The Race Diary
We happened to be riding the ferry with the mayor of a neighboring town – a nice young guy with slicked back hair who looked a lot like Gavin Newsome, San Francisco’s mayor.
Gavin took a look at our clue and told us the “World of Ocean” in the clue was referring to Ocean World, one of Manly’s main attractions, and “7 miles from Sydney and 1000 miles from care” was a reference to Manly itself, which is where we were headed.
“Ocean World is not far from the dock,” Gavin said. “When you get off the ferry, you’re going to want to take a left and head down the beach. It’s a quick run up the coast. You can’t miss it.”
“Great, more running,” Zev said.
“Get used to it,” I told him. “It’s a race.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Thankfully, this run was quicker than the one to the ship. We found the cluebox right where the Mayor had said it would be – right by the entrance to Ocean World.
Race Rules stated that we each needed to do 5 Roadblocks by the time the last leg rolled around, assuming we made it that far. We had decided beforehand that I’d start things off, especially if it was a swimming challenge, which it sounded like this was.
“You do it,” Zev said.
“I’ll do it,” I announced as I ripped open the rest of the clue.
I was to head into Ocean World and SCUBA dive in a shark tank, where I would have to look for a compass.
As I scrambled to the changing area, we saw teams from the 1st plane just leaving the challenge, which was good news – we weren’t far behind.
I quickly changed into my wetsuit and climbed down into a shallow wading pool, where an instructor was waiting to give me a crash course in SCUBA diving. I had never done it before, mostly out of fear. There was no time for that now.
The teacher was nice and reassuring, which put me at ease, which is exactly where I needed to be to deal with the initial shock of an extended period of underwater breathing. It does not come naturally – to me anyway – and was not easy to get used to.
I realized pretty quickly that that staying calm and focusing on my breathing was the key. If you don’t stay calm, you might quickly find yourself panicking, and panic leads to more panic, which is not a good path to go down when you’re underwater with sharks all around you.
So as I lowered myself into the main tank I put the sharks and stingrays out of my mind and thought only about the in… out…. of my breathing, and my search for this compass I was supposed to be looking for, which I was told I would know when I saw.
It took a few seconds to get my bearings.
I let myself sink to the bottom and started to explore the sand on the floor of the tank with my fingers, thinking the compass was probably small and might be buried… but the sand looked like as though it had already been combed-through by everyone else.
I decided to find a place in the tank that others might not have wanted to check out for whatever reason. In general on The Race, it pays to go the way your gut tells you not to. “They” know what your gut is going to do before you do, and they count on it.
I need unexplored territory. But where?
I stopped and looked around. There was a tunnel running down the middle of the tank that looked tough and uninviting to climb over.
I moved to the tunnel and found that a net had been laid over one part to make it easier to climb, so I reached up, grabbed hold, and started to make my way over it.
After a slight struggle, I was on the other side.
I made my way towards the far end, into a dark, nearly pitch-black corner, which felt exactly like the less-explored area I was looking for.
Sure enough, there in the corner, leaning up against a wall, was a big, golden compass.
I thought about celebrating, but I was using my mouth for breathing, so I couldn’t yell like I wanted to just yet.
Don’t drown. This isn’t the time.
I grabbed the compass, tucked it under my arm, and starting making my way back across the tunnel, trying not to let my excitement interrupt my air intake.
It was a little tough to get back over the tunnel with the heavy compass in my hands, but I managed by tossing it out in front of me in the water a little and chasing it up and over the glass. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Zev through the window below me pumping his fist, and I answered with one of my own – but I had to check myself.
Stay focused on the breathing. In… out… and ignore the sharks.
When I surfaced back in the instruction pool, I finally let out the yell of excitement that had been building inside of me. A lot of things were going through me – I was pumped to have found the compass, happy to have successfully SCUBA dove for the first time, and just generally thrilled to be back on The Race again and living in the moment.
“Yeah!” I shouted again.
It was understandable. I hadn’t been far from that myself when I first went under.
