Thom Benson joined the streaming sea of 700 cyclists in last year's Sequatchie Valley Century-pumping and pacing with the peloton.
The 46-year-old cycling powerhouse exploded up seemingly endless inclines and dove down hills inhaling the clean, country air and admiring mountainscapes and rolling farmland as he pedaled past.
"It was my first time cycling in a huge group, and it was awesome," says Benson, communications manager for the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX 3D Theater. "If you had asked me three or four years ago if I would pedal a bike 100 miles, I would have laughed and said 'No way!' But that's the great thing about cycling-anyone can get there. At first, 10 miles seems like a long way. Pretty soon, you're wrapping up a 40-mile ride and wishing you had time for more."
The 100-mile ride organized by the Chattanooga Bicycle Club is one of dozens of adventure sporting events offered during RiverRocks, a 10-day festival that celebrates the incomparable natural resources of the Tennessee Valley, the benefits of active lifestyles, and Chattanooga's commitment to environmental stewardship and land conservation.
Benson, who cycles 20 miles most days after work, takes full advantage of the city's proximity to nearby natural environments. "As I ride throughout the year, I enjoy seeing wildflowers, animals and fall foliage," he says. "I'm always amazed when I pedal up on hawks, owls, deer or turkey. I've also enjoyed kayaking, hiking and mountain biking here, and yet, I know I have only explored a tiny fraction of what's available in Chattanooga's backyard."
Like Benson, more and more people see the Scenic City as a mecca of outdoor recreation.
They appreciate the area's untarnished natural beauty, and they want to drink it in when they can. RiverRocks celebrates this sentiment-this love of wildness and adventure-by partnering with local clubs and organizations to offer an array of activities designed to lure people outside to experience the great outdoors firsthand. From stand up paddleboarding to hiking to mountain biking to trail running to bouldering, the festival's events entice individuals who appreciate the elegance of nature and who feel most alive when outdoors.
During RiverRock's 10 days of play, activities are held at surrounding parks, trails, waterways, rock formations and scenic venues.
Of the 41,000 people who attended the festival last year, 4,000 participated in one of the area's adventure sporting events, and organizers expect those numbers to rise this year.
Last year, Randy Whorton ran in the Rock/Creek StumpJump, the second largest 50K trail race in the country that introduces runners to a challenging 31-mile, dirt-packed trail with brutal changes in elevation.
"I really enjoy trail running, and I hope more people will try it this year during RiverRocks," says Whorton, who founded Wild Trails seven years ago with his wife, Kris. "Running in a natural setting is so much more engaging than running on treadmills or roads-the sounds, smells, scenery and steps change with each individual stride. It's really a spiritual experience for me."
He notes that running on dirt usually means less impact on joints, and navigating a path with different angles and elevations strengthens muscles in the body that road running fails to exercise. And dozens of interesting and unique trails-most just minutes from downtown- surround the city.
"I plan to run the StumpJump again this year," he says. "And I plan to participate in other RiverRocks events, too. I'll run the Stringer's Ridge Urban 10K on October 8, and I may swim in the Snail Darter Challenge."
Carla Pritchard, president of festival producer Chattanooga Presents, says RiverRocks events and activities fall into four categories-terrain, river, mountain and more. "In the mountain category, we've added a unique event to our lineup this year," she says. "We're especially proud that Triple Crown of Bouldering organizers chose to hold the second leg of their triad during RiverRocks. It will be held on October 8 at the Stone Fort."
Without ropes, boulderers maneuver smaller, lower rock formations than traditional rock climbers, and position thick foam mats-also known as crash pads-underneath the formations to soften an unfortunate fall. These bold climbers attempt a bouldering course-or problem, as it's called-several times as they learn the route's handholds and optimum body positions. Bouldering is gaining popularity around Chattanooga due in part to the prevalence of rocky faces and structures throughout the region.
Another activity commanding a lot of attention in the Tennessee Valley is stand up paddleboarding, one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world. In SUP, paddlers balance on a large board while propelling themselves through open oceans, lakes and rivers with a long paddle. "Chattanooga attracts the best stand up paddleboarders in the United States," says Pritchard. "And we're excited that the SUP Splash finale is scheduled during RiverRocks this year-October 1 at Ross's Landing."
But RiverRocks isn't just for athletes and active, outdoorsy people. For spectators, Pritchard suggests the Chattanooga Head Race (Oct. 8) which features high school, college and professional rowing teams navigating three miles of the Tennessee River. The Balloon Glow event (Oct. 1) at Coolidge Park is a surreal sight to behold as several colorful balloons gleam like colossal Chinese lanterns. And on Oct. 7, spectators will gasp in disbelief as the Hunter Museum's façade twists, contorts and crumbles before their very eyes.
"The 3D Projection Mapping show will be magnificent and the first of its kind presented in Chattanooga," says Pritchard. "Full Spectrum [a production company from Stone Mountain] has developed a show combining lights, music and projection technology that will create an illusion that will truly fool the eyes."
For music lovers, The Jayhawks will rock Coolidge Park on Oct. 8 with their folksy, bluesy, soulful sound, and the Traditional Music Gathering and Competition will be held on Sunday, Oct. 9. Aside from the 10 days of play, RiverRocks raises money and awareness for eight local land trusts and conservancies including the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, the Trust for Public Land, Lula Lake Land Trust, North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy, Cumberland Trail, Lookout Mountain Conservancy, Friends of Moccasin Bend and Reflection Riding Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. It incorporates many green initiatives such as composting, recycling and other efforts designed to minimize the accumulation of waste at venues hosting large events. Last, but certainly not least, RiverRocks is local-food-friendly.
The RiverRocks website (www.riverrockschattanooga.com) reveals a host of new experiences sure to please participants of all ages, all skill levels and all interests, and more events are being added each day. So what are you waiting for? The time is ripe for RiverRocks.