Journey to the End of the Night – 2011

On Saturday I participated in Journey to the End of the Night – an urban street game that consists of a large group of “runners,” who try to make it to checkpoints across Chicago while being pursued by “chasers.”

Initially, the game starts off with way more runners than chasers. However – here’s the catch: if you’re a runner and you’re tagged you immediately become a chaser. Similar to how things work with zombies, the longer things go on… the worse it gets. As the night/game progresses, it becomes harder and harder to get past all the chasers.

The event began in Welles Park, where folks gathered to register. The official start time was at 7:00PM, but people were encouraged to show up early (and I understood why, once we arrived). Liz was kind enough to drive both me and Jake over, and hung out with us while we were waiting in line.

Walking near the registration point.

While taking a photo of the sign, I started to get pretty excited/nervous to play.

There were a LOT of people already queued up.

I’m glad we showed up when we did, because the folks just kept on a-coming. Paul met us in line and we slowly made our way to the registration tables.

Looking out over the area in front of the gazebo, registered runners were milling about discussing strategy.

Near the top of the gazebo ramp, looking back at the folks still in line.

A perfect image for the game. Note the Red and Blue ribbons on the table (red = chasers, blue = runners).

Each person gets two ribbons on registering. Ribbons must be worn on the upper part of the arm and made visible at all times. You put on the blue ribbon to signify you’re a runner; you put the red ribbon in your pocket. If, during the event, you are tagged by a chaser… you hand that person your blue ribbon (it counts as their “kill”). You then put on the red ribbon and play the rest of the game as a “chaser.”

Registration tables, with ribbons being handed out.

Evan’s wife Shama, one of the main organizers of the event. She was super busy directing people and blocking folks from directly walking up to the gazebo to register. I said a quick hello and joked about how I hoped I wouldn’t see Evan later (he was a chaser).

Me, Jake and Paul, studying our maps. I love how totally serious and focused we are.

The three of us discussing strategies. The event has to be tackled in order, with runners hitting each of the checkpoints in order (there were 6 checkpoints in all). For checkpoints 1 and 2, there were two options for each (1A/1B and 2A/2B). Additionally, there were two spots marked with a “?” that indicated an additional, secret checkpoint. These were not mandatory checkpoints, but there was something special for those who sought them out.

Since this was a safe zone between checkpoints 2 and 3, we decided we needed to stop by.

One of the other organizers, giving out some instructions to the folks still in line.

I should note that from here on out, all the photos are from my cellphone (I had given my camera to Liz, who had taken off for home). I was debating bringing my camera along with me, but looking back on things – I’m really glad I didn’t. It would have been near impossible to run with that thing, and ultimately it was a tradeoff: mobility over photography.

I’m bummed Liz had to go home, but she was coming down with whatever illness I got (and still had). While my cough was improving, it still was pretty present and I remember hacking a lot even before the running began.

You know those Nature documentaries where they focus on lions hiding in the tall grass, with a large group of gazelles nearby? And how there’s usually a baby gazelle, newly born, who’s falling down frequently due to its shaky new legs? The baby gazelle is pretty much what I felt like. I didn’t have a lot of optimism for my chances.

Don’t Tag Me, Bro!

Near 7:30 PM, the crowd was called in for some last minute instructions. I’m always terrible when trying to estimate crowds, but I’d say there were maybe 500 folks stamping their feet, trying to stay warm, and ready to run.

The excitement was very much in the air, with a few false starts. About 25 people began running too early, with the rest of the crowd yelling at them to come back (lots of Boo’s).

Originally Jake, Paul and I were going to take things at an easy pace (none of us really wanted to run much). We were going to make our way down alleys and work on not being spotted. When we saw how many people there were, and realize that most folks would be hauling ass out of the park the moment things began… we decided we needed to get moving as fast as possible.

I couldn’t hear very well, but I believe there was something about how the runners were only being given a 5 second head start. That said, I didn’t see any chasers until we hit checkpoint 2. I have an unverified theory that there are no chasers stationed between the start and the first checkpoint, mostly as a motivational thing to ensure that everyone gets to at least one checkpoint. Not sure about that though.

A blurry shot of us going down an alley. Our initial plan of being hidden worked out well, but took us way out of the way. We spent a LOT of time going through alleys and didn’t arrive at the first checkpoint until more than an hour later.

