In mid-November, about two dozen adventurers will line up to roam the woods around Suck Creek in a checkpoint-to-checkpoint race through the Tennessee River Gorge. There will be competitive athletes from well-fit paddlers to an Ironman competitor, but mainly, it will be run-of-the-mill outdoor enthusiasts looking for a day of fun and play.
The racers will take anywhere from three to nine hours to complete the course, but some of the slowest competitors may have the best chance of winning.
"It's kind of backwards," says Pangorge creator Andy Dodson.
The redesigned annual race takes participants to three mandatory checkpoints: one by boat, one by bike and the other by foot. Competitors must take a selfie at each, and from there, may head back to the finish line, completing the race in a little more than three hours. Or, they can keep going.
There are 20-30 checkpoints in all, and each includes a time bonus.
The final finisher in last year's race took more than nine hours. He placed second overall. The winner finished in about six-and-a-half hours, striking a balance between racing quickly and hitting landmarks such as Mushroom Rock, Signal Point and the North Suck Creek Suspension Bridge.
"That's the cool part about it. It brings its own atmosphere. There's no big sponsorship banners or anything," says Taft Sibley, a friend of Dodson's who's helping with this year's event.
The race has been the long-term brainchild of Dodson. The 38-year-old Chattanooga native purchased property that backs up to Prentice Cooper State Park in 2010 after a long search for a wilderness retreat to call home.
"I kept noticing this giant swath of green near Chattanooga. I grew up paddling in Suck Creek, and that ultimately brought me here," he says. "I realized if I wanted to keep paddling, I needed to live near the takeout of something good."
On a record-hot October morning roughly a month from this year's race day, the entrance of the 34-acre dirt site was in the midst of a transformation. It will serve as the hub of race day Nov. 16, but there are larger plans.
The namesake Pangorge excavation company, which Dodson started to oversee work on the site, is in the midst of building a pavilion that will anchor vacation rentals on his property. Eventually, he hopes it will be the trailhead for a yet-to-be-started Nickajack Trail.
But first, Dodson will launch the sixth year of the Pangorge race from the property.
"Essentially, I had the vision linking conservation and recreation," he says.
His race traditionally started elsewhere in the community and has taken different forms. It was initially a conventional trail race that followed a set course, but Dodson was more interested in a true adventure race that would take competitors to different points in the gorge to enjoy and experience, even if it meant shrinking the number of contestants from 100 or so racers down to 20 or 30.
The application for the race, available on pangorge.com, in large parts reflects the rebranded event — colorful, off-the-wall and maybe a little strange. There are no questions of ability or goals, just as there are no true right answers to the short, four-question entry. Except, maybe, "Which band is better: AC/DC or Black Sabbath?" Black Sabbath.