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Paddlers prepare for Chattajack on the Tennessee River. Photo by Lawson Whitaker.

A Look at 11 Wild (and a Little Weird) Rides, Runs, Paddling Adventures, and Climbing Comps Taking Place Across the Blue Ridge in 2020

Spring is on the horizon. That means it’s time to gear up and get your race calendar in order. The Blue Ridge is full of classic marathons and cycling centuries, but the region also holds events that add twists or themes to your favorite adventures. If you’re up for a new challenge, here’s a look at some of the most interesting competitions taking place in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic in 2020. 

Running

The Widow Maker Ultra

Thomaston, Ga. • March 28

Race against the sun at this sunrise to sunset race on the Widowmaker Trail. At this growing ultra, competitors see how many times they can complete the 5.5-mile out-and-back trail between 7:30 a.m. and 7:55 p.m. Whoever runs the most loops by the time the sun goes down is declared the winner. If ultras are a bit too long, they also offer a 5K option that takes you by an old whiskey still. 

key details: The event takes place at Sprewell Bluff Park, featuring the meandering Flint River and rocky bluffs. Proceeds benefit the park. 

Wambaw Swamp Stomp

Cordesville, S.C. • May 2

The new legend of the Wambaw Swamp Creature goes back to just 2011, when several people reported seeing a large, lizard-like creature in the swamps around Cordesville, S.C. While ultimately unresolved what was actually spotted, what remains in commemoration is a long-lasting ultrarun through the marshy woods of the Francis Marion National Forest. 

Key details: The Wambaw Swamp Stomp’s out-and-back course runs along the Swamp Fox Passage, part of the cross-state Palmetto Trail, and features both 50-mile and 50K options. Racers can also lean on friends to run through the muggy swamplands, competing as a relay team. There is a 14-hour cut off for the 50 miler and 10-hour cutoff for the 50K to be considered a finisher. 

Dirty Dog 15K

Charleston, W. Va. • May 16

Four-legged friends are more than welcome at the Dirty Dog 15K—a pet-friendly trail race that takes runners over the roots and rocks of West Virginia’s Kanawha State Forest. Avid trail runner Gary Smith admits he was initially apprehensive to take his dog Logan on crowded singletrack trails with upwards of 60 other dogs and says the experience differs from the typical off-road run.

“You need to be aware of what the dog’s doing,” said Smith, who’s now completed the Dirty Dog with Logan multiple times. “Sometimes you need to run a little slower so that you’re not just dragging her. Other times, she might be trying to drag me. Dogs are going to be running at your feet so you have to be aware of the fact that, not just your dog, but somebody else’s dog could be running right beside you or in front of you.”

Smith also suggests building up a dog’s endurance like any runner would and paying attention to the weather. Extreme heat and snow can be harmful for the dogs. 

Key details: The Dirty Dog course features mostly singletrack trails with nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. There are several creek crossings and all of the aid stations have water bowls for the dogs to drink. Every dog that enters gets their own swag bag with homemade dog treats and part of the entry proceeds help support the local Humane Society.

Biking 

Underwater Bike Race

Beaufort, N.C. • July 4

Strap on your SCUBA gear for the annual Underwater Bike Race held off the coast of North Carolina with Discovery Diving. You can pedal, swim, push, or drag your bike to get it across the finish line. Whatever it takes to get it moving through the water without a motor. 

The race takes place in the sand next to the USS Indra, located 60 feet underwater. The Indra, a landing craft repair ship, was sunk in 1992 as part of an artificial reef program. You will see a variety of species around the wreck, including sea urchins, tropical fish, octopi, and potentially a shark. 

Key details: The event starts on land with a bike decorating contest. A dive boat then takes divers with their equipment and bikes out to the USS Indra, about 12 miles off the coast, where they will dive down to the starboard side of the ship for the start. 

