|TEAM VVnW and the Wild Onion|
Is it possible to see New York City in a mere 24 hours? To get a full sense of the rich culture and history that embraces each of the five boroughs with its own sense of identity? If it were doable, wouldn’t every worldly tourist seek out the experience?
Horns blared and lights flashed as we dodged in and out of oncoming traffic. Our ears and eyes strained from sensory overload as the weather assailed us with alternating humidity and torrential downpours. Our goal…no, our mission….was to cover New York in those 24 hours and we weren’t planning on letting the weather or the traffic get in our way. We were also going to any means necessary to cover the turf….be it by foot, subway, ferry….or rather…by bicycles, kayaks, or scooters! This was the Wild Onion Urban Adventure Race and Team Veterans of the Vietnam War, Inc. (www.vvnw.org/teamvvnw) were on a full-scale urban assault of New York City!
But what exactly is an urban adventure race and why isn’t it the most popular form of self-guided city tours? According to the ‘Onion Boys’, “the race is 24 hours long, covers approximately 100 - 125 miles of air, land and water terrain within a city and includes 200 - 300 athletes organized into co-ed teams. Each leg of the race focuses on a different athletic discipline such as canoeing, kayaking, in-line skating, cycling, running, scootering, stair climbing, rappelling and city navigation to name a few. Each leg also integrates a certain unique aspect of the city such as a specific attraction, urban resource or historic landmark. Each race is totally unique to our host city.”
As special and unique as this race was, Team VVnW had an even more special goal this June 13th, 2003. Race day marked the 35th Anniversary of the loss of Specialist Fifth Class John J. Kedenburg, United States Army. On this day in 1968, deep in an enemy controlled territory of Vietnam, SP5 Kedenburg selflessly sacrificed his only method of escape from certain death when he gave up his place on a helicopter to a South Vietnamese soldier and directed the pilot to leave the area. (http://www.vvnw.org/teamvvnw/Hall_of_heroes.htm ) For his actions, SP5 Kedenburg posthumously receives the Medal of Honor. Team VVnW raced in his honor and bore the POW/MIA patch on their shoulder in his memory.
Within the first hour and a half of this physically demanding and very unique competitive event, we had run by Carnegie Hall, the United Nations Headquarters, run the stairs of the Madison Square Garden, visited Washington Square Park, passed Ground Zero, (another poignant reminder of why we - as a military adventure racing team - continue to serve our nation so fervently), and were now launching kayaks from the North Cove boat basin into the Hudson River. Phew…what else was in store for us?
The paddle took us four hours north along the Hudson River, passing the USS Intrepid at Pier 84 and under the George Washington Bridge. The original paddle course had been for teams to circumnavigate Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. Upon learning of the course change, we were very disappointed, until we found ourselves pummeled by 6-foot rollers, white caps, and 25-knot winds. We quickly became appreciative of the course change and promised ourselves to drive by the Statue of Liberty…after the race! The paddle took us to the Columbia University boat house where we were met by our motivated support crew from the VVnW…Peter Forbes, Nancy Verespy, and Dawn of the National Post and Brian, Frank from the New York Post. They cheerfully handled our damp spirits and seasickness with warm soup and words of encouragement as we readied our bicycles for the next section. A mere fifteen minutes later, we launched into a dark and very rainy night, ready for our first taste of the Bronx.
The whole concept of an urban race, to us at least, was street navigation. Within five miles, the course designers proved, yet again, to expect the unexpected. Welcome to Van Cortlandt Park. At this stage of the race, we were required to conduct first a bike orienteering course then a foot orienteering course….in the woods! On dirt! In mud and swamps and cliffs! This was pleasantly unexpected. As a team, we perform best in the woods…. add in cold weather, rain, and LOTS of mud, and we couldn’t be happier. That is exactly what Van Cortlandt Park gave us in the form a very challenging orienteering course. After nearly running over one person who we found preferred the warm comforts of forest living to the austerity of apartment life and being chased from an underpass by a large number of ‘night revelers’ surrounding a fire barrel, we succeeded in finding all navigational checkpoints without the loss of any team mates. When we had left the paddle section, we were in 34th place. We now emerged from the orienteering section having moved up to 15th. Remounting our bikes after the foot orienteering course, we pushed happily on into the night.
Street riding in New York is a bit different than Colorado, where cyclists are privileged with ever-present bike paths. The only things that we soon learned were ever present on the streets of New York are one-way streets and broken glass. The first of many flat tires gave us an opportunity to refine our route choice as we stood in the middle of the Bronx, very wet and wearing spandex. Soon enough, a dark colored Lincoln Town car with shaded windows coasted to a stop beside us. A very large Italian man, bedecked with heavy chained jewelry, slid from the passenger side and approached us. Secure in the knowledge that New York is a very safe and friendly city, we were in no way alarmed by his approach. “Where are yuz goin?”, he asked in a soft, easy tone. We told him we were racing and needed to get to Yankee Stadium. His partner sidled up from the other direction and they immediately launched into an animated discussion of multiple routes that left me, the team navigator, staring at my map, saying…”What did he say?” Almost in unison, my wife (born and raised in Long Island) and our new found friends snapped at me, as though it was blatantly obvious. In that very unique New York inflection…”take da Grand Concourse”! Of course…I knew that. Now. These guys were great…they gave New York a good name and us a great appreciation for the generosity of strangers.
