Third time’s a charm

“Without a doubt, Asheville is the most incredible place I’ve ever lived,” exclaims Suzanne Bolding. For the past seven years, the upstate South Carolina native has called the Land of the Sky home.

Bolding is just one of a supporting cast of dedicated volunteers who’ll be scrambling around answering questions, assisting with race management, passing out cold beer and cleaning up the grounds at this year’s Mountain Sports Festival.

The free event, now in its third year, celebrates this area’s active mountain-sport culture and the adventurers who come here to test their limits — as well as the big, beautiful back yard we all love to play in.

For seasoned cyclist Dave Plunkett, the region’s abundant rivers, trails, mountains, forests and rolling rural roads represent an “incredible resource that has so much potential.” Plunkett, an 11-time Assault on Mount Mitchell veteran, encourages everyone “to get out and enjoy it!”

Although he hasn’t competed in any MSF events, Plunkett does come out to support the competitors, watch the races and groove to the music. Like most of Asheville’s popular public celebrations, the Mountain Sports Festival showcases some of WNC’s finest musicians and bands. Last month, one of the region’s most prominent local groups, Sons of Ralph, performed during the annual MSF fund-raiser hosted by their favorite place to play, Jack of the Wood. At one point in the evening, multi-instrumentalist Don Lewis shouted to the gyrating crowd, “Come out and support the Mountain Sports Festival — it’s a whole lot of fun!”

Bolding, a three-time volunteer for the outdoor-recreation festival, agrees (as do the 13,000 guests who joined the party last year). In 2001, despite juggling volunteer duties, she also managed to compete in the RiverLink Triathlon. She plans to repeat that strategy this year.

The calm before the storm

Just before the organizational chaos peaked for this year’s event, Xpress joined MSF Executive Director Stuart Cowles for a spring-training run.

“Part of our mission is to showcase the natural resources of the region, as well as the individuals, communities and organizations that support and make use of those resources,” Cowles explained while rambling along the UNCA campus trails.

“We’re still trying to get the word out about the festival having a little something for everyone, regardless of their skill or activity level,” he continues.

A quick rundown of MSF’s three-day schedule confirms it: The festival is chock full of high-energy, spectator-friendly mountain sports, from pro- and amateur-level competitions in paddling to adventure racing, cycling, running and climbing, plus a triathlon and many other events.

Two new community-awareness features have been introduced this year, to be set up at the festival center: the CarePartners Health Services Village and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition Community Action Village.

Festival-goers can take advantage of free health-and-fitness screenings at the CarePartners Health Services Village. At the SAFC Community Action Village, assorted local nonprofits will also be on hand to provide info on a variety of topics, including regional air- and water-quality issues. Other hands-on activities at the festival center include a climbing tower and Nantahala Outdoor Center’s popular kayak-roll tank, plus hiking and canoe clinics.

MSF ’03 kicks off on Friday morning with the Carolina Mountain Club’s Trail Maintenance Day at Balsam Gap. Later in the afternoon, the first competition heats up with two human-performance tests against gravity — the Trace Ridge Time Trail Race and the Town Mountain Cycling Hill Climb. In between the two events, the music gets cranking at the festival center just before the outrageous bike-stunt demonstration begins downtown.

By the time the sun crests the Great Craggies on Saturday morning, the three-mile Trail Hound Trail Trot will have started at the Alexander Mountain Bike Facility and a busload of paddlers will be shuttled to north Henderson County to begin their 16-mile French Broad Paddle Challenge.

The WNC Disc Golf Tournament also happens Saturday morning on the challenging, wooded course at Asheville’s Richmond Hill Park. Farther west, in what some folks call the outdoor-adventure capital of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Nantahala Outdoor Center and Subaru will be sponsoring the Fontana Flatwater Dash.

Closer to home, canoe-and-kayak-manufacturing reps will be giving folks a chance to paddle a wide range of boats at Lake Julian Park, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Spectator- and family-friendly

Saturday features some of the most spectator-friendly events of the entire festival. There’s both morning-and-afternoon mountain-bike time trials, a downtown climbing competition, the Urban Sprawl Free-Ride mountain-bike competition, and the evening’s finale — The Tortoise & Hare 5K Run, which starts and finishes directly across from the festival center in City/County Plaza (watch for Mayor Charles Worley to cross the finish line around 6:23 p.m.).

The festival center hosts food, drinks (including locally brewed beverages), awards presentations, demonstrations, retail vendors, a community-resource area, the MSF info booth and live entertainment.

Sunday’s RiverLink Triathlon will provide a “great conclusion” to the weekend’s festivities, Bolding notes. The multi-sport event includes a four-mile run, a five-mile paddle and a 12-mile bike leg. Organizers designed it for fun, and to showcase community efforts to revitalize the French Broad River.

The climbing and disc-golf competitions will also continue on Sunday, and a workshop on bouldering will be offered Sunday morning at the festival center. Bring the family out later on, as ClimbMax offers an entry-level bouldering treat.

Last year’s competition officially ended as the last team from the 12-Hour Adventure Race crawled up the river’s muddy banks and scampered across the festival-center finish line. Only race organizers and a handful of course volunteers know where this year’s orienteering/multi-sport challenge will be staged. The finish line, however, will once again be at City/County Plaza.

Festival organizers are expecting to attract some 20,000 to 25,000 people during the weekend.

“The festival is a good fit with Asheville and the community that adventures here — both the locals and the guests from out of town,” reflects MSF board member James Nichols.

And whether you’re competing or eating, volunteering or cheering, a weekend of fun and adventure awaits you.

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