The Rat Race paragliding competition in the Applegate Valley will soar to new heights this year.
The seven-day competition that begins Sunday, June 17, will serve as the sport's national championship for 2012. It's an honor local pilots have sought in the decade since this annual race has been sanctioned by the U.S. Hangliding and Paragliding Association.
"The event will also be used to pick the U.S. team for Worlds," says event organizer Mike Haley. "It's a great rivalry."
Mike and Gail Haley have served as race directors for previous national championships, but never from their home turf in the Applegate Valley near Woodrat Mountain, the race's launch site.
Pilots from as far afield as Australia and Russia will be among the 175 competitors trying to win this year's Rat Race. The competition spans seven days, including a practice day Sunday. Each day features a different course, chosen only hours before the race after Haley and other pilots have analyzed the likely weather pattern for the day.
"Each pilot has to tag five or more turnpoints per day," Haley explains. "They have to pass through a 400-meter imaginary cylinder around the point. They commonly fly 3 to 4 hours per day."
Pilots receive coordinates for each waypoint shortly before they start each day, which they use to program their onboard GPS. At the end of each day, the track log is downloaded and verified by race officials. The faster the finish, the greater number of points a pilot receives. The cumulative point score for the six days of competition determines the men's and women's winners.
"The scoring is complicated," says Haley. "It's based on the actual conditions at the time."
A degree of difficulty is used in the scoring, both for the weather and the location of the turnpoints, be they in Grants Pass, Gold Hill or Talent. Make no mistake about it, these courses are difficult to navigate, even for experienced pilots.
"We set up a course so 70 percent of them won't be able to complete it, they'll have to land short," says Haley.
Because of the distances covered each day — 30, 40, perhaps more than 50 miles — pilots must find thermal updrafts that serve as the fuel to counteract the inescapable pull of gravity.
The launch site at Woodrat Mountain sits at 3,780 feet. It's a location, says Haley, considered one of the top 25 best paragliding sites in the world.
"It has a broken topography, it's not flat," says Haley. "Three winds converge at Woodrat that produce a high concentration of thermals."
These thermals allow pilots to soar from 3,700 feet, very quickly, to 8,000 feet under good conditions. For the start of the race, up to 75 paragliders launch at 30- to 60-second intervals and circle above Woodrat Mountain, waiting for start time.
For the next few hours, they watch birds, smoke and each other for clues to the location of the best thermals. Skill comes not only in locating and taking advantage of the thermals, but knowing how high to soar: too high and you waste time; too low and you land short.
Spectators have several options for this event. For $25, a four-hour, chaperoned tour to the launch site leaves each day at 11 a.m. from race headquarters at nearby Fiasco Winery at 8035 Highway 238. Lunch is included in the tour. On June 23 and 24, a tour will also leave from Cantrell-Buckley Park near Ruch. For an up-close experience of the group launch, this is the way to go. Access to Woodrat Mountain is closed to the public during the event except by the event's guide service.
Fiasco, Red Lily and Valley View Wineries will all have screens featuring streaming video of the event. All are potential landing zones each day.
"Pilots will be landing all over the Applegate and Rogue Valleys," says Dave Palmer, owner of Fiasco Winery and a long-time paraglider. "Actual landing sites will depend on the course selected each day."
"We'll have a webcam at the launch all day and several pilots will be wearing head cameras," says Palmer. "Pilots will be tracked at all times and will appear as dots superimposed on a Google Earth map, so you'll know when to go outside your house and look up if you want to see them."
The Rat Race also serves as a fundraiser for local charities. Proceeds from the $25 pre-race banquet Sunday night at Fiasco Winery benefits the Magdalene Home and the Neo-natal I.C.U. at Rogue Valley Medical Center.
Of the 175 paraglider pilots in the Rat Race, many of them are new to the sport and launch after the open division pilots are well on their way. Each new pilot is paired with an open division pilot. After each day's race, they compare notes.
"There's this camaraderie and mentoring of up-and-coming pilots by the best pilots," says Palmer. "It's a big part of the success of the Rat Race."
For more information on the Rat Race and related activities, see http://jacksonvilleoregon.com/events-activities/rat-race-paragliding-competition
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at email@example.com