We finished the bike section back at Columbia University again, where we were greeted with a new companion…the scooter. We would become very intimate with our new buddy over the next few hours. Due to heavy rains, the inline skate section had been cancelled for safety reasons (Had they seen me skate on dry ground they would have canceled it for safety reasons…) and we were transported in the VVnW van to the start point of the scooter. For the first time ever, we wished Peter drove a little bit slower so we could sneak in a few minutes of shut eye, but, true to form, Peter managed to maneuver his massive van down the narrow streets of New York and we were off on the scooter section in no time at all. We were back in Manhattan and the course brought us by the Empire State Building. Did I say by the Empire State building? Oops…I meant UP the Empire State building. Dropping our scooters in the lobby, we proceeded to run all 86 flights. We needed it anyways, had to get warmed up for 25 miles of scootering that, by the way, uses almost exactly the same muscles as running stairs! Thoughtful course designers….
As we pushed north through Manhattan, we were greeted by some of the more colorful denizens of the night. Sudden shouting behind us split through the night. The words “Hey honey, I’m a true blonde too”, found their way unmercifully to my ears. I turned to see something chasing my blonde haired teammate, Andrew Hamilton. On closer look, realization filled me with inspiration to break the land speed scooter record. A rather large, overweight male wearing a very small skirt, halter-top, and high heels beneath a monstrous blonde wig was shuffling he/its way down the sidewalk in a feeble attempt to catch up with us. There was no looking back….
Our next stop was Central Park. Attempting to find a short cut to the first checkpoint in the park, we found a gate that was unlocked into the Zoo. It was about 5:00 am. As we pushed through the zoo, the grumblings of early morning risers met our ears. Hey…was that a polar bear? Anybody wanna guess what time feeding time is? Having dead-ended at another gate, we had to beat a hasty retreat, having rousted all the hungry meat eaters we could unintentionally find. Central park, aside from the fact cobblestones and scooters don’t match, was beautiful. We leisurely rolled by a statue dedicated to Shakespeare on the Mall, the Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Tavern on the Green. Okay….so it may not have been leisurely. We kicked as hard as we could to push the scooters along and to dodge the peleton of a bicycle race that just happened to coincide with our urban adventure.
Sometimes (often) in adventure racing you are presented with sections that never end. This was one of them. Central park was great…but we weren’t even halfway through the scooter. We continued to traverse all of Manhattan from North to South, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, past the Brooklyn Boat Yard, then north to Queens. We were then given an option…we could scooter the rest of the way to Shea Stadium or take the #7 train. No question…we would scooter; NOT...the subway was a welcome break from a night-frenzied night of scootering.
We met up with the VVnW crew at Shea Stadium and feasted on canolis, pizza and Ensure meal replacement drinks (breakfast of champions), then were off again on our mountain bikes. During the night, a tire had burst on the support crew, given them the chance to practice there tire changing skills, which they performed admirably. We were up to five flats for the race and still counting. We rode the Cross Bay Boulevard across Jamaica Bay to Far Rockaway Beach, but didn’t take the time to hang out at Seaside. We continued on to the shops and tourist overload of Coney Island then back to Drier Offerman Park. The previous night’s rain had been replaced by a muggy, oppressive heat that began to wear on us as the day progressed.
The support crew awaited at Drier Offerman Park. We had made the last cut off time and would be able to complete the full course. Many teams wouldn’t have the opportunity. After a brief drive across the Verranzano Bridged to South Beach on Staten Island, we braced for the much anticipated triad. The triad requires the team to consist of one biker, one scooter, and one inline skater. My wife Gayle would ride the scooter, Andrew was the biker, and, lucky me, I was the skater. We took off down Father Capodanno Boulevard. Gayle held on to a towrope attached to the bike while I white knuckled the seat post of the bike and Andrew ground the pedals as our sole source of propulsion. I remember looking at the street name and thinking how I hoped the Father had blessed the boulevard because if I was gonna die anywhere, it was here (remember, I am not a skater…I just fall well). The section was mercifully short. Just when I got good at dodging potholes and jumping sewer plates, it was over. We dropped our gear and transitioned to the final section of the race.
A long and arduous trek brought us Northeast across Staten Island where we had the brief respite of the Staten Ferry ride back to Manhattan. The rains came back as we crossed the Narrows, but we could still see the Statue of Liberty before the clouds rolled. She was inspiration enough to push us through the last few miles of the course. Four other teams were on the ferry with us at the same time, and it would be a five-mile sprint to the finish to beat them.
The ferry docked and we were off, rushing through the financial district like stockbrokers with a hot tip, past the Ghostbusters fire station, Christopher Park and the Port Authority. Finally, we hit the bike trail along the west side of Manhattan, a direct route in to the finish. We had seen no other teams since the Federal Building, but just as we began the final push to the end, a team popped up and passed us. Spent, we struggled to keep the pace but they had gotten us unsuspecting a few minutes before the finish line. They beat us to the line; we learned later that we had, in fact, beaten this team due to the staggered starting times at the beginning of the course…we’re still practicing our sprint skills though! The USS Intrepid, the course finish line, loomed into view, and the smiling faces of our support crew from the VVnW were there to greet us. And then…it was done. After twenty-seven and one half hours of nonstop racing, a sense of accomplishment and relaxation filled us. What an unforgettable way to see New York! We highly recommend it as the approved way to get the most of any sightseeing vacation!