Rat Racers can't get enough

Rat Racers can't get enough

The colors of the rainbow glide out of the sky into a shallow valley near the intersection of Dark Hollow and Pioneer roads just southwest of Medford, the finish line Monday for the seventh-annual paraglider "Rat Race."

Some of the pilots curl in the kites of their colorful paragliders to hasten their fall. Another glides to his feet and lets his colorful paraglider bubble up behind him like a peacock strutting his stuff.

"That's called 'flying their kite,' " explains Nicole Chastain, a paraglider from Austin, Texas.

Some of the best hang gliding and paragliding pilots are touching down in Southern Oregon this week for the race held on Woodrat Mountain in Ruch.

About 65 pilots, from as far away as Australia and as close as Jacksonville, are participating in this week's competition, which took off Sunday and will conclude the Fourth of July.

Each day, the pilots are assigned a new route for the race depending on the weather patterns. Then, they program their global positioning systems to guide them from point to point on the mountainous Southern Oregon terrain. Those with the shortest cumulative times during the weeklong race can win trophies for first to third place, and the scores could help them qualify for the U.S. Paragliding Team. There is an open class competition as well as a competition just for women. About 10 women are competing in the Rat Race this year.

The competition, organized by Mike and Gail Haley, is one of about eight held each year that are sanctioned by the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.

Woodrat Mountain and the Haleys also hosted the USHPA West Coast Paragliding Championship about four weeks ago.

Southern Oregon is a popular destination for paragliding competitions because of the terrain, the weather and the residents, who tend to be more likely to give a stranded pilot a ride to his camp, said paraglider Bill Hughes of Seattle, who won Monday's competition.

Spectators can watch the gliders in flight from Ruch-area wineries, including Longsword, Valley View and Fiasco. Launch times generally begin at noon but can vary depending on the weather.

Monday's 39.5-kilometer race took 11/2 to 21/2 hours.

"It was bumpy in the beginning, but the last half was fast because we got a tailwind," Hughes said.

Paraglider pilots keep momentum in their wings by following wind patterns and thermals, the rising hot air in the Earth's atmosphere.

It takes some experience to be able to identify what would produce a thermal, Hughes said.

A hillside or a line of clouds are some of the things pilots look for to fuel their paragliders, he said.

"Basically, you have to learn how to read the weather and the terrain," he said.

Pilots have to dress in layers because sometimes they soar as high as 8,000 feet, where the air is cooler, said Paul Murdoch, a Jacksonville pilot.

Getting started in paragliding can cost about $7,000 in equipment and lessons, yet it's still the least expensive form of aviation, Chastain noted.

Some of the competitors Monday described the sport as addictive.

"I started four years ago, and I went crazy with it," said Meredyth Malocsay of Seattle, who is the champion female paragliding pilot in the United States. "I started working part-time, so I could do more of it."

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Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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