Gateway to adventure

“There were people running slower than me, and that’s always good!”

— Asheville Mayor Charles Worley

The little girl was silent as she was lowered into the kayak. As the boat sloshed around in the tank, her eyes looked as big as Bambi’s in that classic Disney cartoon. A man stood in the tank with her, holding the boat and gently touching her arm. “Are you ready?” he asked.

Not a word escaped, just the barest of nods.

“Take a deep breath,” he said.

And he pushed the boat into a roll that took her under.

Then boat and girl popped up, water streaming down her face as she blinked, breathed and — slowly, ever so slowly — smiled.

That’s one scene I remember from last year’s Mountain Sports Festival — a tankful of water at City/County Plaza surrounded by food vendors, a music stage, tents for competitors in various events, and a father creeping up the side of an inflatable climbing tower while his son clambered to the top like Spiderman.

This year’s festival (scheduled for June 6-8 in Asheville and environs) promises another hefty helping of family-friendly fun, alongside the tougher stuff — like the test-your-mettle adventure race or the 16-mile, “muscle-powered” boat race down the French Broad River.

“A lot of folks are getting ‘into’ the outdoors, and where do you start?” asks festival organizer Stuart Cowles. With an event like the MSF, he says, answering his own question. Now in its third year, the festival offers ordinary folks with a hankering for outdoor adventure a chance to safely sample something new (or, in the case of weekend athletes, a chance to compete in their first-ever triathlon, 5K run, climbing event or mountain-bike race). There’s also stuff that’s simply fun, like the Trail Hound Trail Trot — a dog-friendly trail run benefiting a pets-for-the-elderly program, notes Cowles.

It’s not all sweat and strain, however. There’ll also be a variety of bands (Cowles himself likes R&B, but visitors can get an earful of everything from salsa to rock), plus a “green village” featuring booths and activities sponsored by environmental and other organizations “that protect our back yard and embrace our local resources,” Cowles explains.

The Mountain Sports Festival, he emphasizes, is aimed more at regular folks than at “extreme sports” aficionados. At the same time, however, there’s enough push-the-envelope action to give spectators ample entertainment — such as watching the cyclists in the free-ride competition jump, flip, dodge, bump and otherwise defy gravity.

Even Cowles — an avid rock climber for whom stark, stony heights evoke little fear — says he steers clear of the free-ride stuff. “I value my teeth!” he exclaims, recalling scenes of back-flipping bicyclists in front of City Hall last year.

But that firsthand physics lesson is precisely what drew Biowheels owner Matt Johnson out from under his event-sponsor hat and onto his bike seat for the free-ride competition. A self-described “BMX kid” in his younger days, the 33-year-old father and husband says that free riding “is a style of riding that’s not bound by any particular piece of equipment or style. Just get through [the obstacles and jumps] with style, if you can.” He swears that anyone with a good dose of off-road mountain-biking experience under his or her belt can “probably jump in” to free riding.

This year’s competition, notes Johnson, will be more accessible for beginners, who might enjoy the early stages of the event even if they’re not quite ready for all that back-flipping stuff. And in any case, the free ride will definitely be spectator-friendly.

“In the usual cycling events, riders go by — whish! — and they’re gone. In mountain-biking races, they go off into the woods and come out about 45 minutes later. But with the free ride, you’re downtown, watching all the action,” says Johnson.

The crowd support really inspired last year’s riders, he recalls, and with the event moved to a higher-profile Saturday slot, Johnson says he hopes for even more of an audience this year.

“So many people are starting to realize that these supposedly extreme sports are so accessible to them,” he observes, speaking about both the free-ride competition and the festival as a whole. Johnson’s been an avid cyclist for as long as he can recall — riding BMX bikes as a kid, spinning his wheels on speedy road bikes, and jumping logs on mountain-bike outings — but he’d never tried free riding. It’s a young sport, spawned from the rebellious, baggy-pants, sidewalk-riding, curb-jumping antics of kids on skateboards and bikes, Johnson explains.

“For so many, traditional sports like football, baseball and soocer have no appeal. But cycling is a nice blend of expression, individuality and technology.” Johnson fondly remembers the sense of freedom he felt as a kid, dashing off on his BMX bike to ride solo around town or hang with his friends. “The world is your tableau. Once you’re into defying gravity, you’re learning physics firsthand,” notes Johnson.

