Cheez-its straight from the box.

The pairs grew sweaty and breathless as the day progressed, between buying pastries at Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop (the oldest store in Little Tokyo, established in 1903), picking up Puya chilies at Grand Central Market and tiptoeing past a line of bridesmaids in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Tired but giddy at the day’s exploits, none of the racers seemed too concerned about their final rankings. “We never would have found any of these places on our own, even just experimenting around the city,” said Scott Ellefson, 39, of Sherman Oaks, who’s in marketing at Sony Pictures.

It was Team Olympic that walked away with the play and museum tickets, detox body wraps and credits at Borders and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Friends Lyle Palaski, 50, and Mark Thomson, 47, of West Hollywood might have started out the day by going to the wrong overlook and nearly missing the first clue, but they finished nearly an hour and a half before the last team.

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The inaugural run of Hennessy’s brainchild took him three months of weekends to plan and run through. He’s already pondering next year’s Race/LA route (information at home.earthlink .net/~theracela/).

“Now I drive around the city looking at things thinking, ‘That could be a game, that could be a game,’ ” said Hennessy, of West Hollywood.

“Putting this together has been one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had since I’ve lived here in the last 7 1/2 years. It made me fall in love with the city.”


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