Fighting Wombats Descend Upon Portland!

Oct 2, 2009
Outside Magazine

Last week, Outside's John McCauley and Will Palmer (based in Santa Fe) and Jeremy Spencer (based in Portland) participated in the third annual Portland Oyster Race, part of Merrell's 2009 urban-adventure-race series, which moved on from Portland to San Francisco last weekend and concludes in Austin (Oct. 11) and Nashville (Oct. 24). Our six-person team—the Merrell/Outside Fighting Wombats!—comprised us, local adventure hound/Jeremy's old buddy Matt Ruhland (who was better than our Magellan Maestro GPS at finding local landmarks), and Merrell representatives Emily Snayd and Linda Brunzell, who flew in from Connecticut and Michigan, respectively.

The Trivial Pursuit–esque, scavenger-hunt-style race (which can involve running, cycling, kayaking, eating, drinking, photography, etc.) is designed to take advantage of the features of the host city, and each year the course changes, not to be revealed before the 8 A.M. kickoff. It's a helluva lot of fun. While other teams were engaged in their plyometric routines, the Wombats were recounting the previous night's long pub-and-video-arcade crawl and debating not the benefits of caffeine as a performance enhancer but, rather, which is better: light or dark roast? (We're still arguing about this. Feel free to break the deadlock in Comments.) Then the PA fired up and it was time to "race." Let's recount what happened next, shall we?

P1030249 WP: Stage 1 required someone with a cell phone, which for some reason was me, to follow race organizer Doug to a tour bus, where we were given nylon bags to place over our heads as we rode about three miles to a "blind bus stop," where we'd get our first race passport and start competing. Our blindfolds were removed and we got our cards, which said to make our way to the Made in Oregon sign, something that everyone but me was able to orient toward and start sprinting. Surely 80 Portlanders running in one direction couldn't all be wrong, so I followed them over the Willamette River on one of Portland's eight bridges, eventually getting a call from Jeremy and Matt, who were also required to get themselves to the sign. The 2.5-mile run did wonders to shake my hangover and cold-medicine haze, and I realized with a jolt that I was enjoying myself. Then I met up with those guys, and the pace dropped off sharply.

JS: Ahem. First, regarding sharp pace dropoffs, I wish to state for the record that I live an adventure race. I'm the father of six-month-old twins and a 3.5-year-old. The night before, as official host and team captain, I plotted a night of revelry amid the cultural highlights of the city. This involved keeping everyone entertained, well fed, and somewhat lubricated with booze. After depositing you guys in your hotel rooms to saw logs, I hopped on my bike and rode the 40 minutes home. I got to bed around 3 a.m. and, what  with babies to take care of, managed to sleep about an hour and a half before my alarm went off at 5:30. Wheee! So, yeah, we weren't moving that fast. Matt had also gotten to bed around 3. When we saw Will, we schemed to demoralize him as much as possible by laughing whenever he started to run, rather than, you know, kinda jogging, like us. After photographing ourselves with the Made in Oregon sign behind us, P1030273 we moved on to the next requirement on our race passport: finding three statues with four legs. All four legs had to touch the ground, and we had to take pictures of ourselves with each sculpture in the background and all four legs visible. Not so easy a task. If we screwed it up, we'd have to go back. Using  my awesome knowledge of local four-legged sculptures, I led the team toward our quarry. (I recall that the wind blew my hair heroically, and people we passed on the street were heard to "Oooh" and "Aaah" at my passing. Or maybe it was just our kaleidoscopic Day-Glo uniforms, which drew swarms of pesky hummingbirds, evidently attracted to the ultraviolet light.) First we found a bronze elephant. Snap! Then we ranged across town and uphill to find a Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue. Click! Then a hop, skip, and a jump away was one of those driftwood horse sculptures everyone seems to be so keen on these days. Whir! I then led us—hair heroic in the wind, naturally—in a punishing downhill jog-walk back to race HQ, where our relay cohorts, John, Emily, and Linda, were awaiting our return, so they could head back out on the next mission. High fives!

JM: After seeing Will, Jeremy, and Matt triumphantly return within 29 minutes of Will's kidnapping, Stage 2 needed my teammates and I to find a historic old logging train (Penny), get a picture of the team with the train, and return to base. Or so we thought. Sounded easy enough, and after a couple quick Google searches, we knew where the train was located, so I volunteered, and Emily, Linda, and I set out on the bikes in search of the train. I though to myself, "Keep my coffee warm, boys, we'll see you in a few! We got this!" I was so wrong. Almost immediately after we left the base, I noticed that my bike wouldn't shift and the gear it happened to be in wasn't conducive to riding up a 10-to-12-degree incline, for what seemed about 100 miles. So, essentially, I was riding a fixed-gear and started to sweat saké and sazeracs from the night before. After riding uphill about two miles or so, we asked a woman if she knew whether we P1030247 were heading in the right direction. She responded, "Yeah. The train. About three blocks that way." (Three blocks = 10 miles.) As we continued to climb, it started to rain pretty steadily—hello, Portland!—making the roads very slick, which caused my back tire to spin and made the bike almost unrideable. We reached the base of Washington Park, where the train was located, and thought it couldn't be too much farther, so Emily, Linda, and I ditched the bikes and started running. A few miles down the road we ran into some race officials who stopped to see "what in the hell" we were doing on foot. After a brief discussion, a few laughs, and realizing that the train was still about five-plus miles uphill and that we would probably reach the train after the race had moved to San Francisco, we went back to get our bikes. Badass Merrell adventure racer Robyn Benincasa fixed my shifting issue and we were back on our way. Our spirits lifted and we climbed and climbed, eventually reaching the godforsaken train. We got the photo and headed back to base. Two hours and 15 minutes after we left, we were back and ready for some rest and refreshments.