On the ropes

Shane Masterson defies gravity a different way. “There were about eight of us,” he says, recalling his first climbing event at last year’s Mountain Sports Festival. “We didn’t have a competitive attitude, just hung out and cheered each other on and had fun. We were competing against ourselves, trying to accomplish something,” says Masterson, who runs a local siding-and-decking company.

Besides giving him his first taste of climbing competition, the festival was definitely a family affair: His wife, 2-year-old and infant tagged along, making for a pleasant day that also included kid stuff and dining downtown. “The festival gives you a chance to see different things,” says Masterson, citing the demos by local experts and the chance to try out the latest equipment.

Climbing is his passion, though: The Vermont native earned his climbing shoes, so to speak, while serving in the National Guard, but he didn’t get to climb much till he moved here. (A visit to see his sister compete in a barrel race at the WNC Ag Center was enough to persuade his family to “sell the horse and move down here,” says Masterson, noting that the gentler winters might have had something to do with it, too — living with 4 feet of snow and temps that don’t top a dead freeze for months on end just gets old, he notes in an aside.)

And WNC’s abundant climbing opportunities — both indoors and out — enable Masterson to make the sport a family affair. “I have a saint of a wife who lets me go to [a local climbing gym] once a week,” he says; his toddler son, Jacob, climbs, too, his dad reports. The boy gets about 5 feet up the climbing wall before he starts calling for help, only to let go and swing free in his harness the moment a girl gets close enough to rescue him. “I think he likes to climb because he gets to flirt with the girls,” confesses Masterson, who expects Jacob and the rest of the family to tag along with him again to this year’s festival. “I was really impressed with the variety of sports and activities downtown,” he says. “Some people would classify [a few of the events] as extreme, but there’s different levels to it all.” The MSF, concludes Masterson, “is for anybody who wants to get out and try it.”

A chance to stretch yourself

That includes Asheville Mayor Charles Worley. A bit of a weekend athlete himself, he ran in last year’s 5K downtown, joking, “There were people running slower than me, and that’s always good!” Then, getting serious, Worley stresses the festival’s role in showcasing local businesses and organizations, while introducing the many outdoor activities the city and region have to offer: hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking and more.

One local group, for instance, blends the best of the outdoors with a dose of civic duty. Their Friday event consists of trekking off into the woods to help clear and maintain trails. “Most of us use the trails and don’t know what goes into maintaining them,” notes organizer Piet Bodenhorst. He’s part of a group of mostly retirees who go out faithfully twice a week, just about year-round. “I’ve hiked trails for 45 years, and this is my way of giving back,” explains Bodenhorst.

The trail-maintenance event — a first for the festival — is open to folks of just about all abilities, though Bodenhorst cautions that you should be prepared to be out with the group almost all day. Still, he concedes, “There’s no quota as to what you’re willing or able to do.”

If running seems more your speed — or even a leisurely downtown stroll — Randy Ashely (who owns Tortoise & Hare Running Outfitters) suggests trying the downtown 5K run/walk. The beginner-friendly event, he says, “avoids most of the tough hills downtown, and there’s a lot less chance of getting lost or having to climb a mountain,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the MSF adventure race. Ashely’s own adventure came in last year’s trail run, which avoided the worst of the straight-up-the-mountain stuff but sent runners on multiple river crossings by way of compensation. He recalls at least a dozen soggy transits, including a particularly memorable one where he stepped off the trail and found himself thigh-deep in river.

That’s a bit extreme, admits Ashely — though certainly no more so than the extravagant acrobatics of the free riders (“Those guys were crazy!” Ashely exclaims, although he agrees it was a great event to watch, calling it a highlight of the festival). By contrast, last year’s 5K drew participants who ranged in age from 8 to around 70, he recalls.

Organizer A.J. Nidek, meanwhile, offers up the Town Mountain Hill Climb (“It’s not really all straight up”), mountain-biking events at the Alexander Mountain Bike Facility (the former Buncombe County landfill), and the Trail Hound Trail Trot. “It’s about having a good time and helping people,” Nidek says about the latter event.

But that same sentiment might apply to the Mountain Sports Festival as a whole. Speaking about so-called extreme sports, which have a place at the festival but aren’t what it’s all about, Johnson reflects: “Unfortunately, marketers jumped on that label and mountain biking and snowboarding [and many other sports] got lumped into it. The perception that you were born as a mountain biker or a kayaker or a triathlete is [an illusion]. We have customers in their 40s, 50s and on who are getting into these sports. You may feel silly [at first], but you’ll get better and learn more and have fun, and the festival is a good place for that,” he concludes.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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