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The Idiots Were Off And Running

This story was written By's Christine Lagorio and Gina Pace

With a rapid-fire of popguns and a lackluster sprinkling of confetti, the idiots were off.

Idiots in real life they might not be, but this was the "Idiotarod," a two-borough sprint from Brooklyn to Manhattan with the participants strapped to shopping carts and decked out in Halloween-like garb. There was a Barrel of Monkeys, a team of Chiquita bananas and the obligatory Wes Anderson-film inspired teams.

In other words, it was a celebration of all things Idiot.

Organizer Jeff Stark started the annual race three years ago, and on Saturday, at the starting point in Fort Green Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., he was in charge — but inconspicuously wearing a gleaming white jumpsuit with a red shopping cart neatly embroidered on the right breast.

"I'm in the race," Stark said. "I mean, this whole thing is so I can run around and be stupid with my friends."

The race is a guerrilla-style free-for-all that attracts 20- and 30-somethings from as far away as Washington, D.C. each year. Race plans are closely guarded in order to evade the media and the New York City cops, who threaten to put a stop to the drinking and chaos of the 800 participants.

In the Idiotarod — unlike the Iditarod, the annual long-distance Alaska dog sled race that provides inspiration — most of the rules are optional. And at a sunny 58 degrees, the weather in New York Saturday did nothing to remind the racers of the frozen Alaskan tundra.

Teams of five (four runners and one musher) per cart must make it to two checkpoints and the finish line with their cart. Inebriation is allowed, and even encouraged. The cart must be intact, and four rubber wheels must be used. Teams can choose any route they want to make it to the checkpoints.

"Whether a New Yorker is in a cab or behind a shopping cart, they always know the best route," said co-organizer Maureen Flaherty, explaining their reluctance to mandate a set route.

Sabotage is not only allowed, but officially encouraged by a prize.

Team Cobra, all donning ominous red jumpsuits, had the sabotage down.

"We made a fake checkpoint and padlocked heavy objects like tires to people's carts," said Christian Jones, who traveled to New York from his home in Washington, D.C. for the race. "It would just drag."

Team Cobra wasn't just a five-member team. It was five five-member teams, who ran with four regular carts and one centerpiece cart topped with a shiny, oven-sized cobra head — that spit fire.

In addition, Cobra had 10 to 15 members designated solely as saboteurs. If trying to rattle other teams with verbal threats or stealing needed paperwork to pass through checkpoints didn't work, they got physical. Two members launched their bodies onto an Indiana Jones-inspired cart while it was crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. Their strategy worked, though, as the team took home the Best in Show award.

Teams also pushed to create a unique theme and outrageous style to win the Best in Show prize. Inspiration to rally a group around ranged from current events (the Supreme Court, the Pope mobile) to concepts (schaudenfreude, misconception) to the arts (Andy Warhol, "Brokeback Mountain").

But to win, teams had other concerns. One was staying one step ahead of the police. After facing a $5,000 fine last year for leaving a precarious pile of discarded shopping carts behind them after the race, organizers were paranoid.

They originally wanted to start the race in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, but when police got wind of their plan, the organizers made a last-minute switch to Fort Green Park, another Brooklyn neighborhood.

Police were omnipresent at the checkpoints, but were no arrests or fines doled out this year, except tickets that went to Bar Back Mountain for rolling around a cart that had been converted into a full bar, complete with bottles that didn't fall over, said co-organizer Flaherty.

As the guerilla event grows each year, creativity seems to be flourishing.

"It's more organized," said John Tornatore-Pili, a freshman in college in Troy, N.Y., who ran last year. "And, there are a lot less pirates this year."

Tell that to the Long John Silvers.

The pajama-wearing pirates were downtrodden by the second checkpoint after falling victim to Team Cobra's fake checkpoint. Standing around their cart passing a thermos from pirate to pirate, Terry McBride,26, from Hoboken, N.J. tried to cheer the others up: "It's all about winning the last leg. Let's go!"

The fact that a shopping cart they swiped from a Target store was reclaimed by a cop five minutes later didn't deter a group of alumna from the University of New Hampshire from competing, said team member Eileen Dunn of Delmar, N.Y.

They simply rigged up a cardboard box with masking-tape handles, explained their troubles to the judges and drug their box to the first checkpoint. But Cobra got them, too.

"We're under the radar right now," said Dunn of their competing after having their official papers swiped.

Those who couldn't compete watched. Paul Celi was intrigued, but didn't get a team organized quickly enough to enter.

"It's tough to find other people with no dignity," he said as he watched teams dance around while intermittently throwing bananas, lo mein noodles and chocolate pudding at a checkpoint on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

"It's one of those things you wish you saw more of," Celi said. "It's a cross between Halloween and a food fight."

The finish line at the East River Park Amphitheater in Manhattan was filled with jubilation. Another super team – really three teams of five – called Test Squad, danced around to Herbie Hancock-esq techno music blaring from their cart -- composed just for the event -- while all wearing matching blue jumpsuits, shouting to the beat, "We are from the future."

"We probably finished close to last place," said Sam Newman, a junior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who belongs to the comedy troupe Happily Ever Laughter that organized Test Squad based on one of their skits.

"Yes. But we got to dance with foam bananas and heckle cops," said teammate Ethan O'Hara, also in the troupe. "And that's winning to me."

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