Well, after ten countries, 18 cities, more than 25,000 miles, plus at least one hunky river guide that I can recall, a number of fake cows hoisted up clock towers, an unprecedented U-Turn vote in Switzerland, and entries into the Pit Stop that ranged from boating, zip lining, and scavenger-hunting—season 31 of The Amazing Race finally has its winning team.
The series’ first ever “reality showdown” season started with 11 teams from the CBS reality trifecta: Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. More reality TV competition cultures in the mix made for a little more drama than usual, sure, but in the end, it still came down to three shiny, happy TAR-teams battling it out for the million dollars. Props to Nicole and Victor though for making it further than any of the other Big Brother or Survivor teams, and especially for being the only team in the top four who had never run a TAR finale before…
But I guess there’s a lot to be said for having something to prove. And for Team Zen, Team Torey, and the Afghaninmals, an Amazing Race win is basically Moby Dick, and they’re Ahab in a Lycra running legging.
From the obstacles they’ve overcome, the intra-team relationships they’ve strengthened, and the time they’ve spent sleeping on the ground in international airports, all three of season 31’s final teams were deserving of a win in their own way. And that made it an incredibly exciting final leg to watch. Also making it an exciting finale to watch—the excruciating attention to detail required at each and every Roadblock, Detour, Pit Stop, and just like…random Route Info clue box in a park. The race to the Final Mat literally came down to a couple spins of a combination lock, one lost bolt, and catching all the right green lights. I love that. Let’s get into it:
The final four teams depart the Netherlands for London, England, where the remaining TAR teams—Team Zen, Team Torey, and the Afghanimals—make very little effort to hide the fact that they were all working in conjunction to make sure the final three would be TAR-strong, leaving Team Vicole out on Big Brother Island all by their lonesome. But if it makes Nicole and Victor feel any better, I don’t know that the TAR alliance made all that much of a difference. After arriving in London, the teams take a gorgeous helicopter ride to Dover Castle for the ROADBLOCK: WHO CAN KEEP A SECRET?
The Afghanimals got off to a rare lead because they were the first team to discover that the only way to get a taxi at the airport was via the taxi stand. That means that Leo got some valuable alone time to focus on the Roadblock, which was a real brain buster. Set at Dover Castle because it was used as a secret hideaway for British codebreakers during World War II, one member of each team had to follow a very specific set of instructions to decipher a secret message hidden within a speech. First, they listened to the speech and wrote down the 15th, 30th, and 4th words spoken: FAITH, PREVAIL, and EVIL. Using the letters of those words, they had to number each letter in alphabetical order from left to right; so the A in FAITH was 1, the A in PREVAIL was 2, the E in PREVAIL was 3, the E in EVIL was 4, and so on. Those numbers each correlated with a column of three letters, and once those columns of letters were switched around into numerical order, it spelled out a message: THE DUNKIRK EVACUATION HAS BEGUN WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER.
To quote Leo: “It sounds a little confusing because it was confusing.” But it was also fun to watch and play along. Leo cruised through on his own, but when Korey and Christie arrived, they decided to work together, excluding Victor. But perhaps talking out the instructions too much just confused them more, because Victor figured out the code faster by himself. Eventually, Korey figured out their mistake and deciphered his code, explaining to Christie what she needed to do on the way out, but she continued to try to push through with what they’d come up with for a while before basically starting over and figuring out the right way to do it.
Luckily, Team Zen have rarely met an obstacle they couldn’t meditate on in a taxi and swiftly overcome. Especially with such a challenging DETOUR: KNOW OR ROW. After traveling down the River Thames on a speedboat to Picadilly Circus for their next clue, the teams all unanimously selected to head to ROW, assuming it would be the kind of brute-strength rowing challenge they could just muscle their way through. They were sorely (and wetly) mistaken. In Row, teams took instructions from England’s Olympian rowers on how to row a two-person kip, completing a 200-meter course in under a minute.
Rowing a boat sounds easy enough, but this was more like rowing a pencil. The kips were so thin and required so much core strength to keep from tipping over entirely, that all but Team Zen chose to switch Detours, and that’s basically because, being in last place, it wasn’t really an option for them. And KNOW wasn’t exactly easier. Apparently, to get a taxi driving license in London you have to memorize every road, alley, landmark, nook, cranny, and street performer in the city. Our final four teams had to sit in the back of a cab and take a set route as many times as necessary to memorize the 15 street turns and seven points of interest along the route. The Afghanimals aren’t incredible with small details, but their head start served them well, and they were able to do it in five tries and still keep a lead on Team Torey and Team Vicole who each did it in three tries.