“Just breathe,” I told her, giving her a reassuring rub on the back. “That’s the most important thing.”
I’m not sure she heard me, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I climbed out of the tank and moved to the changing room, ready to move on.
After The Pacemaker delay, we assumed we were about an hour behind the 1st flight.
Our clue told us to “TAKE IN A SOUTHERN SWAN ON THE ROCKS” to receive our next clue. It sounded like a drink, which we could all have used right about then, but a little research in LAX on a nice lady’s iphone had told us – and all the rest of the teams, unfortunately – that “The Southern Swan” was in fact a tall ship, and “The Rocks” was an area on Sydney Harbor.
We had to take a train from the airport into central Sydney, so we all sprinted through the airport to the below-ground metro.
We were on the 2nd train with the Cheerleaders, Kynt & Vyxsin, and Luke & Margie – but the doors closed just before Ron & Christina could get on, which didn’t upset us. It’s a game of inches sometimes.
Mike and Mel and the Cowboys would be with Ron & Christina bringing up the rear on the third train.
We got off the train at Circular Quay (pronounced “Key”) Station, which was right on the harbor, and ran along the water as some local Aussies had instructed us to do when we asked them for help on the plane.
On The Race you’re always looking for extra info, and the plane is a great place to get it.
As we ran up the harbor we passed the Globetrotters coming back the other way with a clue in their hands, which meant they had already found the ship, so we knew we were headed in the right direction.
It wasn’t a long run, but we had been on a plane for 20 hours and with the heavy bags it was easy to get tired quickly.
Zev did. Alarmingly so.
We had only been running for a few minutes, and he was lagging.
“Come on, bud. We’re just getting started here,” I said, trying to pump him up and keep pace with Luke & Margie, who were holding hands as they ran, as is their way… Luke seems to think it helps to literally pull his mother along as she runs.
“Just keep running, buddy,” I implored Zev. “No walking.”
He tried his best, but he was out of breath and slowing down quickly. Thankfully Margie was slowing also, and Kynt & Vyxsin were no speedsters either, so we were able to keep up with the pack.
“Welcome aboard the Southern Swan,” he said, and handed us our clue.
ROUTE INFO: MAKE YOUR WAY TO A WORLD OF OCEAN, 7 MILES FROM SYDNEY AND 1000 MILES FROM CARE.
The sentence meant very little to us, but the clue also told us we could only get to wherever we were going by foot or by ferry, so it stood to reason that someone back at the ferry area – near the train entrance – would be able to steer us in the right direction.
Not knowing the ferry schedule, we had to assume the ferry could be leaving any second – you always have to assume the worst on The Race – so again I refused to let Zev walk, no matter how badly he wanted to.
“Give me your bag,” I said as I jogged along next to him.
“I’m good,” he responded, trying to tough it out.
“No walking. If you can’t do it, I’ll take it. But no walking. I don’t care who carries what.”
“Ok, take it.”
Moving quicker now, we made it back to the ferry area in good time, where we were told by a ticket-taker that the ferry we needed was the one to Manly, just a little down the harbor.
We had ten minutes to get there. We made it with a few to spare.
The Globetrotters were there still waiting to board, and the rest of the teams from our train into Sydney had all made it as well. Ron & Christina, Mel & Mike, and The Cowboys would have to catch the next ferry, half an hour behind us, while the teams from the second-now-first plane were God-only-knew how far ahead of us.
So as our ferry pushed off, we were comfortably bunched together with a handful of other teams right in the middle of the pack. A fine place to be.
The ferry was our first moment to catch our breath and take in the scenery. Sydney was actually quite beautiful – reminiscent of California port cities like San Diego and San Francisco, where much of the city is on the water and the sun shines often. Since our winter is their summer it was a beautiful November summer day, and boats dotted the basin as everyone was out taking advantage of the weather.
“Yo Zev, how you gonna let Justin carry your bag for you?” Flight Time asked, taking the down time to rib him a bit.
“I’m not Steve Prefontaine,” Zev said.
