The Race is On!

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – September 2, 2004

In the spirit of TV’s Amazing Race, the Urban Challenge hit Ottawa this past weekend, challenging teams to use brains, OC Transpo and the Internet to use clues to navigate their way through the city.

What a neat way to get to know the city and raise money for Right to Play, an organization that helps bring sport and play to disadvantaged children around the world.

So far, the race, which is put on by Level 28, a Toronto company that creates street games, has taken place in Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto, as well as Ottawa, with upcoming races in Winnipeg and Halifax.

August 28 was the second race in the Nation’s Capital.

The first was held June 5 with 80 people taking to the streets in Urban Challenge’s cross between a foot race and a scavenger hunt. Each team of two gets a sheet of clues identifying a checkpoint, or a location in the city. Teams phone friends and use the Internet to solve clues and find where they need to go. In June, participants were supported by more than 200 digital players helping them along the way – all very James Bond.

They have to take a digital image or Polaroid when they get to the checkpoint, to prove they were there. I would have participated, but I don’t have a cell phone, a digital camera or friends that love me enough to devote a Saturday afternoon to sit at home and cruise the Internet for answers to help me win a race. Low-tech races and scavenger hunts are more my thing. If you’re like me and your only pair of running shoes is an old school pair of Converse, and if your idea of exercise is raising your pint glass, then you’ll appreciate some of these low-key favourites…

Ever year now for 19 years and running, the Mayflower Pub on Cooper at Elgin in the month of May decorates its bar with checkered rally car flags, advertising the “Mayflower Rally Race.” It usually takes place the weekend after Victoria Day, requires eight weeks of planning and attracts upwards of 20 cars with teams of four people each. The cost is $5 per team, which goes to supply the great prizes.

Organizer Philip Cheesman explained to me, “Each rally has a theme based on what the participants see on the route; the route determines the theme.”

For example, one year on the “Oh Shit Tour,” Cheesman and his co-conspirators, John R. MacDonald and Geoff Barnabe, used cryptic clues to lure racers to the Mer Bleu Bog.

“Bog” in England means outhouse. Explains the shit part.

Another race was “Rest and Relaxation,” where teams found themselves motoring to victory through Wakefield amidst beautiful inns, laidback drinking holes, golf courses, ski hills and cottages, learning about bridges and other spectacular landmarks.

Unlike the Urban Challenge where participants rely on technology, the Mayflower Rally Racers have to be hands-on and on site.

For Cheesman, “It’s low-tech; that’s half the fun. Checking my library and the friggin’ Internet, that’s no fun; this one gets you out where you haven’t been before.”

But I’m not sure using outside sources to win a scavenger hunt is all that boring. It seemed pretty hilarious when my team was caught cheating one year at a Halloween Scavenger Hunt put on by McMillan Advertising Agency in downtown Ottawa.

McMillan, the ad firm responsible for HOPE Beach Volleyball, Bridgehead and Domicile marketing and design, organized a historic hunt around downtown Ottawa called “Man Building Ghosts” for employees and friends.

More than a corporate ploy to educate participants about the history of the agency site at 541 Sussex in the Byward Market, it led us through a series of clues to reveal the intriguing and murderous drama of the killing of Thomas D’Arcy McGee by one Patrick James Whalen. Haunting!

Charged with spirits (of the alcoholic variety), by the end of the night (the hunt lasted four hours), my team was trashed and we thought it a clever idea to call bar staff at D’Arcy McGee’s Pub in Sparks Street Mall to talk to patrons and get help filling out our answer sheets. We were politely told to fuck off. But this effort did win us “Most Spirited Team.”

To be sure, the event taught us some really valuable shit about that big stone building, also home to Timothy’s and The Black Tomato along George Street.

In 1827, 541 Sussex was The British Hotel before expanding to a four-storey building that was requisitioned by Canadian government to serve as military barracks in 1866. It then became home to the Geological Survey of Canada in 1880 and later housed the inaugural exhibition of the Canadian Academy of Arts (the predecessor of the National Gallery of Canada). In 1911, the building was used as an emergency hospital during an outbreak of typhoid fever, and occupied by the Armed Forces Dental Service in the 1940s. McMillan moved in during 1998. It’s 2004, and I never look at the building the same way twice.

In my opinion, these organized hunts and races around Ottawa are crucial in helping us discover and appreciate the history that shapes the city we live in. Aside from that field trip back in Grade 7 where you visited the Parliament Buildings, when else did you get off your ass to learn about Ottawa?

And hey, who’s going to tell the younger generation that Quizno’s in the market wasn’t always a bloody submarine sandwich shop, man?

– Sylvie Hill