Riders line up at the start of GRUSK. Photo by Eva Blakalova Morris

Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob (GRUSK)

Circleville, W.Va. • July 10-12

Before GRUSK was an official event, it started as a group of friends cycling to the top of Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4,863 feet. In 2016, Travis Olson made things official and opened up registration to the public. “There’s just something about that big, open meadow up on top of a high mountain with views for 50 miles that is just so captivating,” he said.

As the event grew, Olson added longer distances for riders of all abilities to challenge themselves at the adventure cycling race that offers multiple gravel-road routes to the highest peak in the Mountain State. In 2020, options range from a 27-mile trek to the summit to a 212-mile, multi-day backpacking adventure. 

Cyndi Janetzko has participated in GRUSK every year it has run. As new routes are added each year, she has continued to go for the longer distances. “West Virginia and the roads around GRUSK are amazing,” Janetzko said. “You just want to be out for as long as you can. You just want to keep riding your bike. There’s really something for everybody there, even if you’re a total gravel newbie.”

For an event like this, Janetzko recommends getting used to being on your bike for hour after hour and just enjoying the ride. 

“Make sure your gear is in great order because some of it is really remote,” she said. “There is no cell phone service out there. You’ve got to be able to fix your bike if you are between aid stations and have a mechanical issue. GRUSK has a lot of climbing and a lot of descending on what can be very rough gravel.”

Key details: 90 to 95 percent of this race takes place on gravel roads up to Spruce Knob. Riders can choose from a variety of adventures, including 27, 50, 82, 140, and 212 miles, over the course of the three-day event. Experience Learning’s campus on the shoulder of Spruce Knob serves as the base camp for the weekend event.  

3M Bike Challenge

Cumberland, Md. • September 12

It’s man vs. machine vs. mountain at the 3M Bike Challenge. Riders race against the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad 501 Diesel Engine to see who can climb Mount Savage from Cumberland to Frostburg faster.

The timed race follows the Great Allegheny Passage, which parallels the railroad tracks along this stretch, for 15.6 miles and features more than 1,500 feet of climbing. The team(s) or individual(s) who have a faster climb time than the engine will receive prizes in addition to bragging rights over the machine.  

Key details: Riders can choose to take on the train on their own or put together a team of up to six riders. Spectators can purchase a train ticket to meet racers at the end of the course. Funds raised go towards helping to maintain the Maryland portion of the Great Allegheny Passage for future visitors. 

Paddling 

Great Falls Race

Potomac, Md. • August 14-15

Although this event is only open to experts, everyone is invited to watch paddlers take on the treacherous Class V+ rapids at Great Falls Park. Now in its 32nd year, participants will compete in a sub-60 sprint down the Potomac River, dropping almost 60 feet down the falls. There are viewing spots on the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river.

Key details: Paddlers can compete in the classic downriver race or slalom category. Racers must be able to prove their Class V paddling experience and be familiar with the lines on Great Falls to enter. This year, the Association of Whitewater Professionals selected this event as the 2020 Extreme Kayak American Championship.

Lake Murray Paddle Classic

Chapin, S.C. • September 26

This family-friendly flatwater paddling race takes place on scenic Lake Murray and is part of the Southern Stoke Race Series happening throughout the Southeast. Although the race only covers a portion of the lake, there are more than 600 miles of shoreline to explore by land and water when you’re done. 

Key details: Choose your challenge with a one, 3.5, or seven-mile paddle with categories for elites, first timers, kids, and SUP pups. Proceeds from the event benefit the South Carolina Special Olympics. 

Chattajack 31

Chattanooga, Tenn. • October 24

At the time Ben Friberg started Chattajack in 2012, the average paddling race was around six miles. Living in Chattanooga, he saw the Tennessee River as the perfect location to put on something longer. Depending on how you take the corners, the growing race offers plenty of time on the water, running between 31 and 33 miles through the Tennessee River Gorge. 

“It’s a pretty unique place where the Tennessee River, which is a massive watershed, cuts through the Cumberland Plateau,” Friberg said. “So, you have this really unique geographic feature. On top of that, there’s almost 30,000 acres of protected property. When you’re paddling through there, it’s a pretty amazing feeling looking at these big canyon walls, trees, and sandstone cliffs.”

