BLUE RIDGE, Ga. - In the mountains of North Georgia, the first place in the Southeast where a sanctioned United States Adventure Racing Association event was held, the sport remains plenty strong.
That was proven again in the foggy early-morning hours of a Saturday last month. The normally peaceful hills around the Toccoa River were suddenly bustling with activity. With headlights of their bike- and canoe-laden vehicles breaking through the darkness, 75 four-person teams arrived at Toccoa Wilderness Outpost and Shallowford Bridge for the 12th annual Blue Ridge Mountain Adventure Race, an event designed to last about five hours.
"The first year we had this thing, we had 25 teams," race director Ron Zadroga said.
Last year Blue Ridge hosted USARA's nearly 30-hour national competition in November. Zadroga, a native Pennsylvanian, started vacationing in Fannin County in 1988. A decade later, he retired from Interstate Industries, an electical wiring firm he partly owned in Jackson, Miss., and moved with his wife to the Blue Ridge area. He began working with the race.
For this year's competition, high-energy types showed up from 15 states ranging from Pennsylvania to Oregon and California. Race strategy is about as important as being able to handle the demanding pedaling, paddling and running, Zadroga said. Each team had at least person who came along as support.
"We treat the support person just like a racer, because they probably work as hard as a racer," Zadroga explained.
The support person picks up and delivers bikes and canoes to where the competitors will need them. Timing and pre-determining the best routes are critical aspects.
"A support person also assists in some cases with dry clothing," Zadroga said, "but they are allowed to do that only at certain places along the course."
The racers began with a running segment expected to last 40 to 75 minutes.
"They know where checkpoint two is, but they don't know anything in between," Zadroga said at the start. "We have A, B, C, D, E and F (places). We call that a prologue. They have to get either A, B, C or D, E, F.
"From that point, they make their own decisions," he continued, noting this includes whether to take a canoe or bike route to the finish line in downtown Blue Ridge. "Some of them will be getting in a canoe pretty early. Some will likely put bicycles in a canoe. Some will use the bikes later. It's a choice they have to make."
During a gathering at Fannin County High School the night before, teams were equipped with maps and coordinates for the approximate 50-mile trip.
"Today, more than half the teams who made a plan Friday night are probably going to change it," Zadroga said.
Competition was in open and 40-and-over masters categories. Area participants included Chattanooga's Kevin Manning and Cleveland's Gina Tolbert and Donnie Rush, who teamed with Charles Oswald of Johns Creek, Ga., on the Spectrum Health and Fitness Team; Robert Mingus of Chattanooga and Star Affolter of Ooltewah, who teamed with Jay Scott of Cartersville, Ga., and James Guthrie of Marietta on the NADS-Freeflite team; and Dalton's John Patrick, Thierry Urban and Minette Lusk, who competed with Kennesaw's Michael Woody on the Pinhoti Express team.