Ad Men on the ‘L’ train: Aubin and Sorrels Win the CTA Racing Crown

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Moment of triumph: Garrett Sorrels and Chris Aubin (holding smart phone.) All photos taken on CTA property courtesy of Chris.

For those of you who haven’t been following Chicago’s ‘L’ racing saga, here’s a quick summary of all the competitors we’re aware of who have held the record for visiting every CTA station in one day, solely by transit and shoe leather:

– March 2011: UK native Adham Fisher visits all 143 stations in 9:36:33.
– February 2012: Danny Resner and John Greenfield complete the course in 9:30:59.
– Early April 2012: Scott Presslak and Kevin Olsta set a new record, 9:24:05.
– Mid-April 2012: Rob Bielaski and Ben Downey clock a time of 9:08:56.
– Late April 2012: Adham returns to town and goes head-to-head against Danny and John. Our time is 9:08:03; The Englishman wins the race and sets a new record with a time of 8:56:33.
– Summer 2012: CTA opens two new stations: Yellow Oakton and Green Morgan. Since the new station count is 145, Adham’s record for 143 stops is frozen.
– August 2012: RedEye CTA reporter Tracy Swartz visits all 145 stations in 9:17:00, becoming the new overall champ and smashing the ‘L’ racing gender barrier.
– October 19, 2012: Chris Aubin and Garrett Sorrels, co-workers at the ad firm Starcom Worldwide, set the new overall record at 9:12:39.

Chris and Garrett recently met up with Scott, Kevin, Danny and John for the third-ever CTA racer summit at the Skyride Tap, a dive bar below the Loop elevated tracks at 105 West Van Buren. After toasting the new winners’ triumph, we discussed the fact that there are only a few months left to break their record before the south Red Line closes for repairs this spring, putting ‘L’ racing on hold for five months. Here’s Chris’ account of his historic ride.

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CTA racer summit (clockwise from left): Scott, Kevin, John, Chris, Garret and Danny at the Skyride Tap.

As part of their mission to be a “Human Experience” company, Starcom Worldwide asked their employees to use a day to get some “Human Experience”. They encouraged employees to do something unique, challenge themselves, and have a little bit of fun.

Garrett Sorrels and I, coworkers on the Allstate account, decided to team up. Our original concept was to do something culturally significant in different parts of the city via each ‘L’ line. I remembered reading something about a person riding all of the ‘L’ lines in a single day and I thought if I could find that article, I could at least get a general idea of how long it would take.

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CTA chief Forrest Claypool and Adham Fisher at the Linden station centennial, just before Adham broke the nine-hour barrier.

What I stumbled upon instead was the world of ‘L’ racing. We immediately decided that chasing the record would be our new goal. In July we reached out to Grid Chicago to let them know of our intentions and got a lot of great feedback and encouragement from the previous racers. One interesting addendum to the task was that two new stations had opened since the last record. This meant that any time we set would be the new 145-stop record. We started planning, then “real” work decided it had been neglected enough. We had to cancel our attempt three different times.

Around this time, we became aware that Tracy Swartz from RedEye had set a new record. This lit a bit of a competitive fire under us. We now had a concrete goal to beat. We finally committed to a drop-dead date of October 19. We assembled a binder full of maps, schedules, and a time log for all stops.

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Binder full of documents. They like the CTA, so they put three rings on it.

Google Maps advised that our route would take ten hours. We printed out the time estimates for each individual leg – this would keep us informed on where we were gaining time and where we were losing it. Our goal wasn’t to finish 9:17:00, it was to shave more than 43 minutes off Google’s time estimate over the course of our day. If we could do that, we knew we would win the record.

At 6:25am we boarded a northbound Red Line train at 95th Street and we were on our way. Things did not start well. Our estimate said it should take about an hour to ride the full Red Line but as we pulled into Howard we were already ten minutes behind schedule. As we waited several minutes for a transfer to the Yellow Line we started getting more nervous.

The Skokie Swift lived up to its name however, and we gained much of our ten lost minutes back. We then transferred to the Purple Line and got our first bit of luck. The northbound purple line train ran express from Howard for three stops. We transferred back to a southbound Purple Line train and flew back into the city, gaining precious minutes. We rode around the Loop back to the Merchandise Mart, transferred to the Brown Line and headed out to Kimball. At Kimball we were ten minutes ahead of schedule and starting to inch towards the record.

