So it's the first day of real competition, and everyone is ready to get going and get flying. It's a challenge to get almost 200 pilots and their wings loaded onto busses and up the gravel road to launch. Launch is high on a hilltop overlooking a valley full of wineries. And trees. Lots of trees. Somehow all of the competitors, volunteers, and gear make it up to the start. It's sunny. After 4 days of rain, we're happy to see blue sky.
The Race Rat competitors launch first. They are in the most difficult class of the race, with the longest tasks. Launch is fun to watch...three lines of pilots taking turns launching with more lined up behind them. It's fast and furious and when my turn comes I hope I don't flub it up and mess up the machine-like proficiency of it all.
I'm in the Sprint class, meaning that the task isn't quite as long and as hard as the pros. Our tasks are meant to be challenging but fun, hopefully doable. Even with a paraglider as slow as mine. I hope. Today, the task for the sprint class is the longest they've ever done in the history of Rat Race. For the first day! They explain that weather conditions are looking really good.
I launch without messing up the machine. Volunteers lay my wing out while I swelter in the heat wearing my winter flying suits. Heck, it's my only flying suit. Don't tell anyone, but for emergencies sake, I'm also wearing a diaper. Hey, there are no bathroom breaks in the sky! Takeoff is easy. LAUNCHING LEFT SIDE! and I'm off. Climbing is easy, too. There are wings flying everywhere so it's easy to find the lift. Lift is where everyone else is already flying.
I get high. Really high. For a moment I am higher than any other wing I can see in the sky. Then I try to just hang out of there for a while. Our first turnpoint is south into the wind. I creep towards the starting gate as the start time opens, and suddenly a whole gaggle of pilots is pointed my way. I creep slower than most others, but that's ok, because when we tag the point, they are ahead of me showing me the lift lines. Then it's back over launch, fast, really fast. I'm still high over the next turnpoint, and point out over the valley for the first real challenge of the day.
There's no time to do anything but fly. I used to think that flying cross country would give me time to eat, drink, take photos and enjoy the scenery. Not so much in reality. In a thermal, it takes all my concentration to stay in the lift and keep going up. On glide to the next turn point, I am focusing on going straight, plus watching the air, terrain and other pilots for clues on which line to take.
To the west of launch is a big set of rolling peaks. Our next challenge was to get up and over them. Below us is what looks like never ending forests. There might be a few small landing spots, but it doesn't look inviting. I get lucky, and stay high enough not to have to worry about that. As my GPS told me that I had hit my turnpoint, I also hit lift, and rode the thermal back up to a safe height. There were a few clouds in the sky, and at times as they formed out of blue sky, the lift under the wispy new ones was great. I looked for new clouds along with everyone else, and we all tried to stay under them and get high.
Getting back north of launch wasn't too hard...the tailwind made it fast. By then, the hundreds of wings in the air had dwindled, slowly at first, and then poof, they all seemed to be gone. I couldn't tell if they had sunk out, sped past me, or were still behind me. Actually, I'm sure it was all three, but for the first time all day I couldn't get high enough to make the next move. I ran out of patience. And went for it anyway. Doh.
Not a great idea. With no one around me, I was one my own to find lift. All I found was sink. Doh. In minutes I was going from hopes of making goal, to hopes of finding a landing spot. Two wings were on the ground below me already. I had enough height to try another stab at a small hilltop for lift, but I think I got "deer in the headlights" thinking, and could only think of landing safely. Which I did. Packed up in the baking sun and hiked out to the road, and had a lift back to race headquarters within minutes. What luck.
I flew 29 kilometers in a straight line between the checkpoints. Of course, most of the time I wasn't flying in a straight line, I was flying in circles. I'm sure I went triple that distance in actually miles covered. All I know is that after landing, I felt like I had been on a rollarcoaster all day. Or maybe a rocking boat. I missed the final two checkpoints, but it was enough to land me middle of the pack of racers in terms of points. The scoring system is quite complicated but takes the results of the group into account when assigning points. I won't try to explain it.
Results are HERE
Anyway, disappointed not to make goal but maybe I'll learn to be patient tomorrow. The good weather continues so there should be another great couple days of flying left in the competition!