We took the shuttle to the International terminal and jogged inside to the designated counter marked by our red & yellow route flags… flags you never stop getting excited to see when you’re on The Race.
“Welcome to Qantas,” the nice-looking Australian at the QANTAS counter said.
We were the 1st team to check in – a good feeling, if only symbolic. We asked for seats close to the front of the plane, then hung around to finally meet and speak to everyone – anxious to see which teams would be on our flight, which would be on the second flight, and even more importantly – which team would be stuck with the dreaded Double Detour.
There were 8 hours to kill until our flight left – the first in what would surely be a long line of long waits.
The Race is exciting and full of surprises, not the least of which is how much down time there actually is. Not that any of us would complain – but it’s actually the down time – the sleeping in airports, the sleeping on sidewalks, the days without eating – that makes The Race so difficult. The challenges themselves are tough to be sure, but the lack of sleep and malnourishment is what really wears you down.
After a few minutes, the teams began to show up in bunches. Gary & Mallory, Kris & Amanda, and Jen & Keisha would be the 3 teams on the second flight, and having figured QANTAS out last, it would be Kris & Amanda who had the unpleasant feeling of having that Double Detour hanging over their heads the whole way to Australia… an unenviable position to be in.
But unlike the team that had been eliminated right at the start of our season, at least Kris & Amanda had a fighting chance.
All you have to do is beat 1 team. Anything can happen.
Everyone greeted each other warmly. We knew each other a bit from watching each other’s seasons, so less small talk was necessary, which was fine by us. Small talk has never been Zev’s thing.
The 8 teams on the first flight boarded our plane feeling good that we wouldn’t be racing for last – first is nice, but not-last is all that matters. We were glad to have that be the other flight’s problem.
But halfway to Australia, the tables turned.
The in-flight intercom crackled. The Pilot came on to tell us that a man with a pacemaker needed emergency medical attention… meaning we would have to drop him off in Honolulu… meaning we would have to go an hour out of our way, land, and spend an extra hour and a half to two hours refueling…
So thanks to one sick dude getting on a plane too soon after his heart surgery, our 90-minute lead had turned into a 90-minute deficit.
Don’t get me wrong – we’re human beings first – we all knew getting the guy the attention he needed was more important than our Race, all things considered… But as the Sick Man WALKED OFF WITHOUT ASSISTANCE in Honululu, I’d be lying if I said every one of us wasn’t staring daggers through him.
It was a brutal way to get The Race started, but The Race is a metaphor for life – You never know what’s coming. Sometimes guys with pacemakers get in the way.
Hopefully the guy’s ok.
As if sensing the moment was upon us, the wind started to pick up and carried a sideways rain with it.
“Now I’m going to tell you what I need from you,” Phil shouted over the wind.
“Here we go bud,” I said to Zev under my breath.
Phil seemed to look everyone in the eyes all at once. He’s good at that.
“I need you… to bring me… Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Services.”
Everyone looked at their partners, trying to process it.
Phil said it again, more slowly.
“Queensland… and Northern Territory… Aerial Services.”
As we had walked past the field of paper airplane-looking things, I noticed that each paper airplane had the name of an airline on it.
My mind went to work.
Queensland. Is that England? No – Australia…
…Australia… Airlines….What’s an Australian airline?
Suddenly Dustin Hoffman was in my head.
Rainman. Why is Rainman in my head?
Because “Qantas never crashed.”
QANTAS. An Australian airline. Queensland And Northern Territories Aerial Services. There it is.
“I got it,” I said quietly to Zev, breathing a sigh of relief.
“What is it?” He asked.
I leaned in close, making sure nobody else could hear.
Another pound. The excitement was there, but now thankfully the pressure subsided a bit. We still had to find the thing, but at least we knew what we were looking for, which we were pretty sure put us in better shape than most.
Phil raised his hand. It was time.
His hand dropped. We all took off, scrambling as quickly as we could across the rugged dunes into the field of paper airplanes. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, sitting atop tall wire poles – but they were laid out in a grid of rows and columns to make them easier to move through.
