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As you can see from this picture of most of the ex-champs (Scott Presslak, Danny Resner, John, and Adham Fisher via Skype) competitive CTA riding has historically been a male-dominated field. Photo by Tracy Swartz.

It’s official: Tracy Swartz is the new ‘L’ Challenge champ, and the first woman to wear the crown. No longer will competitive CTA riding be a boys club.

Back in March 2011, UK native Adham Fisher first popularized transit racing in Chicago when he came to town and visited all 143 CTA rail stations by train in 9:36:33. In February 2012, Danny Resner and I captured the title, completing the course in 9:30:59. That April Scott Presslak and Kevin Olsta set a new record, 9:24:05; a few days later they were beaten by Rob Bielaski and Ben Downey with a time of 9:08:56. Adham returned to town at the end of April and went head-to-head with Danny and me in a friendly ‘L’ race. Our time was 9:08:03; The Englishman smashed the nine-hour mark, clocking in at 8:56:33.

Soon afterwards the CTA opened two new stations: the Yellow Line’s Oakton stop and the Green Line’s Morgan stop. Since the new station count was 145, it seemed to me that Adham’s record for 143 stops was frozen, and the next person to visit all 145 stations would be the new overall ‘L’ Challenge victor. In August Tracy Swartz, who writes the “Going Public” transit column for RedEye, did just that, touring the entire train system in 9:17:00.

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Portrait of Tracy (not the Jaco Pastorius song.) Image courtesy of Tracy Swartz.

Last week Tracy, Danny, Scott and I held the second-ever ‘L’ Racer Summit at D4, a pub in Streeterville, and unanimously agreed that Tracy is the new overall champion, with Adham retaining the record for 143 stations until someone beats his time. Here’s a partial transcript of our discussion of Tracy’s accomplishment, the rules of the ‘L’ Challenge and the future of CTA racing. Adham “attended” the meeting via smart phone Skype, except that he couldn’t really hear us and we couldn’t really hear him, so I’ve inserted a couple of comments he emailed afterwards.

John: Tracy, tell us a little bit about your trip.

Tracy: It was August 13. It started out raining and it rained most of the day, which kind of put a damper on the day, pun intended. I had heard from most of you guys about your experiences and I based my own plan on having taken the ‘L’ for several years now and reporting on it and I kind of went out there and just did it, nine hours and seventeen minutes.

John: You did some walking between stations, right?

Tracy: I did one walk between stations and that was from the Blue Line’s Forest Park stop to the Green Line’s Harlem stop. It wasn’t too far and it was through the suburbs, but unfortunately it was raining so that did not make it so much fun. I didn’t have an umbrella but I’m a runner so I’m kind of fast when you get me going. When it started to really come down that I definitely ran to the station.

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Photo by ChicagoGeek.

John: So, just to get this out of the way, my opinion is that because Tracy is the only person that has completed the ‘L’ Challenge with 145 stations, that makes her the fastest CTA rider. And Adham should keep the record for 143 stations. Tracy, I think you were fortunate that you took advantage of the window between when the two new stations opened and the temporary closing of two stations [Thorndale and Argyle] on the north Red Line [for renovations].

Tracy: I wanted to get it done before my 30th birthday. It was on my list of things to do. So it wasn’t so much looking at when the stations opened, it was just good luck.

John: Oh no, I’m not saying that you planned it that way. But the plus for you is that it seems like your record is frozen for the time being. Nobody can do 145 stations at the moment.

Tracy: Also next year they’ll be closing the southern section of the Red Line for five months. So all those stations, Cermak/Chinatown and south of there will be closed.

John: Is there going to be a time before those stations close and after the north Red Line stations reopen, when it would be possible to beat your record?

Tracy: Yes, it probably have to be some time between December and the end of April, because they should be finished with the northern Red Line in November or December, and then they’re planning on closing the southern Red Line in May.

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63rd Street stop on the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line.

John: And once the southern Red Line opens up again, then potentially one will be able to do this faster because it will take out slow zones?

