Paragliders sprawl across the sky above Woodrat Mountain near Ruch Friday during the Rat Race Paragliding Competition. - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven

Sky High

For Julie Spiegler, volleyball has proven more dangerous than paragliding 5,000 feet above the ground.

An arm injury suffered swatting a volleyball forced Spiegler and Gever Tulley, both of San Francisco, to fly tandem Friday during the Rat Race paragliding competition at Woodrat Mountain near Ruch, which continues today.

"We've been paragliding for 18 years and this is our first competition," Spiegler said. "Rat Race is perfect for first-timers."

About 115 pilots are flying in a race from point to point across the valley using global positioning systems to track their locations.

Their prize: A day spent flying high above the Applegate Valley.

Friday proved a bit windy at times for comfortable sailing, though the sky remained speckled with brightly colored canopies most of the early afternoon.

Gliders launch from the top of Woodrat Mountain. The goal is to catch a strong thermal that will push the paraglider into the air. Thermal lift occurs when the ground is heated by the sun and transfers this heat to the surrounding air, which then rises.

Good rides can last for several hours, said Bill Purden, who races for Team Up out of Salt Lake City.

Several people described how they had become addicted to the sport after their first flight.

"It's either for you or it's not," Purden said. "You'll know the first time your feet leave the ground."

Rasa Lila, who came to the race from New Mexico, said paragliding provides a sensation too seldom felt in today's world. She enjoys the silence of flying without a roaring motor.

"In the past, I've flown over cities during rush hour and I see all those cars stuck in traffic while I soar above them," she said. "It's such a sense of freedom."

Lila said that while mid-air collisions do occur during competitions, each paraglider is equipped with an auxiliary parachute that could save his or her life.

So far this year, local emergency crews have reported three paragliding injuries. One Bay Area man was injured Wednesday when his paraglider crashed into a steep hillside in the 5500 block of Griffin Creek Road. The extent of his injuries and his condition were unknown Friday.

Lila, like many of the gliders running the Rat Race, has flown all over the United States and in several countries, including Italy, India and Mexico. The sport is huge in Europe.

Be warned: It is a pricey hobby, with gliders averaging around $3,000. The harnesses can run between $500 and $700.

But it seemed worth it to the gliders who cruised in long, slow circles Friday afternoon.

"I'm a professional mortgage broker and I love my job, but this is my passion," Purden said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail

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