by Victor Jih
Winner of The Amazing Race Season 14
This week on The Amazing Race, six teams traveled from Dubai to the Netherlands, where they had to search for the Cornelis Lely Monument for ROUTE INFO. From there, teams drove to Groningen and the Martinitoren tower, where the ROADBLOCK required one team member to ascend the stairs of the carrilon and count the bells (the correct answer was 62). Once completed, teams had to don traditional Dutch costumes (one male and one female), ride bicycles in clackety wooden shoes, and make a DETOUR choice between Farmer’s Game and Farmer’s Dance.
In Farmer’s Game, teams have to swim across a creek, take a special set of golf clubs, and play three holes of golf to par in a windy field. In Farmer’s Dance, teams have to hit the bell on a “high striker” carnival game, learn a Dutch folk dance to the satisfaction of the judges, and then eat two plates of herring. When all of the dust settled, Sam & Dan finished in first place, followed closely by perennial front-runners Meghan & Cheyne.
This episode was really about Brian & Ericka and Maria & Tiffany, though, as both faced an emotionally draining and tough day on the race. Brian & Ericka overcame their challenges to come in second-to-last. Maria & Tiffany were stuck facing an increasingly impossible DETOUR and, unable to complete either choice, were eliminated from the race. Maria & Tiffany wanted to leave Dubai, but little did they know they’d end up leaving the race as well. There is a lot to think about with this leg, but here are ten random thoughts:
1. “What happened to Canaan & Mika?” As all of the teams bunch at the Dubai airport, they immediately start speculating “what happened” the prior leg. No, this discussion is not being staged for television viewers. The reason the teams are asking what happened is because no one is allowed to talk to each other once they check in to the pit stop. The traditional opportunity to “eat, sleep & mingle” with other teams was eliminated mid-way through our season, and it looks like that new rule continues to apply in this edition of the race. In our season, we spent the entire Guilin leg not knowing whether Mike & Mark ever even made it out of Thailand, since no one knew if the Bangcock leg was a non-elimination leg or not, and no one ever saw them during the Guilin leg itself since they were so far behind. It’s a rare opportunity for teams to actually gather in one place and talk to each other without the pressure of getting somewhere fast. Sam & Dan take advantage of this opportunity and decide to officially come out to the entire group. Gary responds by (jokingly) revealing that Matt is adopted.
2. “Those kids aren’t used to luxury cars.” Any Race fan knows that you have to learn how to drive a manual transmission if you are going to be on the Amazing Race (that, and learn how to swim). I thought it was funny that in this leg the issue wasn’t whether you could drive a stick, but whether you could drive a luxury car. Brian apparently could not, and really got derailed at the very start in Amsterdam. I’m not going to make too much fun of Brian, though, because I have been stuck for twenty minutes at an airport before not knowing how to start a rental car. And after Brian got help from a kind stranger, I still don’t know what he missed! I’m just glad it wasn’t me, though, since you know Brian is going to get a lot of grief for that.
3. At the ROADBLOCK task, teams have to count the number of bells in the carillon. It did not look like an easy task, since there were bells of all sizes located everywhere. Part of me kept thinking, “There must be a tourist brochure in their shop that says how many bells there are!” but I know my sister would probably tell me that’s cheating. The first two racers Sam and Meghan decide to work together, which I think is a very smart idea. Cooperation while you’re ahead ensures that you solidify your lead. And at the start of a leg, there’s no reason to compete for first place yet. In hindsight, though, trying to “count together” (especially as the bells are chiming) proved harder than counting by yourself. Matt snuck from third place to first place, and raced out of the tower. It probably would have made more sense for Sam and Meghan to count separately and compare counts as a double-check. But Sam’s instinct to work with other teams at every turn is paying off for them. When Tiffany gets there, Sam stays true to his real alliance and tells her the number is 62. This allows Tiffany to complete the task pretty quickly.
4. So is it insulting or flattering when another team decides to help you? As I watched this episode, I felt so proud of the two-team alliance until Sam & Dan’s interview where they explained they were willing to help Tiffany & Maria because they didn’t think they posed that much of a threat. To be fair, whether you admit or not, few teams on the Amazing Race help each other because they want the other team to win. So help is usually accompanied by an unstated sentiment that the team helping is not threatened by the team being helped. But no one likes to hear it. The team being helped is left in a “gee, thanks” position where they are both thankful for the help and slightly resentful for being underestimated. In our season, we had to navigate Moscow in order to catch a flight to India. We decided to “team up” with Mike & Mel. Of course Mel saw right through our proposition and said “you only want to team up with us because I’m old and can’t run.” I said “yeah, but we can also help each other in the meantime.” To which he responded, “ok.” I guess at the end of the day, any help is welcome on the Race.
5. That roadblock nearly proved to be Ericka’s undoing, but you have to admire her perseverance. Even when she came down for moral support from Brian, she made it clear that she was not going to quit. So why do you think Ericka had a harder time with counting the bells than other teams? It’s not because she can’t count, since otherwise she never would have been able to complete the task. It’s not clear from the episode whether she kept forgetting certain bells, or didn’t see a whole section of bells, or was having trouble keeping track of which ones she had already counted. The details ultimately don’t matter. I suggest that Ericka struggled at the task because she was last and alone. It’s harder to complete many of these tasks when you’re the only team there. (In other words, I blame Ericka’s difficulties at the ROADBLOCK on Brian’s inability to drive a luxury car.) When other teams are there, you can always see what they’re doing, what they’re looking at, or overhear what they’re saying. To figure out a difficult task like the bells by yourself is infinitely harder. Kudos to Ericka for overcoming and finishing.