Tracy: It should take out slow zones, although my strategy was based on the fact that is the slow zones happen more during rush hour. That’s why I started at 95th Street.

John: Anyone have any other thoughts about who holds the record?

Scott: It makes the most sense because with 143 stations, even if Adham were to run the exact same trip [he did before] at the exact same time of day, it would still take slightly longer because there would still be two new stops. Because these weren’t track extensions, these were infill stations.

Tracy: It seems to me it would take at least four minutes longer because it’s usually about two minutes to get to each station.

Adham (via email): I’d say Tracy is the current new record holder, certainly, but that should not take away from those who went to 143. Also, according to Guinness rules, which are what we seem to be using, a pass through a station will count if it is closed temporarily for refurbishment. So if someone tries it now, they will still be attempting 145 stations, but two will be out.

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CTA president Forrest Claypool and Adham Fisher at the Purple Linden station centennial before the start of our ‘L’ race.

John: Do you guys have any thoughts about the future of CTA ‘L’ racing. What’s going to happen after the south Red Line reopens?

Scott: For better or for worse I don’t think we have to worry about any new stations for a while.

John: Well there are some new stations coming up, aren’t there, like Cermak Green?

Scott: Cermak Green’s been on the drawing board for a while. I think they’re finally stating to focus on that and actually putting some money into studying it.

Tracy: 2015, I think, is when it’s planned to open.

Scott: So after the Red Line south reopens it sounds like we’ll still got another two years at least with a fixed system, with most of the slow zones on the South Side resolved. So we might see more new records after the Red Line reopens.

Tracy: So the question is too, if they do the Red and Purple Modernization plan, whether they’ll be closing down some of those Red and Purple Line stations. And then you never know how many stations will be left. The fixes that they’re doing right now on the north Red Line are just temporary fixes. They would like to do things and they’d do a bigger overhaul where they would take Purple and Red Line stations, make them accessible for people with disabilities. They’d like to create transfer stations. And they’ve talked about consolidating stations, so there’d be fewer stations. So who knows, if that ever goes through, how many stations there’d be.

John: It seems like the Far North alderman are really dead-set against any consolidation of stations.

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Thorndale is one of the stations the CTA is considering eliminating. Photo by Zol87.

Tracy: Well everybody wants fewer stops on the Red Line but nobody wants to give up their stop, which is how it typically is with the CTA. Same with bus stops. You know, they’re doing these bus cuts where they’re adding more service on the rail. This might actually help the ‘L’ Challenge. In December they’re adding 17 more rail trips but they’re also taking away some bus service, so it might even out.

John: I know, for instance, they’re talking about cutting some the Lincoln bus service.

Tracy: They’re splitting it and then they’re cutting out a portion of the route.

John: And there’s a movement to try to save the Lincoln bus. The Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce is involved with it. So do you guys think the ‘L’ Challenge should become an official Guinness World Record? Do you think we have any chance of achieving that?

[Adham can be heard laughing over the smart phone.]

Scott: I don’t think we need to get that far with it, but it would be nice if we could come to a consensus on a standard set of rules that everyone would follow.

Tracy: And a clearinghouse, somebody that they could report to that’s not me. Sometimes it’s been me and I just didn’t know if that’s my place. And I’ve talked to the CTA about it being them, but I think they’ve just got too much on their plate.

John: I can’t believe this isn’t a priority for them. [Everybody laughs.] I mean, for example, I don’t know if we resolved this last time we hung out, but is it necessary to ride every inch of track to complete the ‘L’ Challenge, or simply to visit every station by train?

Scott: I don’t think so, because when Kevin and I were planning our route we started at Orange Halsted because upstream on the Orange Line toward the Loop it’s all duplicate stations, because you have the [Green, Red and Orange] transfer station at Roosevelt and then all the Loop stations. So the entire reason why we started there is that if we’re just focusing on the stations you don’t have necessarily need that link between Halsted and Roosevelt to hit all the stations.

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Orange Line train by Steven.