Zev and I picked a row.
“You look left, I’ll look right,” I told him as we moved quickly but cautiously, taking care not to miss anything.
We could feel the other teams in there with us, but the adrenaline was pumping too hard and we were too focused on what we were doing to actually see anyone. We kept our eyes peeled, but as we approached the end of our row it seemed we had seen every airline except QANTAS.
Finally, at the very end of the row, I saw one – 2 rows over. I ran towards it, pulled it down from the top of the pole, and tucked it under my arm to make sure nobody could read it.
“Got it Zev!” I yelled.
“Yeah!” He yelled back.
Together we started running through the field back to Phil. We got to him second. Mel and Mike were already there. They were movie fanatics like us, but I didn’t have time to ask them if Rainman had led them to it also.
“Congratulations, here’s your clue,” Phil said after looking at our planes.
He handed clues to Mel & Mike, then to us. Zev and I hi-fived each other as we moved aside and ripped ours open, bumping ever-so-slightly into the Cowboys who had moseyed in behind us.
ROUTE INFO: FLY TO SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA AND TAKE IN ‘A SOUTHERN SWAN ON THE ROCKS’.
Australia was a spot neither Zev nor I had been. We were excited to be heading there, but as Zev would repeatedly point out, this was as much a business trip as anything else… It didn’t matter where The Race took us, we were here to win.
We grabbed our backpacks and ran over to the first in a line of eleven brand new 2012 Ford Focuses. We had our tickets already, so getting to the airport quickly didn’t really matter other than for the purpose of getting seats close to the front of the plane… but it felt like getting the first car and leaving the windmill farm first and getting to the airport first would be a good way to let The Race Gods know we were in it to win it this time.
So we tossed our bags in the trunk of that first car – despite the fact that it was canary yellow – hopped in, and I floored it out of the wind farm.
We headed East on the I-10, back towards LA and LAX, where we knew we had a good 8 hours to kill before that first flight to Sydney.
But we didn’t care. The Race was ON.
When we dismounted the bus, all we saw were windmills. Everywhere. Not the Don Quixote, European kind – the clean energy kind… the kind we knew could really only be found in one place in the LA vicinity:
We knew where we were. Hopefully the others didn’t.
Palm Springs. The desert. Someone forgot to tell the sun.
It was one of the coldest days of the year in Southern California. The wind was whipping, there was a light drizzle, and that great ball of fire in the sky was fighting a losing battle against the cloud cover… but the adrenaline rush starting to course through everyone’s veins was enough to counter the elements.
Creature comforts have no place on The Race. We knew the second time around they would make us earn it, and we were ready.
We moved to another part of the wind farm and walked past a field of paper airplane-looking things which were clearly meant for us… meaning there would be a challenge at the starting line again, just as there had been our 1st season when a team had been brutally eliminated right at the starting line.
The ever-rising tension leapt up a few more notches as we lined up in front of Phil and took our places for the big moment. After 4 days of seclusion it was nice to finally lay eyes on Phil, who held the key to our release.
Phil is The Race, and The Race was about to start.
“It’s nice to see you guys,” Phil said, giving us all the once-over. “Are you ready for this?”
We assured him we were. He looked around.
“All of you have been through this before. Unfortunately – for various reasons… misspelled words… untimely pee breaks… lost passports…”
As he said each of these things he looked over at the people he was talking about – first Big Easy, then Jen, then me. I bowed my head in shame, remembering the incident and taking responsibility one last time, then put it behind me once and for all.
“…For various reasons, none of you managed to go home with the 1 million dollar prize. This time, one of you will.”
“When I say go,” he continued, “You will NOT run to your bags. Instead, you will run into that marked field over there and bring me what I need. When you bring me what I need, you will receive your next clue. The first 8 teams to do so will be on the first flight to your first destination. The last 3 teams will be on the second flight, which is scheduled to land 90 minutes later.”