Meanwhile, Team Zen benefitted from sticking with their own course, and eventually traversed their 200 meters in under one minute by having Christie just hold her ores up in the air—difficult to manage on its own, but easier than staying in synchronization in a sport that people spend their whole lives training for—with Colin rowing on his own.
All four teams were extremely emotional heading to the PIT STOP at CAMDEN MARKET, where they were informed by Phil that they could not, in fact just weep on the mat, but first had to scour the market for eight random items to recreate an odd little scene with a mannequin that was set up a the Pit Stop. This could have been a great equalizer for the last two teams, but Team Zen’s decision to stick it out with the rowing detour, plus a little extra help from their fellow TAR teams in the scavenger hunt, sealed their placement in the final three.
ELIMINATED: TEAM VICOLE who gave a valiant effort and cemented their young CBS-sourced love in the process.
From London, it’s finally time to head back to the States where the Final Mat awaits in Detroit, Mich. Tyler and Korey are both from Michigan, so they’re excited to be heading back home, and indeed, they know right where to go to find their next clue at the Spirit of Detroit. But nothing could have really prepared them for the ROADBLOCK: WHO’S GOOD WITH NUMBERS? wherein one member of each team has to repel face-forward for 500-feet down the Guardian Building, memorizing a series of numbers as they Spiderman their way down.
The four number are the combination for a heavy-duty bank vault door inside the Guardian that holds their next clue. But once again, it’s not so easy as a series of numbers—there is an extensive list of instructions on how to use the combination lock that requires a firm understanding of clockwise, counterclockwise, and just general attention to detail…
Not a strong suit of the Afghanimals. Though Leo makes it down the wall and to his vault first, he either cannot, or will not, acknowledge the bit in the very first instruction that says to do five clockwise turns with the first number in the combination (7), and just continues to turn the knob starting it at 1. It’s so frustrating to watch! And the end…it almost certainly cost them the win, because it was pretty smooth sailing through the cultural wares of Detroit from here on out. But the other side of that is that Colin’s superhuman speed at solving the combination lock (that is just a…widely talented man) is likely what…
Well, we’re not quite there yet. Once done with their locks, Team Zen and Team Torey race to the Fowling Warehouse, home of Fowling, a.k.a. football meets bowling, a game that was accidentally invented by a Detroit native. Each team has to knock down a full rack of pins with their football before they can head to Third Man Records, record label of Detroit native and White Stripes frontman Jack White, known for pressing actual records.
There, each team has to press five perfect two-toned records, which is yet another detail-intensive process. That normally works in favor of detail-oriented Team Torey, but all the steps to get the vinyl just right overwhelmed them, and Team Zen were able to get their five records in one fell swoop, where it took Tyler and Korey a few tries. (At this point, Leo was sitting on the floor of the vault room, staring at the instruction sheet on the wall and finally realizing his error, poor thing.)
But the great equalizer was lying at Hart Plaza, where hundreds of rock musicians and vocalists had gathered to play The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” over and over again for as long as it took for each team to assemble a five-piece drum kit to match the finished example detail-for-detail. And once again, we are talking details. Colin and Christie get their kit assembled, but one tiny lever is up instead of down, earning them a no from the judge, and repeatedly leading them to believe they needed to adjust the angle of their drums. As for Tyler and Korey, they get their kit assembled quickly, basically catching up with Team Zen, but one single bolt has fallen off of their building platform.
When Korey finally discovers it and adds it to the cymbal, they still get a no from the judge until Colin finally discovers the open lever and gets a yes. Very quickly though, Tyler realizes that their cymbals need to be looser in order to be played—and, mind you, all of this is being scored by rock music so powerful, no one can even hear themselves speak, let alone think.
From there, it is truly a taxi race to the finish. Team Zen has a tiny head start but had they had even one ounce of taxi trauma, or one tumble when racing toward the Final Mat at Fort Wayne, things might have gone in a different direction…
But they didn’t. All that mediation paid off, and the WINNER of The Amazing Race season 31, racing through the cheering aisle of the eight previously eliminated teams, is TEAM ZEN, a full 15 years after Colin and Christie’s original TAR run. And it really is heartwarming to see how far they’ve come as a couple, and as individuals, Colin most especially. So to hear him thank Christie so whole-heartedly for the very clear and powerful hand she played in that change was quite special. “She’s our coach, she’s our tribe—the sacred feminine,” Colin says of Christie, just the calmest TAR winner you ever did see.
Team Torey follow soon after, and the Afghanimals make their way to the Final Mat as well, all proud of their accomplishments, even if they didn’t win; each team joyfully expressing their love for one another and accepting celebratory hugs from their fellow racers. Because you can add Big Brother drama and Survivor cunning to The Amazing Race… but you simply cannot take the heart out of TAR.
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