It was a bright Saturday morning in Hollywood and my friend Liz and I were about to embark on a giant treasure hunt known as the Fantastic Los Angeles Race. But first, we sized up the competition.
On the far right was a crowd of seven in matching black T-shirts proclaiming "Potenza" in white lettering, with a green O for emphasis. Potenza means power in Italian. Perhaps Liz and I — who had given this event all of about 10 minutes of prior thought — were a bit underprepared.
There were a couple teams of four — the Bollywood Queens (made up of men and women) and the Angry Birds, though they looked neither mad nor avian. Finally, there was a cluster of eight more people — no matching tees this time — who called themselves the Rental Car Rally Team.
And then there was Bob — Bob Glouberman, the man who organized this race and to whose company, Fantastic Race, we'd each paid anywhere from $40 to $80, depending on coupon availability, to participate in this event.
"In this game," he declared, "you have no idea what you are looking for. No idea."
At a quarter past 11 a.m., this is what we did know:
We would compete against one another by crisscrossing downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood by foot and Metro train.
We would proceed by dashing from one clue to another ("It's a puzzle!" Glouberman crowed). Some we'd get by asking the right question of seemingly disinterested strangers, who were actually actors hired by Fantastic Race. Still other clues we would have to decipher ourselves.
The team finishing the clue gantlet first would "win" (what exactly winning entailed remained, for the time, unclear, though Glouberman kept reminding us, "You're in it to win it!").
And there would be beer at the end, but it would take us nearly five hours to get to it.
We needed all the sustenance we could get.
After about 20 minutes of additional scene setting ("Our people will be disguised to blend into the fabric of Los Angeles") and advisories ("Never follow another team, because they don't know where they are going"), Glouberman declared the race on, and each team ripped into the sealed envelopes he had handed us a half-hour earlier.
Soon every team was dashing off to the next clue — every team but Liz and me, that is.
We were still huddled over a piece of paper on a picnic table, trying to make sense of a rebus — a combo of pictures, words and letters — that the others had decoded in mere minutes, even seconds. Luckily, Glouberman had hung around and gave us a little nudge, penalty-free.
We called in to Glouberman again and again for clues to decipher the puzzles that contained the key to our next destination -- think Wheel of Fortune, replacing the wheel with puzzles and replacing random phrases with hints directing you to major LA landmarks. (And no, I'm not going to reveal any secrets here.) Each clue added 15 minutes to our race time. But we slid quickly beyond the point where such considerations mattered.
Amazingly — to us, anyway — we were alone in our confusion. While we had to be reeled in from the course after nearly five hours (midway through, no less), the winning Rental Car Rally team finished the race in three hours and had been waiting for us at the finish line (a restaurant), enjoying the aforementioned beers and bar food. Angry Birds was 15 minutes behind them and the other two teams finished in the next couple of hours. For their efforts, the others got Olympic-type medals on ribbons; Liz and I received Fantastic Race pens ("because we're in the digital age, but you are on analog time," Glouberman explained).
We did have a great time, walking our city and — in deciphering what clues we could — savoring the thrill of what Glouberman calls an "aha!" moment. Still, we wondered, how'd the others do it? Are we really that dense?
Subsequent interviews have revealed critical information: the winning team was populated by digital game creators, for whom puzzle and clue creation is a way of life; this was the seventh treasure hunt the Angry Birds team (a.k.a. the Stephens family of Rancho Cucamonga) had completed together; and the Bollywood Queens crew included at least one engineer, who presumably would have a more puzzle-oriented mind than Liz, a nurse-turned-educator, and myself, a writer. As for the Potenza crew, they're a family who own an apparel line called Potenza. But, well, they had more people than us.
So, race-finishers, what's the key to race success?
"Don't overthink it," advised Steve Khalily of Bollywood Queens. "Keep it simple."
"As soon as you assume you know what the clue is about," said Mary Schuyler of the winning Rental Car Rally Team, "you're not going to be able to let it go. We know to treat it as an open box."
All good advice. But we think next time we will also drag along our secret weapons — our teenage sons.
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