Danny: Robert and Ben started at Polk for the same reason…

Scott: So that they didn’t have to duplicate the Green Line between Ashland and the Loop. So I don’t think you need to go on every piece of track as long as you stop at all of the stations.

John: Were there any other controversial aspects of the record that we need to resolve?

Scott: Do we have any official documentation? Are we taking pictures at each stop? Are we getting affidavits from riders?

Tracy: Photographing each stop would seem to be difficult. What I did was take a picture at each major transfer point so you could see the evolution. I have a thirty-day unlimited CTA card because I ride so often, so it doesn’t register like a Chicago Card would, how often you ride and your swipes.

Danny: I think it’s ideal if you can track it with an unlimited Chicago Card. We did that too but that’s something that a visitor could do. I like the idea that someone like Adham could come to town and ride the whole system and not have to buy an $86 monthly pass. For John and I it was a lot easier to take pictures of every stop because I was in charge of writing down our arrival times and getting witness signatures and John just had to work the camera. When you’re doing it all at once then you get that whole act that Adham does that was portrayed on stage [in the CTA-centric performance piece “EL Stories”] where he’s just constantly in motion, constantly doing this, doing that. It makes it kind of stressful. It’s fun but…

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Kelsey Peterson, left, as Adham. Photo Courtesy of Waltzing Mechanics Theater Co.

Scott: From what I know of Adham, that’s his personality anyway.

John: Alright-y, any final thoughts?

Danny: When we were getting witness signatures, a lot of people that were interested in us enough to sign our book also were like, “Man, I really want to do that someday. You think exactly the same way I do.” This was like high school kids to old dads. I’d like to say that anybody who reads about this on Grid Chicago should try it. It takes one workday worth of time. It’s fun.

John: I really would like to see just how low the time could go, just what is the barrier. It’s under nine hours now so I wonder if it can go any lower than Adham set it.

Scott: We really need to make sure that this challenge stays open to everyone, not just Chicagoans. It would be great if a Chicagoan did hold the record, but I think if we do keep it a little more universal and have more access to the record we’ll have more attempts at it and that makes it more exciting for all of us.

Tracy: It’s funny, when I did my challenge to ride every CTA bus from start to finish people said to me that I had to have a lot of patience, and that usually took about three hours. But Once you get into the groove the time really flies by, just have something to do. Since I was by myself I brought a book and I got to enjoy the sights.

Adham (via email): I hope more people might give it a go. The increasing popularity of this unorthodox use of transit is good publicity for the CTA. Next time I try it, Kelsey Peterson [the actress who portrayed him in “EL Stories”] should go with me.

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  • AdamHerstein

    Why is Mr. Claypool wearing two coats in that picture?

    • nonya

      From Adham and the background people’s coats, it was chilly and/or rainy that day. On Claypool, the inside one is a sportcoat, the outside one is a raincoat/longcoat.

      • AdamHerstein

        It still looks silly.

        • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

          Actually, a topcoat is the standard garment to wear over a sports jacket or suit when it’s chilly and/or rainy, and it was both on that day in April. If you check out this photo of Ray LaHood’s press conference at the Logan Square stop in December, about half the guys are wearing topcoats. The rest are freezing. http://www.flickr.com/photos/24858199@N00/6518139493/

          • AdamHerstein

            Yeah, it just looks silly with both unbuttoned. I also rarely wear a suit (once or twice a year if at all), so I’m not familiar with the convention in that regard.

  • joejoejoe

    It will be tough to break any records this summer. Tons of Red Line construction and Loop elevated track work going on at the moment. Keep up these stories on this form of L-system racing, they are a lot of fun.

    Is Tracy talking about riding all the CTA bus routes eventually? I think riding every mile of the CTA bus network in as a consecutive effort would take you several days. I take the Montrose bus to work every day just about the entire route and it is listed as 1 hr 7 minutes on Google transit. That is only one route and there are more than 100 routes in the system.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      She has a goal to ride every bus route. I think she’s ridden more than half. I’m not sure if her goal includes riding its entire length, though.
      Riding the whole bus network consecutively would probably make one go crazy.