Daniel Buwalda and a group of friends arrived at the Linden Purple Line station before dawn on a cold, snow-covered February morning.
Armed with snacks and maps, they were setting out on a quest to join an elite group of CTA riders who visit every “L” station in record time. Months of talk and weeks of pouring over timetables and dividing up tasks had gone into this moment.
It would not be a simple journey. Even all their planning could not prepare the group for the hurdles CTA would throw their way: Delays on the Green Line. Track construction on the Blue Line.
But, if they got a little lucky, they might still hit their target time of 8 hours and 35 minutes. Then, glory and bragging rights would — to some extent — be theirs.
But glory and bragging rights are only part of the motivation. For more than a decade, riders who have undertaken this challenge have been compelled by a desire to see different city neighborhoods or explore a public transit system that is an integral part of a big city. There’s the creativity needed to map out routes. And then there’s the absurdity of the effort.
“It was an incredible experience just to go to every single station in the city,” Buwalda, 22, said. “That’s quite the feat, most people have not done that. And you really do get to see every part of the city.”
Recent attempters of the challenge have had to contend with an added layer of difficulty. The CTA has been plagued by service and reliability problems as ridership returned from pandemic lows, leaving current CTA racers often facing longer waits between trains than their predecessors, and making previous challenge times harder to beat.
That was part of the appeal for Piero Maddaleni, who twice in February attempted to set an unofficial record for fastest time to visit every “L” station. Maddaleni, who fuels planes at O’Hare International Airport and does programming when he’s not riding CTA, said he became a transit enthusiast and advocate when he moved to Chicago from suburban Atlanta, where public transit was sparse.
“I came into this knowing for sure that I was going to have issues with the CTA,” Maddaleni, 20, said. “But part of the thing that drove me was, if I managed to set a record while CTA is in, relatively speaking, shambles, I think that makes it even more impressive.”
On his fastest attempt, he rode the trains in about nine hours and 16 minutes, he said. It wasn’t fast enough to break what is believed to be one unofficial — though disputed — record time of about eight hours and 40 minutes. He plans to try again when CTA service improves and the weather warms, he said.
Danny Resner, unofficial keeper of unofficial CTA record attempts, said current train schedules would make a record-setting attempt more difficult. Especially on a Saturday, when Buwalda made his attempt, because trains typically run less often than weekday rush hour.
Resner, 34, now lives in Manhattan, but still occasionally updates the Tumblr tracking the “L” challenge he created more than a decade ago, when he was deep into CTA travel time data and record-setting attempts were taking place multiple times a year.
He was part of several attempts, and briefly held an unofficial record, he said. Back then, he could sit for some nine hours during an attempt, and stay just dehydrated enough to not need the bathroom often — good practice for his current job as a high school teacher who can’t take bathroom breaks during class, he said.
On a visit back to Chicago at the end of February, he was surprised by the frequency of so-called ghost buses, which show up on digital trackers but fail to arrive in real life, and how long it took him to get around town, he said.
“With the frequencies so much lower, this person’s going to have to plan out those difficult transfers, like the end of the Green Line, so carefully,” he said.
Buwalda, a regular CTA rider who lives in Wicker Park, has experienced his fair share of ghost buses, and figured his attempt to set an unofficial record would come down to luck. But he viewed it as one way to drum up support and attention for CTA, as the agency seeks to improve reliability and conditions on transit.
It’s also a chance to explore and connect with new parts of Chicago, said another member of the group, James Leach. He had never been to the end of the Green Line and wanted to see more of the city.
Hannah Dokupil, 29, was also joining the group attempting to set the record, and celebrated riding public transit. She said it has encouraged her to be more tolerant of things outside her control — the bus is going to show up when it’s going to show up. And it’s a way to participate in a key piece of the city. As they rode the trains, she enjoyed seeing murals painted across the buildings.
“That’s one of my favorite things about Chicago is that it’s been a city that I’ve been able to come into and participate in,” she said. “Like, really quickly and completely, and be really welcomed in.”
To Buwalda, riding every train line felt like something he needed to do to consider himself a true Chicagoan.
A chemical engineer, Buwalda moved to Chicago from Florida less than a year ago. He was largely unfamiliar with public transit, and the first time he visited the city he had to look up a YouTube video about how to ride the bus. But he ultimately decided he didn’t need a car, and would rely solely on public transit.
And then he found himself spending one Friday night hydrating and going to bed early in preparation for his unofficial record-setting attempt the next day.