Paddlers at Chattajack can compete in a number of different categories: standup paddleboard, kayak, surfski, and prone. Bruce Poacher, who has competed as a solo paddler and part of a tandem, said competing as part of a team increases the social aspect of the race.  

“We’ve got shared experiences,” he said. “Whatever happens to you happens to the guy sitting in the boat with you. There’s always someone to talk to. In a race of that distance and time, you don’t have constant energy throughout. You have times when you’re feeling stronger and less strong. It just helps to have someone else in the boat with you to share the load.” 

Just don’t expect to ride the current to the finish line. “You’re definitely going to have to work for it,” Friberg added.

Key details: Be on the lookout for race registration, opening at midnight on May 1. The race has sold out in less than 24 hours the last three years. As one of the last races of the paddling season, be prepared for cooler fall temperatures. Also, participate five continuous years in a row to earn a coveted Chattajack belt buckle. 

Climbing 

A climber drops into the water during the deepwater solo competition at Tuck Fest. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Whitewater Center

Aqua Rock and Dynomite

Charlotte, N.C. • August 29 and September 19

With climbing coming to the Olympics this summer, test your own skills at the U.S. Whitewater Center’s open citizens competitions. At Aqua Rock, you can compete on the center’s deep water solo walls, where climbers race head-to-head to the top of walls between 25 to 45 feet with a 20-foot deep pool below to catch them. Meagan Martin, a professional climber and winner of last year’s invitation-only deep water competition at Tuck Fest, said it’s different than other forms of climbing. 

“It’s kind of like a combination of bouldering and sport climbing,” she said. “You don’t have a rope, but you’re climbing longer and taller things over water. You’re head-to-head racing. I think, for an audience, it’s unique because it’s pretty obvious who is winning.” 

Key details: If bouldering is more your style, Dynomite in September features bouldering problems for every skill level. Points are awarded based on difficulty and attempts. The expansive U.S. Whitewater Center also features additional climbing events, festivals, and adventure races throughout the year. 

Triple Crown Bouldering Series

N.C., Tenn., and Ala. • October 3 and 17, and November 21

Take your bouldering to the next level at three of the Southeast’s premier boulderfields. The series starts at Hound Ears in Boone, N.C. This site is only open to the public one day a year, exclusively for the Triple Crown. Then make your way to Stone Fort in Chattanooga, Tenn., for some of the best sandstone bouldering in the Southeast. The final event in the series takes place at Horse Pens 40 in Steele, Ala., a nature park and campground situated on top of Chandler Mountain. 

Key details: Register for one competition or send classic Southern problems at all three. The events raise funds for the Southeastern Climbers Coalition and the Carolina Climbers Coalition to help maintain access for climbers throughout the region. 

It Pays to Stretch

Three Yoga Poses for Running Recovery

by Danielle Sangita Rottenberg 

If you’re training for a 10K or marathon, stretching can make a big difference in your recovery and ultimately your progress towards a race-day goal. After a rigorous run, stretching helps bring the heartbeat back to normal and also breaks down the lactic acid in the muscles to speed recovery time. Post-run stretching will also help you regain your range of motion and prevent pain by elongating the muscle fibers and fascia. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to take an hour-long yoga class to stretch out—just 5-15 minutes can make all the difference. Try these three stretches following runs to optimize recovery. 

Downward facing dog

This pose is great for lengthening your spine and back after that long distance jaunt. It is a wonderful way to stretch the calves, hamstrings, hips, and Achilles.

Crescent lunge

Holy hip flexor stretch! Your hip flexors shorten and contract every time you pick up your feet during a run, and for marathoners that is a whole lot of hip flexor shortening. This stretch can help get the knee joint moving around after some hearty pavement pounding. It feels great on quads too.

Supine figure four stretch

This is one of the best for getting a hamstring release and IT (Iliotibial) band stretch. As a massage therapist and yoga teacher practicing for over 11 years, I suggest this one often for my clients, and when they try it you can hear the exhalation of happiness. •

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