After backtracking a bit, we finally arrived at the first checkpoint (1A), in Winnemac Park.

As we approached, the checkpoint consisted of a small area, crisscrossed with police/caution tape. There were two guys at the entrance, wearing hazmat suits and carrying light wands. As each person approached, they did a quick fake “scan” of every runner and gave them a password. People then had to go into the tangle of tape and find another volunteer to be de-contaminated.

As I was making my way through the tape, I heard someone behind me yell out m
y name. I turned around and saw two girls, who were also midway through the tape. The girl who called me was named Jen, and she was with her friend Chrissy. Turns out Jen recognized me from my time as a contestant for Month at the Museum. Not only that, she’s also a MeFite!

I have to admit, it was both pretty eerie and pretty awesome to have a stranger recognize you. I only had it happen once or twice, when the MATM event was going on… and it still happens (infrequently) from time to time.

I wanted to stick around a chat a bit more, but Paul and Jake were already done with their checkins and were waiting around for me. Additionally, given how much time we blew getting to the first checkpoint… I felt like we were at the tail end of the race. So I wanted to keep the pace up.

After a very hurried greeting, I turned around and got my map stamped. The woman asked me for the password I was given, and I totally blanked. I was afraid I’d have to go back through the tape, get a new password, and return – possibly losing even more time. I took a guess and remembered correctly, got my signature and was off.

More alleys. At this point, the sun had begun to set and it got harder to see arm bands. As the night continued, you had to rely more on body movements to determine if people were runners or chasers (or even playing the game at all). It installed a very interesting sense of ever-present paranoia.

In getting to the next checkpoint, Jake recommended we hop a wall and sneak through Rosehill Cemetery. On nearing the wall, I think there was a small panic as a group of people showed up behind us. Some folks started to run, and it seemed like we were being chased (but we weren’t).

Jake bolted across the street, climbed up a tree and was over the wall in the blink of an eye. Paul and I, moving slower once we realized there were no chasers, eventually made our way to the wall.

I’m not 100%, but I think this is near where we were.

I tried climbing up, but slipped and slid back down the tree, scratching my arms up. Paul was able to get over and, on my second attempt, I was able to as well.

We found ourselves inside Rosehill Cemetery, with not much light left in the sky. Jake was long gone, and so Paul and I started to slowly make our way through, keeping the wall to our right the whole time. Jake called and text us, and spoke with Paul about how to get out (apparently, Jake really knew this cemetery well).

A blurry shot, taken inside the cemetery. As we were walking, the walls got taller and taller and taller. As we kept going, I was on the lookout for the exit that Jake claimed was nearby. I began getting concerned, thinking we were effectively trapped inside the cemetery, with no real way out. The walls were way too tall to climb over, and with the darkness… I couldn’t see any clear exit.

Paul got on the phone with Jake, who directed us to the corner of the cemetery. There was a small squared off area, marked by a wooden door/gate. Inside, there was a patch of land that was just strewn with some pretty big weeds (some taller than us). When I first saw this area, I had written it off… but Jake told us to go through.

It was a big leap of faith. We pushed our way through a ton of weeds and as we neared the corner, saw a chainlink fence that had been opened up. We crawled through the gate easily, and climbed up onto a slight embankment. About 3 feet away, there was another small fence that opened out onto the sidewalk.

It’s hard to see, but this is the small opening that led to the sidewalk. Paul is about to push his way through, onto the street.

As soon as he got out, I pushed my way through. I snagged my hair on the gate, and ended up being stuck momentarily… but eventually slide down, onto the sidewalk.

When I emerged, I popped out right in front of a group of runners, who were also making their way to the checkpoint. I have to say, I bet it looked really cool/creepy, seeing someone appear the way we did: two guys, crawling out from under a hole in a fence, emerging from the darkness.

At the second checkpoint. I’m not sure who the woman was, but she was obviously a chaser. She had perched high up, Batman-like, and had on a pretty bad-ass trenchcoat. She would stand/crouch, and very calmly, very quietly taunt all the runners. Awesome and unnerving.

When we arrived, we found a very large group of people (75 – 100). Every runner was given a pen and a scrap of paper. We were told to write a letter to a friend or loved one who had died, and to add our letter to a nearby wall.