90 minutes. An eternity on The Race.
The tension managed to find new heights.
“IN ADDITION,” Phil went on, always full of surprises and happy to be so. “The LAST team to bring me what I need will face a DOUBLE DETOUR – meaning the 1st detour you encounter along the way, that team will have to do both sides of it.”
So whoever got the answer to this first challenge last was basically U-turned right out of the gate. As history showed, U-turns are not easy to come back from, so that sounded almost tantamount to elimination… but anything can happen on The Race.
“Yes. That’s going to be tough to come back from,” he said, reading our minds.
“And that’s not all…” Phil kept going, clearly enjoying it now. “I also have some good news. The FIRST team to reach the 1st Pit Stop will be awarded an Express Pass.”
A murmur of excitement passed through us – like Dorothy had just told us she found the Wizard.
“For those of you who don’t know, an Express Pass is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows you to skip a challenge whenever you’d like… a nice thing to have if you ever find yourself falling behind the pack. I bet some of you would like to have that, am I right?”
We all nodded like kids wanting dessert. Express Passes had only just been introduced on The Race the season before, but we all knew how huge they could be in this game.
I looked at Zev beside me, shivering just a little less than I was.
“You ready?” I asked him.
“I think so,” he said. “But I need to pee again.”
We gave each other a pound.
“DBL,” Zev said.
As we raced, I kept a journal. I never shared it with anyone. This is the beginning of it.
Once-in-a-lifetime experiences don’t come around often. Second chances at once-in-a-lifetime experiences are even more rare –so rare they’re oxy-moronic, in fact… yet that’s the only way to describe what Zev and I were about to get.
They had brought teams back onto The Race once before. Season 11. Then, it was referred to as “The Amazing Race 11: All-Star Edition”. This time they were calling it “The Amazing Race 18: Unfinished Business” – a little less flattering, but completely accurate. Unfinished Business was exactly what we felt we had left behind after our first go-round, which ended brutally when I dropped Zev’s passport in a dark monastery in Cambodia. We won that leg, but we were disqualified, exiting The Race prematurely after just 4 legs.
“Thanks for ruining my life,” Zev would delicately put it every time the subject came up.
He was only half joking, but if that hadn’t happened – if we – I should say I – hadn’t failed so epically and memorably, we might not have been where we now found ourselves: Back on that bus, heading to the starting line, with a second opportunity to do what most people would kill for just one shot at…
Running THE AMAZING RACE – The greatest Race there is.
From the moment Phil said those dreaded words and eliminated us on that mat in Cambodia a year and a half before, we had allowed ourselves to entertain the notion that maybe – just maybe – the powers that be would decide to do another All-Star season, and maybe – just maybe – they would find it in their hearts to include us… but as the months passed, the slim hope faded.
Then the phone rang, and here we were.
This was our shot at redemption.
Maybe everything does happen for a reason.
The bus left at 7AM and drove for 2 hours. We had no idea what direction we were headed. The windows were completely blacked out. LA was our home turf, but after a few turns I lost sense of where we were and gave in to the mystery of it all – we’d find out soon enough.
The ride was silent. People shared a few words with their partners, but talking to other teams was still off limits. No talking without the cameras. It’s the rule of The Race, and the truth is it’s more intense that way… but after days of sizing each other up, the time to finally break the silence and get the fun part going was just a bus ride away, and it couldn’t come soon enough.
The building pressure was also building pressure on everyone’s bladders, especially Zev’s. During the 2-hour ride he must have gone to the onboard whiz room 5 times.
“I’m so nervous,” he kept saying. And also, “My stomach hurts.”
His stomach always hurts – it’s part of his whole Asperger’s Syndrome thing – so I’ve learned not to overreact. The nerves were understandable – hell, I was nervous too. If he hadn’t been nervous I would’ve been more worried. So much build-up to this moment… and now it was here… and we knew all too well that it could go away in the blink of an eye, with one mistake.
“DBL” – we would say to each other. Don’t Be Last. It would become our mantra.