Buwalda said he applied to Guinness World Records to officially monitor times and name a CTA record-holder, as the agency does on other transit systems. He expects to hear back about his application in several weeks, and thinks he would have to try again for it to count toward an official record. In the meantime, he and his friends would try a test run of the system, starting at the far end of the Purple Line at 6 a.m.
But their first train of the day left one minute late, forcing them to miss their planned transfer to the Yellow Line. They soon fell behind schedule.
The origins of the challenge in Chicago are murky, but many point to renowned transit rider Adham Fisher as the one who made it exciting and gave it prominence.
Fisher, who lives in England, has sought official Guinness World Records for riding other train systems, though he said he is currently challenging Guinness over its requirements for a new official record for riding London’s Tube. He was once a clue on a German game show, he said, and was awarded an honorary “L” sign by then-CTA President Forrest Claypool, an experience he described as “a bit weird, but very gratifying.”
“Why does anyone do anything?” he asked. “Because they want to, or because they have to. And I just want to do it.”
He raced the CTA several times in 2011 and 2012, achieving his fastest time in April 2012 at just under nine hours, according to Resner’s Tumblr. After receiving the “L” sign, he considers Chicago his second home for transit racing. Still, he said, the “L” is mostly incomparable to other cities’ train systems because it largely travels in straight lines, leaving large swathes of the city without service.
Fisher points to another early “L” challenge finisher, C.J. Bright and his friends. Bright, who is now 36 and works with public transit agencies, undertook the challenge in 2009 to celebrate finishing graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.
It took Bright more than 10-and-a-half hours to visit every train station, he said. It’s a chance to explore the city, and offers a creative, competitive challenge, he said.
“It was a great way to see the whole city, see the whole system and really just embrace Chicago,” he said.
Riders today have a leg up on him, he said: He didn’t have real-time transit trackers when he completed the challenge in 2009. Still, he thinks it would be impossible to break the nine-hour mark now. As CTA has adjusted service since the start of the pandemic, the time to transfer between trains is too long, he said.
Undeterred, Buwalda and his friends set out to break the fastest published time. By some measures, that would be the 8:40 time set in 2019 by Bill Cash and his then-husband, Alex Pisarski.
Cash and Pisarski planned their route at a pizza restaurant, where they drew the “L” lines in crayon on white paper tablecloths and salt and red pepper shakers became trains. Cash, now 44, talked Pisarski into it, he said.
“There were spreadsheets, there was mathematical analysis,” said Cash, a lawyer. “I was doing probabilistic analysis trying to figure out, ‘what are we going to do.’ ”
They were fierce competitors, out to tackle a challenge that, to them, was in the same spirit as climbing Mt. Everest. In what Pisarski describes as one of his greatest accomplishments, he hopped off a Blue Line train at O’Hare toward the end of their attempt, used the bathroom in minutes, and made it back onto the same train before it left the station, allowing them to continue their journey as planned.
Nonetheless, they relied on a Purple Line express train to complete the challenge, meaning the doors didn’t open at every station. So, on Resner’s Tumblr, they were put into a separate subcategory, a designation they dispute.
Despite the controversy, the challenge brought benefits. They learned about neighborhoods they had previously spent little time in, returning to explore Bronzeville and the closed Racine Green Line station in Englewood.
“It’s cool because you get to see so much of the city in a single day, and you feel very much a part of the city,” Pisarski said. “But at the same time, you feel very removed from the city. You’re just viewing it through the train cars.”
Buwalda and his friends would have to make up time to beat Cash and Pisarski — or to beat 8:47, which is the fastest time listed where doors opened at every station — after their delayed start. They gained some ground on the Brown Line.
But later, on the Blue Line, they hit a stretch of track that was closed for the weekend for construction, forcing them onto a shuttle bus that meandered through Logan Square. Farther along, they ran into trains that stopped briefly for customer issues. Despite their contingency plans, their schedule was thrown off, and transfers didn’t go as planned.
Buwalda and his friends would not achieve their target time that February day. They made it to their final stop, the Halsted Orange Line station, 10 hours and 43 minutes after they first got on the train.
They had fun and intend to try again, possibly in the summer, even though CTA’s current schedules make it harder to beat previous times. But, on the bright side, they weren’t ghosted by any buses or trains during their attempt.
After arriving at their final stop, the group made their way back up the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, toward home. They stopped off in Wicker Park for celebratory cookies and a visit to the Transit Tees store, then some of the group planned to take a bus the rest of the way home.
The bus never arrived.