How I beat Journey… by playing Jericho
There are two things you should know about me right off the bat:
1. I’m not a runner.
2. I am a professional fake spy.
I ran a little bit back in Jr. High but was never very fast and certainly not very successful. In high school, I traded my running shoes in for cycling cleats & rollerblades and never looked back.
I’ve also been organizing & playing Jericho – The Urban Spy Game consistently every month for the last 5 years, and before that, I was playing different versions of that same spy game since 1991. Suffice it to say that I’ve honed a particular set of skills that don’t get used in everyday settings, namely, spotting people playing a spy game & avoiding being spotted by people playing a spy game.
I first heard about Journey to the End of the Night (Journey, to all the locals) about 4 years ago and, having been coaxed into a city-wide scavenger hunt back in 2002, I knew that anything as big as this would require more running than I could give. A year ago, even a fast paced game of Jericho might be enough to make me sore and walking funny for a day or two afterwards, so I always wrote myself off and said, “I can’t run far or fast enough to do Journey”
And then 2014 came along. My wife and I decided we wanted to make sure our daughters will have us around to embarrass them for several decades to come. So we got a gym membership, and 4 months of personal training sessions. Suffice it to say that all summer long, every morning, one of us would ask the question, “Am I ever NOT going to be sore?” By the end of the summer, I had lost 20 lbs and was surprising myself with my new fitness levels. This was right around when I found out about the next Journey at the end of October as the flagship game for the Come Out & Play festival (Jericho was one of the games in the festival as well) I knew I had to do it, to prove to myself I really had improved and was in the best shape I’d been in for 25 years (Thanks Krishen!). I could run a 10 minute mile, which I figured was good enough for Journey, so I filled out the admission forms and started planning.
In a nutshell, Journey is a city-wide game that challenges players to visit checkpoints while avoiding Chasers who are trying to tag you out. My one advantage going into this was that I knew how to blend in and not look like the other 3000 twenty-something’s who were running. In every Journey game, there is a small band of Chasers who start the game and who then tag players, who then turn into Chasers themselves. I figured the initial Chasers might have some experience, but everyone else who they tag is an amateur who only chases after people who run and who are a little nervous about tagging people they aren’t certain are playing, for fear of “freaking people out” or being “weird”.
When you play Jericho, you have to learn to get past that because sometimes you shoot a civilian. No big deal, they get over it, you keep hunting. You also have to sometimes hide in plain sight or not appear to be one of the “Target Demographic” which usually means 20-30’s hipster with a toy gun in your hand. Even a slight change to your “look“and you drop off your opponents radar. To this end, I brought disguises. The most important of which was a shirt that matched the color of the armband we were supposed to wear. I also dressed in jeans, not workout shorts or running pants, to complete the “SF citizen” disguise.
The night of the game, I ate dinner with my partner in crime and fellow Jericho vet Yoshi and then headed over to the staging area. There were lots of familiar faces from previous Jericho games and past COAP festivals and also lots of young confident twenty-somethings who were just a little freaked out by the Chasers, who were stalking around with their red-glowing-eyed Guy Fawkes masks. A few more familiar faces gathered with us and we all decided to hang together for the first part of the night, which seemed to be a good plan because there would be more eyeballs to spot chasers. We formulated our plan to visit the checkpoints (you can go in any order you want) & we set out when the horn sounded.
Our gang of 8 made it to our first checkpoint without incident. This was a super creative checkpoint that was crafted to give runners a taste for the dystopian world the night was supposed to be set in, but they weren’t prepared for 100 people to show up all at once. I realized that the faux paperwork they were making us fill out wasn’t necessary and I just winged it and got my manifest stamped, a process that takes all of 10 seconds and is how you prove you’ve visited a checkpoint. Unfortunately, before I figured out what to do, we stood in a line for 45 minutes. We left the checkpoint but not the safe zone, which extends around the checkpoint approximately one block in all directions, and resisted the temptation to get on a bus loaded with runners departing for the next checkpoint. I should tell you that by now, everyone else with us had gone their separate ways and so it was down to me, Yoshi, & Kelly (Yoshi’s girlfriend). We walked with our Jericho-eyes peeled for any suspicious characters. I also donned my first disguise by putting on a newsie hat & white ear buds. All the runners were in workout clothes, presumably so they would be swift and unburdened, so I was going for the “anti-runner” look. We got to the next safe zone without seeing any chasers. The next checkpoint was blessedly shorter and we got stamped quickly and were off to checkpoint #3, and that’s when everything went sideways.
My partners were tagged. I was alone now, with 4 checkpoints to go and no one to help me.We were crossing a street exiting the safe zone, I went behind a car that was blocking the crosswalk & Yoshi & Kelly went in front and then I heard the unmistakable stomping of running people and Kelly yelled, “Yoshi, NOOO!” Suddenly 3 or 4 people ran by me and the first Chaser I saw that night ran right by me to tag the runners who just passed me. My first instinct was to turn 90 degrees and sprint off through traffic, but it was moving too fast, so I harnessed all my Jericho nerves of steel and kept walking, just like I was heading home. My heart was beating like a drum! I walked right by the Chaser, who wasn’t one of the mask-wearing original Chasers & was recently tagged & turned while we were waiting for checkpoint #1. He obviously didn’t notice my blue armband on my blue shirt! “Just be cool!” I kept going up the street, never looking back. My partners were tagged. I was alone now, with 4 checkpoints to go and no one to help me. At the end of the block, I heard screams of panic and saw another ex-runner turned Chaser go after another group of runners on the other side of the street. He was lightning quick and those guys didn’t stand a chance.