I was pretty surprised by this, and really caught off guard. I found myself thinking about my Uncle Jackie and my friend Ann, and eventually wrote a short message to Ann.

One of the walls, where our letters were posted.

It was an interesting experience – running and playing, and then suddenly being taken from that mindset into a more contemplative, somber one. The volunteers did a good job keeping the crowd quiet, partly out of respect for the nearby neighbors and, IMO, partly to keep a sense of reverence about the letters/wall.

In a lot of ways, I found the checkpoint to mirror how we handle and experience death – everyone going about their tasks, incredibly focused on what’s in front of them… only to be caught off guard by death, and having to confront it unexpectedly. I’m very curious what will be done with the letters, and would love to read through them all.

Around this time, I got a text from Jake saying that he had been caught. He was near a friend’s house, so he decided to exit the game for the night and ducked out. Paul and I continued towards the next checkpoint, and en route we had gotten chased and separated. Once again, it turned out to be a false alarm… but it was getting really hard to tell friend from foe.

Oftentimes, on seeing another group, you’d start to run – then they, on seeing you run, would begin to run. And then suddenly both groups have freaked one another out, and it takes a while before everyone realizes there were no chasers to begin with.

A girl who got separated from her group joined me briefly. I forget her name, but we were making our way towards the third checkpoint and decided to stay together. I think at this time Paul was across the street. I made the mistake of walking out to a nearby main road, and we encountered a group of chasers who were just clustered together… waiting.

I got tagged in short order, being unable to make it around the corner. Can’t remember his name, but this is the guy who got me.

At this point in the game, it was maybe 9PM or so. As a chaser, I wasn’t sure what to really do and just wandered around aimlessly for a bit. I made it to the nearby “?” checkpoint, and ended up seeing Paul there. We chatted for a bit (inside a safezone). He had escaped and was still in the game.

I wandered away as Paul went off to look for the hidden checkpoint. In a nearby alley, I spotted this small underground parking lot and just really liked the look of it. Decided to snap a photo.

I eventually found another group of chasers (Emily, Chris and Tyr) and joined them for the remainder of the evening. We traveled a lot by bus, and made our way towards the fourth and fifth checkpoints.

Paul texted me later that he found the hidden ? checkpoint, and was given a sweet prize: he was able to skip checkpoint 4. So he was making his way to checkpoint 3, and then could head straight to checkpoint 5.

Interestingly enough, I was using Paul’s updates to keep tabs on where other runners might be. So I informed the folks I was with, and we adjusted our plans accordingly.

On the bus, Tyr (whose name comes from Norse mythology) and Chris look over the map.

We went all over, and I found myself up near Devon and Western. I hung out with the three of them for a good while, and we ended up encounter a group of veteran chasers hidden in the neighborhoods, just east of checkpoint 5. One of the chasers was the woman with the trenchcoat, who I had seen earlier at checkpoint 2.

We crept around for a while, and there seemed to be a ton of chasers prowling about. After a while, I decided to head off on my own to see if I would fare better just going out solo.

I wandered a bit, and was trying to find my way over to checkpoint 6. But after a bit, I began getting pretty tired and found myself a little lost, near Touhy and Ridge. I spotted a cab, and decided to call it a night around 10:30 PM, and headed home.

On my way back to Logan Square, I learned that Paul had made it all the way to checkpoint 5. He said there were two girls who he kept seeing, and who kept chasing after him at multiple points in the evening. He had been running a LOT more, and was calling it quits as well. In order to get to 6, he would have to re-run a gauntlet that he had just gotten through, and said he didn’t think he could do it again.

He debated for a while, and eventually also made his way home.

Home again, home again. With a few scratches as my trophy.

This is so not an exact map of the route I took, but it mostly captures the spots I went to over the course of the game:

If you’re curious for more detail, you can view the full map.

What an incredibly fun, fun night! I’m bummed we got so far off course with the first checkpoint, and I am thinking that next year… I may try to do a more public-based path. I learned that Jen’s friend Eamon used a bit of subterfuge to get through the race. Halfway through, he donned a change of clothes and put on a reflective vest, as well as a hardhat. Sneaky!

It was a really fun time, and my only regret is that I wished I would have been around people I knew as a chaser. It would have also been fun to make it to the final checkpoint, but I just ran out of steam.

I am definitely, definitely doing this again next year. I just wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next one!

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