6. Which DETOUR option was the better choice? Conventional wisdom states that subjective standards are usually dangerous. You can learn a dance, think you did it perfectly, but then have no idea why you can’t proceed. So I probably would have naturally preferred to do the golfing task, even though the dancing here didn’t seem that difficult. In our season, Jaime and Cara also chose a dancing task, did it perfectly in their mind, but couldn’t figure out why the judge wasn’t happy. These subjective tasks are hard because the judges do not tell you what you’re doing wrong. It turns out, Jaime and Cara were dancing perfectly—they simply had to keep dancing. But it can be maddening in the meantime. Similarly, Tammy and I had to synchronize dive. No one told us that we simply had to hit the water at the same time to get the passing score. Being a subjective task, we thought we had to bounce perfectly and flail our arms like the expert diver. Turns out our focus was in the wrong place. But again, the judge never explains why you receive the score you do.
7. Meghan and Cheyne had an interesting dilemma this week in choosing between the DETOUR options. Meghan clearly said “I can’t golf.” Cheyne clearly said “I can’t dance.” And Cheyne proceeded to drag them to the golfing challenge. It is interesting to think what the right strategy is when one team member feels comfortable with one option and the other team member feels comfortable with the other option. In that split second, it’s easy to focus on what your personal strengths are and to minimize your partners’ fears/concerns. While Meghan’s initial efforts confirmed her lack of golf skills, what was impressive was her ability to learn how to golf quickly. So ultimately the question is: would it be easier for Meghan to learn how to golf or Cheyne to learn how to dance? Tammy and I knew going into the race that the key skill was learning how to do new things quickly without getting frustrated. In fact, we spent our weeks of preparation doing strange things: I shot a gun for the first time, tried to rock climb, etc. Meghan demonstrates why she’s such a strong competitor on this leg. It’s not what she’s already skilled at (which is plenty), but it’s her ability to overcome her anxiety and to learn under stressful situations.
8. “Read the clue!” Racers are constantly being told to “read the clue!” Viewers probably wonder how a strong team like Brian & Ericka could possibly not see the bikes ready for them or read the clue that says “take the bikes.” There’s only one answer—stress. There are ultimately three types of races you must prepare for. Racing for the win from the front. Racing in the middle (to avoid getting eliminated). And racing for your life (from behind). All three races are fundamentally different and require different skills. In fact, my sister and I always fought because she wanted to race in the middle (to avoid getting eliminated) while I always wanted to race for the win. A couple of truths based on my experience, demonstrating that there’s a time and a place for everything. For much of the race, racing in the middle makes sense, because it’s low risk. But you can’t win if you don’t race for the win—being in the front requires you to take some risks, to be confident in your ability to make decisions, and to pull away from the rest of the teams. But since every team will have a bad leg, you also need to prove you can race from behind when your survival is on the line. As Brian & Ericka’s leg demonstrated, it is much harder to race from behind! When you’re behind, you’re typically by yourself. You don’t have the benefit of working with other teams, learning from what they’re doing, copying them, avoiding their mistakes, etc. When you’re behind, you typically have no idea what’s happening with the other teams. When you’re behind, it’s hard to stay level-headed. You vacillate between “rush rush rush” to catch up and “give up—we’ve already lost.” Either way, you end up making emotional decisions instead of rational ones, which causes dumb mistakes like not reading the clue. No one can appreciate how hard it is to race from behind, though, until you’ve been there. Even though Brian & Ericka barely survive, I think they have a good shot of making it to the final leg since they’ve demonstrated they’re incredibly strong under stress, they will not give up, and they are able to rely on each other for support.
9. Last week, I touted the virtues of quitting. This week, we see why quitting can be bad particularly with physical tasks. It was painful to watch Maria and Tiffany alternate between the DETOUR tasks as they slowly realized neither task was possible for them. People might think it was an unfair choice, since Maria and Tiffany were the only all-girl team and both tasks required strength. But knowing the female teams on my season and Maria/Tiffany, they are strong women. The real issue was quitting. Tiffany was so close to hitting the bell on the high striker a few times, and she was clearly improving. By switching (swimming the creek, biking, etc.), she got tired before she could finish improving. I think if the girls had stayed at the high striker the first time, they would have been able to complete the task. But I make that comment with the benefit of hindsight. During the race itself, it’s hard to gauge how much improvement is feasible. I kept telling my sister that we were improving on the synchronized diving (we got up to 4 out of 5 after thirty or so dives). But in hindsight, we were never going to get 5’s.
10. It’s hard to believe we are down to the final 5 teams, and that this edition of the Race is itself almost over. Gary & Matt and Team Globetrotter seem to be sailing through without much drama—most of the time. Meghan & Cheyne keep adhering to their “front-running” strategy, and so far it seems to be paying off for them. Will they be the next Nick & Starr? Meanwhile, it’s hard not to get emotionally invested in Sam & Dan and Brian & Ericka—since their experiences have by far been the most dramatic. As the numbers dwindle, it’ll be hard to see any team go. But someone must win.
Until next week…
The Amazing Race airs Sundays at 8pm ET on CBS.
(Image courtesy of CBS)