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Chris consults the binder.

The buses were the part of the planning process that made us the most nervous. When we got to Kimball our transit apps told us we had about nine minutes until the 81 Lawrence bus would be there, pretty much erasing our gains. But light traffic and light ridership helped us out. After we exited the bus at Jefferson Park and caught a Blue Line train towards O’Hare, our earned time had grown to 13 minutes, but we would still needed to save over thirty more minutes somewhere.

We pulled into O’Hare around 11:00 and quickly caught an inbound train. While this wasn’t the longest part of the journey, it certainly felt like it. No coffee, no breakfast, and a 4am wake-up call were catching up to us. The Blue Line from end-to-end just feels endless. To make up for it though, the line provides a window on an amazing cross-section of Chicago.

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When we pulled into Forest Park station our gains had grown to 26 minutes and we began to think that if we stayed lucky we’d have a good shot at the record. We walked and ran from to the Harlem/Lake Green stop and immediately caught a train back east. We rode to Clinton and transferred to the Pink Line, then headed back out west. Next was the leg of our trip that gave us the most heartburn.

At 54/Cermak we turned back around and rode one stop to Cicero where we planned to catch a 54B Cicero bus to Midway. The Bus Tracker app showed us nothing even close. In fact, the stop we were at didn’t even mention a 54 B, only a standard 54 (which doesn’t go to Midway). We started walking south, unsure what to do. A few blocks later we saw a bus turn the corner with no passengers, a new 54B just starting its route. It was a gift from the ‘L’ racing gods to be sure.

When we arrived at Midway, we knew from our apps that we had to sprint. We jumped on an Orange Line train just as it was closing its doors. When we pulled into Roosevelt, ready to transfer to our final leg of the trip on the south Green Line, we were 44 minutes under the ten-hour estimate, putting us right on record pace.

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Catching a Green Line train towards Cottage Grove as soon as we stepped off the Orange Line only made us more arrogant. As we pulled into Cottage Grove and realized that the same train was going to turn around and go the other way, we began to think we could break the nine-hour barrier. Then the doors closed and we sat. And we sat. And we sat. For 17 excruciating minutes we went from thinking we’d achieve an amazing time to thinking we’d be lucky to get the record. After a day of glorious luck and perfectly executed strategy we were stuck in a train with no options and time ticking away.

We still had to ride the train back to the Garfield station, transfer to the Ashland/63rd branch and hit the final two stops. Our apps told us that there was a train coming to Garfield in ten minutes, if we missed it, the record was gone. The train finally took off back towards Garfield. With exactly a minute to spare, we ran under the tracks and up the other side just as the 63rd/Ashland train was pulling in. We had to get to the final two stops in less than ten minutes to set the record.

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And the train crawled, or so it seemed, and we crossed over the Dan Ryan at a blistering 2 MPH making the double turn towards Halsted, we had six minutes to go. Finally the train took off in a burst of speed, and we were there: 9 hours, 12 minutes and 39 seconds. There were high fives, photos, tweets, Facebook posts, and major sighs of relief.

In the end it was awesome that we set the record. It would have been heartbreaking if we hadn’t. It was tons fun to see people cheering us on and begging for updates on Facebook. Looking back on it now there is no doubt that our victory was thirty percent planning and seventy percent luck. I wish I had spent a little more time enjoying all the different characters and sights of the city. I was very focused on numbers and times and I feel like the really amazing part of having a transportation system like we do is all of the colorful and diverse areas of the city we all have access to. I hope to do this again someday and look at it through that lens.

Until then, though, we’re going to enjoy holding the record and I’m excited to see who the next person might be who decides it’s a good idea to spend all day on a train for no reason but bragging rights.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs,
from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation’s
bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes
regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines
and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

8 thoughts on “Ad Men on the ‘L’ train: Aubin and Sorrels Win the CTA Racing Crown”

  1. I also had a tremendous wait time at Cottage Grove. I feel the best way to go about the trip is to knock off the entire Green Line early, taking the train bound for Cottage Grove from Harlem/Lake. One could then ride the bus West to Ashland/63rd and ride the train one stop east to complete the Green Line.

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