They came in search of the woman wearing a giant rear end strapped to her back, the man speaking in riddles, the pirates participating in a dating game show.
They came for the Hunt.
The sixth annual Post Hunt, a celebration of the confounding, the bewildering and the oblique, drew thousands of would-be puzzle-solvers Sunday to Freedom Plaza and sent them scouring the streets of downtown Washington seeking answers.
Ultimately, this hunt had a historic finish: For the first time, there was a single, solitary winner — as opposed to the traditional team approach — upending decades of conventional wisdom.
Sean Memon of Arlington was the first individual to win a hunt, either in Washington or in South Florida, where the event originated.
“I just came out here for the fun of it,” said Memon, 35, a lawyer.
He reacted to the experience of winning — the loud applause from the crowd, the oversized check for $2,000, the fact that he alone was first — with the calm, appreciative, pleasantly surprised air of someone who had just received a really nice and unexpected compliment, rather than someone who had just out-thought thousands of dedicated competitors.
Each puzzle begins in the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, which contains clues, a colorful map and, if you speak the very particular language of hunters, a type of nirvana.
The first hunt, hosted by the Miami Herald, was held in South Florida nearly three decades ago. Journalists Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten and Tom Shroder eventually imported it to the District. Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at The Post, and Shroder is a former editor of The Washington Post Magazine.
“The first hunt was in Miami and I really can’t believe nobody died,” Barry said. “It covered three counties and it involved driving.”
The three began planning this year’s hunt in January, coming up with concepts that evolved into clues brought to life in McPherson Square and Pershing Park.
Each hunt is funded by sponsors and basically breaks even, said Julie Gunderson, general manager of The Post Magazine. “It’s a very grass-roots event.”
Many still-active Herald Hunt participants make the trip to Washington to join the D.C. edition. “It’s not really a scavenger hunt,” said Mike Licht of Pembroke Pines, Fla. “It’s a puzzle. And it’s always a good time.”
Licht, who estimates that he has participated in about 20 hunts, came to Sunday’s event with his wife, his son and his son’s girlfriend.
“The whole spirit of this thing is so great because people are with us,” Shroder said. “It is almost like a joint work of performance art we all are participating in together.”
The Post Hunt is like “ ‘National Treasure’ and ‘The Amazing Race’ combined,” Arielle Davis of Miami said. She and five other women interning in the District formed a team to get familiar with the city.
Players study for the Post Hunt, cramming as if for a final exam. People such as Rob Pavosevich and Sharon Belliveau of Northwest Washington, who teamed with another couple, spent a couple of hours and “a couple of bottles of wine” Friday night reviewing some old Post Hunts for clues, themes and guidance.
Hunt veterans have their own tactics. For some, that means recording clues and gathering in one place to review the footage. For others, the hunt involves dispatching team members to potential clue sites before the event starts.
“Don’t overthink it,” said Megan Taylor of Rockville as she and her husband, Ed, fed Cheerios to Will, their 13-month-old, near a clue involving an actor delivering speeches backward. “And I think I just got it.”
Sorting out such labyrinthine logic is not fun for everyone. The organizers have to thread a careful needle, making the puzzles tough but not too tough.
“Who do you shoot for if you’re making this?” asked Jay Dewire of Frederick, who was participating in his first hunt with his wife, Colleen. “You don’t want everyone to be done early . . . but you don’t want it to irritate someone.”
Hunters paraded up and down streets to seek answers. Many ducked into restaurants and coffee shops seeking air conditioning, food and drink — and a little time to think.
The U.S. Park Police declined to offer a crowd estimate. But the crowd was the “biggest ever, easily,” said Shroder, noting that it topped last year’s 12,000 participants. “Basically, we filled up downtown.”
Memon, the winner, grew up in South Florida but never participated in hunts there.
“This guy absolutely defeated all our expectations,” Weingarten said. Ever since the first hunt in 1984, the assumption had been that you needed a hive mentality to solve everything.
“I’m in awe,” Weingarten said.
Memon had come to a few Post Hunts — some with his wife, Jeanette Wingler — but he showed up for this one on his own, just hoping to enjoy himself.
“Even if you only get one puzzle right, it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Memon said the dating-game question — which involved pirates being asked questions and only answering with an “Arr” — was the toughest nut to crack; he sat on a bench near McPherson Square contemplating that one for the better part of 30 minutes.
And he didn’t realize that he was the winner until he was brought behind the stage and the closing ceremony began.
He asked whether he had to return the novelty check — just in case the organizers needed it back.
Memon cheerfully admitted: “I got very lucky.”