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Hundreds vie for glory in shopping cart race

Sabotage and mayhem reigned on the streets of Brooklyn and Queens last Saturday. At least that’s the vision that the organizers of this year’s Idiotarod, COBRA (Carts of Brooklyn Racing Association) had in mind for the fourth annual New York City shopping cart race. Hundreds of costumed revelers pushed dressed-up shopping carts for the race inspired by the Iditarod, the annual long-distance dog-sled race in Alaska. “Except that instead of dogs, it’s people,” explains the COBRA Web site. “Instead of sleds, it’s shopping carts.” The event drew nearly 1,000 participants and spectators who braved a frigid January afternoon to celebrate the lunacy of a cross-borough race. In order to foster the sense of mystery and intrigue necessary for such an event, the Web site announced a misleading starting time and location. By 1:15 p.m., dozens of confused would-be racers and observers were seen shuffling around the perimeter of Williamsburg’s McCarren Park. “We’re trying not to attract too much attention,” said Stephen Fishback, 28, as he and four friends dressed as gynecologists pushed a shopping cart disguised as an examination table northward along Bedford Avenue. “The cops are everywhere!” Earlier in the week, the Idiotarod had been featured in an episode of CSI: New York. “When I saw it on CSI, I thought, oh my god, I must see this!” said Payal Mapara, a student at Columbia University. She and fellow student Isaac Levy had made the trip to Williamsburg after learning about the event on the Web. “But I can totally see how it’s not legal. I hope it does happen.” Fishback and his friends are veterans participating in their third Idiotorad. “I first learned about it from MTV a few years ago. But it was much more innocent back then. There were fewer teams. A lot less violence. Less sabotage. Fewer cops.” As Fishback and his teammates paused to consider their strategy, curious residents leaned out of windows. Soon, a man who identified himself as Eddie, 48, ran across the street to present the team with an image of Saint Anthony to “bless” their cart. He had just read about the race and said he thought it was great to see them across the street. “I think it’s a cool thing. I wish I could do it, but right now I can’t,” he said, pointing to a cast on his foot. “It’s a little wacky but we’ve all gotta be a little wacky because life is too hectic. We’ve all got to do something that gives us a chance to unwind. It’s cool.” Across the street, two more teams stopped with their own shopping carts. Mano Blavier, 24, a high school PE teacher visiting from Belgium, said that she had just read about the event the day before and had decided to check it out. “This is our first time,” she said. “It’s pretty confusing, we don’t really know where to go, but the organizers called these guys [the other team] last night because they had registered online. So we are following them.” She explained that she and her mother Marie Francoise, who was happily perched in the cart, had come to visit her brother, Laurent, and his girlfriend Lisa Hernandez. They didn’t have costumes, but they did have a Belgian flag to hang on their cart. “We wanted to come to see the race, and we decided if we see a cart on the way, we’ll snatch it and enter, but it’s hard to find where the starting point is because apparently the police don’t look too keenly on this,” said Laurent Blavier, 29, an attorney. “We’re a little adventurous, I’d say. Anything that involves maybe breaking the law is fun.” The intrepid racers found their way to Greenpoint Park, where a band played while participants and spectators assembled under the NYPD’s watchful eye. A helicopter flew overhead as the atmosphere grew more festive. Some notable costumes included the Noid (remember the Domino’s mascot?), the Ghostbusters, and the “Idiota-a-Rod Stewarts.” A group of young men clad only in black Speedos and bowties danced constantly to stay warm in the 30-degree weather. “I may be the oldest one here,” said a man who identified himself as Larry, 59. The former mental hospital rehabilitation counselor had come from Rochester for his second Idiotarod. He’d had so much fun last year that he drove his two daughters and his sister 320 miles to participate. “It’s a fun atmosphere. We’re having a great time.” By 2:30 p.m., organizers had checked in most of the 150 or so teams of five people each who had pre- registered online, handing them sealed envelopes with instructions. “I’m not in charge,” insisted a dark-haired woman who was clearly giving instructions, but she agreed to speak anonymously. “I think we’re expecting about 15-20 more teams” who had not yet registered, she said. “We’ve got about 40-50 people working behind the scenes. We’re trying to be as organized, as stealthily as possible.” They had called participants the night before to inform them of the real meeting place, although other details would only be revealed as the event progressed. Police officers announced that the racers were to stay on the sidewalks, and soon the race was on. Teams dashed towards the first checkpoint, just a few blocks away, and then dispersed as they navigated their way towards the finish line in Long Island City, Queens. “The cops can’t really do anything about this,” said another organizer who asked to remain anonymous. “We don’t have a permit, but it’s not exactly an organized parade because people go their own ways as long as they find the checkpoints and the finish line.” Teams hurled eggs and flour, squeezed bottles of mustard and ketchup, emptied bags of garbage, and strung up lines of wire as they scrambled along the walkway of the Pulaski Bridge to block the competition behind them. Once the teams crossed the bridge, however, there was obvious confusion. Police had marked off roads and were directing traffic, but teams ran off in different directions. “I know why they finished this in Queens,” said Neil Feldman, an arts writer who was observing the event at the finish line at Murray Playground on 21st Street. “Eighty percent of these people are from Brooklyn. You send them to Queens, they get lost. There’s no grid here — people get confused with all roads, streets, avenues. It’s chaos. It’s perfect.” Teams covered in flour and condiments straggled across an obstacle course set up by the organizers as victorious participants crossed the finish line. Festive revelers congratulated each other and posed for photographs, as many began to look forward to next year’s event. “We’d definitely do it again,” said Laurent Blavier. “It was a great time. Next year we’ll be even more prepared.”

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