JS: John, remember how before you headed out I said, "My prediction? Pain," in my best Clubber Lang? Call me Nostradamus. Also, you fail to mention that, in your haste to return to race HQ, YOU GUYS FORGOT TO DO THE SECOND PART OF THE PASSPORT.

JM: A minor oversight. Instead of making us ride back to get the clue, we gladly took the significant time penalty (which was about the same as Jeremy running), left our teammates to figure out the clues, and, after our timeout, got the second part of the passport. Game on!

P1030239 WP: Next, we all set out in one group on our cyclocross bikes to knock off three different tasks. Matt had to find a bike shop and return from there with an Oyster tattoo; John and the ladies made their way to a bowling alley across the river and took turns until one of them got a strike or spare (Linda, like the Chicago native she is, nailed it on the first try); and Jeremy had to take a kayak from one side of the river to the other while I ran over the bridge to the other side, met him, and we traded. As I nosed smoothly across the gray Willamette, the clouds parting just a bit, I got a beautiful view of the city and felt really happy just to be there at that moment. There was also a submarine docked on the riverside, which sent me into a short but thrilling Red October fantasy. Then Matt, Jeremy, and I decided it was time to refuel, so as we awaited our returning bowlers, we stopped for pastor burritos from Tito, a street vendor. Mmmm, burritos.

JS: Mmmm, burritos. And beer. There was beer back at the tent. And there was much rejoicing. And then, poor John, post-bowling-glory and on his way to rendezvous with us back at the Oystercave, hit a wet trolley rail and bit the cobblestones on his bike. The prophecy was once again fulfilled. But the EMT on hand said he was fine. John is a man among men, and spectacular bike wrecks are like annoying gnats to him. He once bellowed with laughter as a herd of wild oryx trampled him, crying, "Stop! It tickles!" Um, back to the race: I think there was another passport after that?

JM: The Portland "trolley ride" looked worse than it was, and, fortunately, most of my injuries were internal. Handlebars now facing sideways and the bike definitely unrideable, I walked it back the last block to HQ. Is this thing over yet?

WP: Next up was a visit to a nearby oyster bar, naturally. Here's where team diversity is important. Who knew that all five of my teammates were disgusted by raw mollusks? I gladly volunteered to jog down to the restaurant with Emily, whose job was to go to the second-story window, where she had to hold her nose and hoist the morsel of quivering flesh over the ledge, dropping it into my gaping mouth. If I missed, I'd have to "drink" the oyster off the ground through a straw. In a heartbeat, the critter plummeted toward me and bounced off my left cheek, and I sank into momentary dejection. But in a brilliant feat of teamwork, as I turned, my Merrell friends saw the oyster resting on my left shoulder, where, if I could reel it in with my tongue, anteater-like, it would still count. So I did. Put that straw away, race organizer man: Task 6 is in the can.

P1030272 JS: I love oysters. I was just eating my Tito burrito, man. But I heard you looked like Thor, god of thunder, as you slurped nature's phelgm off your shoulder. Yet you came back looking kinda schmutzy to me. But there was no time to clean you up. We had to all run to Powell's, the world's largest bookstore, to snoop out titles to help us fill out a clue card that would lead us to our next stop: Deschutes Brewery. We ran like the wind around the corner to Deschutes and quickly identified four types of beer by taste and smell, and then it was time to race back to HQ for the last time. Since by this point it made no sense to compete with the other teams, I competed with my team, defeating them all, including adventure-race goddess Robyn, quite handily. I came through the gates blazing, sneakers close to melting. The sun burst through the clouds at that moment and glory beams poured down upon me. There was pizza, too.

JM: Had I known the racer with the worst battle wound would win Deschutes beer for a year, I might have had a more spectacular crash or at least some road rash, but since a chain-oil tattoo and misshapen cobblestone bruises don't exactly count, I was happy just to walk away in one piece. Let's do this again next year! Will? Jeremy? Just don't put me on a bike.

WP: I will ride with pride, even as a conspicuous out-of-towner. In fact, while most of the teams in Portland were all-local, and all too good at finding equestrian statues, I think we enjoyed it more, because for us it was a vacation in an awesome town we didn't know very well. Take note: Oyster is a cool event to plan a reunion around, so long as a couple of you know where you are. Also iPhones are a good idea. As is celebrating after the race is over.

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