Playing in the mountains

Characterizing the RBC Centura Mountain Sports Festival is a lot like trying to describe Asheville itself. A response I recently overheard began with, “Got a minute, ma’am?”

Since the festival’s inception in 2001, it’s been part celebration, part recreation, with a little bit of recognition tucked inside a whole lot of participation. Factor in a healthy emphasis on play and a lineup of vibrant local music, and you begin to get a sense of what the MSF is all about.

Although the still-evolving event has seen its share of growing pains, it has also garnered some national attention along the way, including mention in such national publications as Outside magazine and Hooked on the Outdoors.

And year by year, the “little festival that could” is carving out a niche for itself in Asheville’s busy calendar.

Changing of the guard

The Mountain Sports Festival, organizers say, mirrors WNC residents’ active lifestyle. “It’s a celebration of where we live and the recreational resources we share,” maintains Athletic Director Jeff Joyce of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “And for Asheville,” he adds with a chuckle, “music certainly draws folks to the festivals.” Fellow Parks & Rec staffer Katy Palombi is also helping coordinate this year’s event, with support from the MSF board of directors.

For the past three years, the festival has been managed by a local volunteer board and Executive Director Stuart Cowles. But after last year’s event, veteran board member (and former City Council member) Chuck Cloninger approached the city about taking on the festival. In the course of several months’ worth of negotiations, the city saw the potential and agreed to take charge, Joyce explains. So the baton was passed from Cowles and crew, who had passionately nurtured the fledgling event, to a city staff that knows a thing or two about producing festivals.

“It’s a good fit for us and the city,” Joyce observes. “We wanted the festival to continue its focus on community … [and] remain in the hands of volunteers.” Board member Gerald Green agrees. “We’re building a foundation this year, pulling together with organizers and volunteers,” he notes, adding, “But we couldn’t manage the festival without the efforts of city staff.”

Green, an avid runner who’s competed in previous editions of the MSF, is events coordinator for the 2004 festival.

And thanks to financial support and a three-year commitment from RBC Centura, Joyce says he anticipates a long-term partnership in producing this unusual event.

Old friends, new faces

This year’s edition happens May 7-9 — a month earlier than last year. The date change, say organizers, created some initial scheduling conflicts, but they’ve now been ironed out. As in past years, the ’04 MSF will serve up a generous array of mountain-based competitions while highlighting activities designed to bring out the kid in all of us, including several youth-oriented events.

The Family Duathlon replaces the RiverLink Triathlon, which is sticking with its traditional June time slot. (“June is National Rivers Month,” explains RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin, “and we’ve been doing the triathlon then for eight years.”)

Other child-friendly events include a bike rodeo and an Iron Kid Competition featuring a lengthy list of multisport challenges.

Besides festival-management expertise, the alliance with Asheville Parks & Recreation brings the MSF a talented staff and invaluable resources.

Montford Community Park will host this year’s climbing events, including a kids’ climbing carnival and a bouldering camp for climbers ages 13 and up. And the Family Duathlon — consisting of a run, a bike segment and another run — comes in three age-specific parent/child versions, all of them happening at French Broad River Park, Phase IV.

Also new this year is the Food Lion SkatePark Mayhem, a competition for skateboarders at all levels.

And of course, notes Polombi, “There’ll be plenty of ongoing exhibitions and demos throughout the weekend at the festival headquarters” at City/County Plaza.

Such festival favorites as the Town Mountain Hill Climb and the multisport adventure race will once again challenge competitors while entertaining spectators. The Trace Ridge Trail Run, however, isn’t happening this year.

A river runs through it

Snaking its way through WNC, the French Broad River provides a homegrown venue for one of the area’s favorite pastimes: paddling.

And like the many tributaries that feed the river, a public/private/nonprofit partnership has come together to support this year’s classic paddling competition. Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Services, Quality Forward, Southern Waterways and the WNC Paddlers Club have teamed up to sponsor the eight-mile canoe/kayak race, which offers awards in three categories: solo, tandem and family.

The race begins at Bent Creek and finishes at the Southern Waterways takeout along Amboy Road. About six miles into the race, participants can enjoy a stunning view of Biltmore House, the nation’s largest private residence, as they paddle a tranquil stretch of flat water.

The French Broad River, explains Executive Director Susan Roderick of Quality Forward, “is the basis of our culture. … Being on the river gets people directly … into their natural surroundings.” Most folks, she notes, are surprised by how scenic the urban river corridor is, including lovely mountain views.

From river runs to city sidewalks, the Mountain Sports Festival offers something for everyone, from competition to contemplation. “The festival,” notes Jeff Joyce, “places our natural resources on-stage.” Make that center stage.

MSF wants you

Whether you’re ready to toe the starting line or work the finish line, the RBC Centura Mountain Sports Festival has a little something for competitors and volunteers alike. T-shirts, food and beverages are among the perks for hard-working helpers. To find out more about festival events and volunteer opportunities, call Debbie Ivester at 254-5804 (e-mail: divester@ashevillenc.gov), or visit the Web site (mountainsportsfestival.com).

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