She holds out her hand. “Here is ten dollars and the marker,” she says, handing me the required items to tuck into my backpack. “And here is your ribbon.” The ribbon is metallic blue, gold and green, tightly wound and designed for the top of a wrapped present, but today it is tied to the handlebars of my rented bicycle, making it easy to identify among the hundreds of other bicycles traversing the streets of South Bend, Indiana.
Staying true to our pre-decided strategy, Colleen and I store our bikes on the far end of the holding pen to make an easy escape once the race has started. We buy our time in the Cove, a local baseball stadium buzzing with several two-person teams fitting bike helmets, double knotting running shoes and making guesses about the laminated maps peppered with checkpoints but still kept secret.
Shortly after 7:00 we’re given last-minute details about safety and race etiquette, and then shortly after that the coveted laminated map falls into our hands. We open the ziploc bag it comes in. Inside is a full-size map with portions of the city highlighted and dotted with checkpoint numbers as well as a “mystery picture,” which Colleen easily identifies as being in the downtown area. This is sandwiched between two small towels, mysterious but necessary tools for a task to be completed later in the day.
Colleen and I plot our strategy. Luckily she is familiar with the city and knows how to navigate between the different parts of the city. I don’t have much to add since I don’t know the layout of the streets, but we decide our best bet is to get out of the city first. We want to hit the checkpoints on the west side of the St. Joseph River, cross to the other side, tackle everything on the northeast side of the course, including the one checkpoint on the Notre Dame campus, then head directly south to knock off all the checkpoints along the riverwalk before crossing the bridge and completing everything in the downtown area and the Cove.
We take a quick stop at the bathroom (there is no time for that kind of business on the race course, as far as we’re concerned), and then gather with the crowd at the starting line. The race begins and we take off down the sidewalk and across the lawn toward the bike racks. “Don’t twist an ankle!” Colleen shouts as I sprint ahead.
The course immediately takes on an odd personality compared to other road races. Because everyone plots their own strategy to hit certain checkpoints, there isn’t a huge mass of people at the start that peters out over the course of a few miles, which seems to happen for the middle of the pack in 5Ks and half marathons. Instead, the bike racks are a frantic version of chaos as tires and handlebars and racers bump into each other and scramble to reach a clear path on a road or sidewalk in order to set out in their predetermined direction. Once clear, though, Colleen and I begin pumping our legs furiously, convinced we’ve made the right choice to head north first. We leave a few other teams behind us and a couple other bike riders, their arms angled over their road bikes, whiz past us like pros.
We stick to our plan, stopping at checkpoints as we planned. Along the way, we must adroitly exchange a ping pong ball using only a spoon, carry a few hundred pounds worth of weight across a parking lot, buy bread and fruit at the local farmers market, knock hockey pucks into a goal at the ice rink, dress in full firefighter gear and run the length of a soccer field. Though I can tell Colleen and I are running on physical strength, I feel fully confident that we can complete this thing when we both successfully cross a river on a stand-up paddleboard without taking a dive into the water like many of those around us.
At our various checkpoints, we sneak peeks at the time, making sure we’re on track to complete the race. We sip water as we cycle, filling up at water stations strategically, like when we’re forced to wait for a team in front of us to complete a task. Every minute is important, and we don’t want to spend any of them in a way that would keep us from reaching the finish line within four hours.
The day’s weather is perfect—sunny and in the 80s. I slather on sunscreen in the morning and reapply when I’m stuck waiting at the zip line. At the East Race, where we have to go white water rafting down a man-made river, we paddle well until we’re sucked under by a rapid and flipped overboard. Colleen pulls out a ninja stunt and hauls herself back into the raft while I make a feeble attempt to move from in front of the boat to the back so as to avoid being pinned by a whitewater obstacle.
As we near the end of the race, Colleen and I have half a dozen checkpoints to complete in just 35 minutes. Now is not the time to show weakness, so we pedal harder than have up to this point, stopping as briefly as possible at the downtown stops to toss airplanes, water plants, run around the block tied together and strip to our swimsuits to hit an indoor water slide.
Hours have become mere minutes as we cycle back to the Cove to drop our bikes. With just a few minutes left to go, we have to fill a bucket with water using the towels we were given at the start of the race and navigate our way through an inflated obstacle course. Noon came and went, but we were in line at our last checkpoint, which meant we had the opportunity to complete it and finish the race. Four hours and seventeen minutes after crossing the starting line and sprinting toward our bikes, Colleen and I cross the same line as we run back into the Cove, successfully completing all the checkpoints in the Urban Adventure Games. We unhook our bike helmets and bow our heads to receive our finisher medals. I am wet, my socks are dirty, my cheeks are painted, my shoulders ache from sunburn and a small trickle of blood runs from a scrape on my knee down my shin. I grin. Few moments are as satisfying as this one.
Though South Bend Tourism gave me the opportunity to compete in the Urban Adventure Games, all opinions are my own.