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DAY 1: Active day offers river, rocks and riding ยป



"Man overboard!" That was all I could say when Robert, the Capital One employee paddling in front of me, fell out of the raft that held us on the James River. Luckily, we were not alone. Our guide, Sam, made sure Robert was OK, while I worked with Sam and four of Robert's coworkers to get the raft turned around.

The sweating was to be expected. After all, my goal was to explore athletic activities that caused participants to work up a sweat. (No, I don't "glow." I'm from the North, where we occasionally perspire, but usually sweat.)

So I tried river rafting. And rock climbing. I was spared the horseback riding by my editor - who took pity on this couch potato - but I did find out where to go for a trail ride.

Then there were the sports I appreciate the most: Spectator sports, where someone else does the sweating. There are plenty of those in Richmond, too, featuring sports both fast-paced and slow.

No matter what type of sport you're looking for, you'll find it in the Richmond area. The trick is to keep the sweat out of your eyes long enough to see it.

Merrily we roll along

Losing Robert wasn't the only white-knuckle moment of the rafting trip, but at least the rest came during the rapids, where they were expected.

But let's begin at the beginning.

As the James River flows through Richmond, it drops 105 feet, creating the only urban Class IV whitewater rapids in America. Class IV are advanced rapids that require skill to navigate.

For those of us without that skill, there's the Richmond Raft Company, which provides guides, rafts, and gear with which to brave the rapids. (Adventure Challenge, which offers kayaking, tubing, and rafting, is run by the same people as Richmond Raft.)

My day-long Richmond Raft trip started at Pony Pasture, where the flat water made it possible for us to go swimming. But it wasn't long before Sam had us back in the raft and heading downstream.

We mostly floated from Pony Pasture to Belle Island, hitting only a few areas of rock and waves. There was something peaceful, yet invigorating, about floating under bridges and watching the downtown skyline appear on the north bank.

Just before Robert went for his involuntary swim, we hit First Break, our first rapids of the day. We rode the waves, then crashed back into the river, sending water everywhere. Exhilarating! I went from being apprehensive to being eager to do it again.

After a light lunch on Belle Isle, we hit the Class IV rapids. We paddled hard when Sam told us to, as he deftly steered the raft and made sure we got wet.

Fun ended all too soon


I have no idea how many rapids we went through, or how we did it. I just know that they ended all too soon, leaving us to drift from the Manchester Bridge to Rockett's Landing and Richmond Raft's headquarters.

The trip was nowhere near as physically demanding as I thought it would be. I exercise as little as possible, and I still found it easy to keep up with the paddling.

The most awesome part of the experience was being down on the James, looking up at Richmond's skyline. This is something every Richmonder should do at least once, because afterward, the James and the skyline will never look the same again.

Get a grip


Unlike river rafting, rock climbing was as physically demanding as I'd expected it to be.

There I was, clinging to a former railroad bridge support and trying to "climb it like a ladder," while my fellow classmates shouted instructions and words of encouragement.

I fell. Twice.

Thanks to the belay system that I was tied into, the only injuries I sustained came from bouncing off the rock after I was caught by the ropes and harness I was wearing.

I barely made it 10 feet off the ground, but I'd learned my lesson: No more rock climbing until I lost a few pounds and gained a few more muscles.

Even so, I loved my introduction to this sport that requires dexterity and puzzle-solving to make it to the top of a rock face.


Many climbing places

There are several places to go rock climbing in Richmond, including the Manchester Wall, where I took a beginners' class offered by the Henrico County Recreation and Parks Department. (The Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation Department also offers classes there, but they're for people who have climbed before.)

Dan Caston, Henrico's outdoor program coordinator and the instructor for my class, recommends climbing on Belle Isle and on the former railroad support pillars on the north side of the James River, across from the Manchester Wall.

There's also Peak Experiences, the indoor climbing gym in Midlothian (www.peakexperiences.com).

No matter where you go, you'll learn how to stay safe, how to help other people to stay safe, and techniques for actu ally climbing the rock.

It was a bit surreal to be hanging onto the rock face and hearing the music from a concert at Brown's Island, but it made for an excellent outdoors experience. Who knew that rock climbing could be an urban activity?

Giddyup!

The only time I've ever ridden a horse was during a childhood trip to California. I was only 8 years old, but the fun I had that day remains a vivid memory.

With so many stables in the Richmond metro area, I was convinced that there had to be somewhere for children and adults to have a brief experience on horseback.

It took several phone calls, but I finally found Clarke's Barn in Rockville, Goochland County (749-4344).

"We're one of the only places in the state to do trail rides," said manager Jason Ruch. "It's for the average family or couple . . . looking for fun."

While Clarke's Barn offers riding lessons, no experience is necessary to take a trail ride, Ruch said. Guides will teach new riders how to stop and go, and then they hit the trail.

"There has to be somewhere to go to get this experience," Ruch said. "It's amazing how many adults have never thrown a leg over a horse."

Horses are available for every skill level, and the speed and excitement of a ride are based on the experience level of the least experienced rider, Ruch said.

Horses can be rented by the hour, for as many hours as you'd like to ride. But most riders rarely sign up for more than one hour, Ruch said.

"For the average person who doesn't ride much, an hour leaves them able to walk the next morning," he said.

No matter how much pain riders might experience later, they all leave with smiles on their faces, he said.

"Even if they're scared at first, by the end they're laughing and having a good time and want to do it again."

Sit back and relax

Experiencing a horseback ride sounds like fun, but there's just as much fun to be had while watching the experts do it.

Colonial Downs, Virginia's only pari-mutuel horse track, is an easy 30-minute drive from Richmond. A visit to the New Kent County site is an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon that's fun for the whole family.

On the Sunday afternoon that I visited the races, I saw babies, toddlers, pre-teens and teenagers, all equally enthralled by the animal athletes.

Children and adults alike followed the horses from the warm-up ring over to the track where the races took place. Children lined the fence next to the track, clinging to the chain-link and trying to get as close to the horses as possible.

Visitors can pay as much or as little attention to the races as they wish. The people sitting near me in the general admission bleachers seemed to have the most fun when they'd placed bets on the horses.

Bets start at $2


You don't have to spend a fortune to bet, either; the bet minimum is only $2. With the help of the $1.50 program, which explains what the types of bets are and how to place them, it's easy to wager a few bucks on the outcome of a race.

Track visitors can opt to stay indoors and watch the races on TV screens. Races from other tracks in the country are also shown on TV, and people can place bets on those races as well.

But the most excitement was generated by the fans watching the live races. With winners and losers every 20 to 30 minutes, adrenaline is always pumping through the crowd, and there's rarely time to get bored.

Enjoy the atmosphere

Like horse racing, watching the Richmond Braves play baseball at The Diamond is an easy and fun way to spend a few hours.

I admit that I'm not a sports fan, but baseball moves so slowly that my visits to the Diamond have been more social than sports-oriented.

If you're not a baseball fan, either, you should still go to at least one game. Go with a group of people who like baseball, then sit back and listen to them critique the game while you eat a hot dog and enjoy being outside.

For sports fans, Richmond also has a soccer team, the Kickers, and an arena football team, the Speed.

General admission tickets to see both teams are inexpensive, and it might be nice to get away from the television and watch a live game or two. (See teams and prices, Page 88.)

Besides, how can you truly appreciate the athlete's sweat-filled efforts if you're not right there with them?




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