My first thought was, “Holy cow that guy is fast!”
My second thought was, “There is no way that I’m going to win a sprint tonight. Those 21 year old Chasers are twice as fast as this 43 year old runner.”
It was then that I realized, I could only do this by bluffing my way through the city. I had to look like I belonged, but not like I was playing. I do it all the time when playing Jericho and I’d need every trick I had, as well as all 3 disguises left in my bag.
I ducked into an alley, pulled out my hippie librarian wig and two grocery sacks (into one was dropped my backpack full of costumes) and I commandeered a 6-pack of empty Coronas in someone’s trash and began “walking home from the store” for the next 13 blocks. At this point, I was more worried about Yoshi being a Chaser and being on the hunt for me, since he knew the path I was now fully committed to, but I didn’t see him again. We traded menacingly friendly text messages but nothing came of it. They became Chasers for a while until Kelly twisted her ankle.
I actually made it to Grace Cathedral without incident and got stamped. I thought I might have seen a Chaser waiting at the edge of the safe zone, so I walked the other way & kept my disguise on until I reached a parking garage in Chinatown, where I changed to my long blonde wig with red bandanna, ditched the grocery bags, kept one empty bottle, and staggered towards the Yerba Buena checkpoint looking like a drunk hippie tourist. I had about 2 hours left and I was getting more confident I could pull this off.
I play Jericho a lot in the part of SF I was now traveling through, in fact I kinda consider it my home turf, so I took every back alley and building pass-through I could, to stay off the street and avoid chasers. I arrived without incident at checkpoint #4 and got stamped by my good friend Ian (Journey co-creator!). I figured it was time to break out the last disguise for the final three checkpoints. I found a restroom in the Metreon, ditched the jeans for my running shorts, and whipped out the yellow safety vest and flashlight. I was going full on “night jogger”. I headed out into the streets fully intending to jog right up to the next checkpoint but I noticed that there were huge crowds of people streaming down the street away from the stadium. The Giants game was out and I was happy, because crowds are always your friends when you want to disappear, so I embedded myself in the crowds, confident I was safe. I reached the stadium, ran one block to the safe zone and got stamped at the checkpoint. One more to go and then to finish at the head office.
I kept the “night jogger” disguise and headed towards the last checkpoint. I was a few blocks away when I saw three people walking towards me one block away. I figured they were a group of runners and maintained my cover and just kept jogging. As I passed them, one of them had a red arm band on and he was talking on the phone. I had just passed another Chaser! I wasn’t sure what was going on and why he didn’t tag the other two runners he was with, but I knew I needed to get on another street, which I did, but I still jogged right by a couple of Chasers who were waiting for runners to leave the safe zone I was headed for. I kept my cool, didn’t make eye contact, and acted like I was out for a jog (at 11pm, through eel infested waters, etc). I warned a group of runners about the Chaser couple I just saw and then found the checkpoint, which was in the process of being shut down by the cops for being in a park after dark (probably got a complaint from the homeless, go figure). I helped carry some tires up the hill to be packed away, got my stamp, and headed down the home stretch towards the “head office”. I put one of my old man wigs on under my jogging hat to appear older and headed for the final safe zone and victory. I was pretty tired and my feet were definitely sore, but I could still go on and I could tell that all my physical training was paying off with my stamina levels still OK. I stopped for a minute to walk & catch my breath & walked right by another Chaser couple that obviously didn’t consider me a target. I immediately began running again. Not the running of a scared Journey player, but the steady jog of an old 50-something runner getting some miles in on a Saturday night. (Wink wink, stay cool man!)
I reached the final safe zone without seeing any other Chasers and walked down the alley to the head office past lots of Chasers that couldn’t touch me and walked through the front door and right up to my old friend Shawn, who stamped me and give me a finalist pin (Shawn asked me, “Did you wear that reflective vest all night?”). They had huge jugs of water and snacks. I ate everything and basked in the feeling of accomplishment. I had done the impossible and was still standing. Driving home was going to feel so good because I could do it sitting down.
Looking back, I guess it was a good thing I was orphaned early. My disguises would have only worked as a solo runner. A group would have given me away unless we had coordinated ahead of time. More than one person I knew was tagged a block away from the finish, so I had some major luck as well, but blending in and having a shirt with blue sleeves helped immensely. It took me approximately 4.5 hours to travel 9 miles (yes, I was sore the next day but… it wasn’t that bad). It was a completely satisfying, grueling, hauntingly familiar and terrifying experience and I’m still not sure that I want to do it again, but I’ll see how it grabs me next year when COAP comes back to town. I’ll have more disguises for sure!