Bringing up baby

“We in WNC have a commodity that’s so valuable; my passion is to let people know about it.”

Mountain Sports Festival co-founder Stuart Cowles

[Editor’s note: Xpress is proud to launch its new sports section, Play by Play, with this article. Look for savvy, in-depth sports reporting once a month.]

How do you nurture a small but successful festival through its toddler years?

First, add a little spice by enticing a few world-class athletes to compete in key events. (This year’s Biltmore 15K will pit star runners from Kenya against local hero Chad Newton, an up-and-coming athlete who lives in Brevard.)

Second, design events and activities so that ordinary folks of all ages can come out and join the fun (in other words, don’t have the adventure racers slog across the mountains for a week and then expect them to finish with a death-defying attempt to scale the BB&T Building). And while you’re at it, be sure to include new and quirky sports like disc golf — where you might catch sight of a 72-year-old local named Tim Williams, who’s built like a linebacker and just happens to be the world champ in his age division.

Third, tie everything together with a winner’s bow that draws in local businesses and nonprofits (like, for example, by enticing the Tortoise and Hare runners’ shop, a new Asheville-based business, to sponsor a 5K run/walk to raise money for Our Voice, a local nonprofit).

And that, in a unique Asheville nutshell, is the second annual Mountain Sports Festival, which runs May 31-June 2.

The event, says co-founder Stuart Cowles, “is all about inclusion.” Many national sports festivals, such as ESPN’s X-Treme Games, are invitation-only contests aimed at elite athletes, he notes: “They’re not open to the average Jane or John Doe — or to kids. … But it’s the average person just getting into the sports that is driving this festival.”

Accordingly, the MSF offers face painting (and more) for the little ones; competitions (such as the RiverLink Triathlon) that are suitable for young and old, beginner and expert, pro and amateur; local vendors (including acclaimed downtown eatery The Market Place); clinics (such as the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Leave No Trace series); local bands like Strut and Laura Blackley; and a host of other activities, says Cowles. In fact, he insists, you don’t need to be an athlete at all to enjoy this festival — just a “core believer in our community.”

A mini-adventure

For starters, consider this year’s new adventure race. It can be a grueling sport — international events like the Raid Gauloise and the Eco Challenge last for days, sending teams over the Alps or through the jungles of Borneo; rappelling down waterfalls; biking hair-raising mountain trails in the middle of the night; navigating unknown terrain on three hours’ sleep; and confronting sprained ankles, hypothermia, flat tires and other crises.

But the Mountain Sports Festival has cooked up a 12-hour version that event organizer Norm Greenberg says is tailored to mere mortals. “We’ve set a course that’s challenging for adventure-race veterans but also suitable for newcomers,” reports Greenberg, who ought to know (the seasoned racer and his wife, Tracyn Thayer, were part of a team that placed ninth in the Discovery Channel World Championship Adventure Race in Switzerland last year — despite hauling heavy cameras along to capture the action).

The Mountain Sports Festival’s adventure race embodies the MSF spirit, with three-person, co-ed teams hiking (“or running, depending on how fast you want to move”), mountain biking and rafting, says Greenberg.

Don’t ask him to divulge the course, however — in adventure racing, no contestant knows the route until they hit the starting line. He will concede that rappelling down the BB&T Building is not in the cards, but he emphasizes that unknown obstacles and challenges are part of the sport. A key element of adventure racing is navigating with map and compass; another is that every contestant must complete all phases of the race, and team members must stick together, Greenberg explains. The local event is a good fit with the Mountain Sports Festival — which, in turn, is a perfect fit with Asheville, he maintains.

“There’s a lot of active people in the area, and the location is suitable for a number of sports — mountain biking, climbing, hiking, trail running, rafting, kayaking. … National forests, parks, trails, lakes, rivers are all accessible” from Asheville, which he calls the “intersection” of outdoor resources and outdoor sports in Western North Carolina.

“The lifestyle here is also a draw,” observes adventure racer/triathlete Jay Curwen. “Asheville has a growing base of people who are outdoor- and environment-oriented. … The community is very open to an event like the Mountain Sports Festival.”

Curwen, the repeat winner of the RiverLink Triathlon, is a kind of walking advertisement for the festival: A self-described “average” athlete who ran track at the Christ School and UNCA, he found his niche in triathlons and adventure racing. Both sports draw on a variety of skills and are well suited to WNC’s mountainous terrain, he points out.

An athlete who’s respectable but not necessarily a star in one area, says Curwen, may be better suited to multisport events such as triathlons. He himself spent five years as a professional triathlete, peforming respectably in such international events as the Ironman in Hawaii. But Curwen’s talents eventually led him to adventure racing, where he’s also made a name for himself (his team won last year’s grueling Nantahala Outdoor Center event).

Having seen his share of sports events — good and bad, challenging and easy — Curwen notes that Asheville’s Mountain Sports Festival, one of the few multisport events in the U.S., “brings together a lot of different sports and builds broad interests,” he remarks.

The business of play

Like Cowles, Curwen also emphasizes the business angle: “Tourism is strong in Asheville, and that’s a draw for national sponsors.”

The Ford Gorge Games — a multisport festival in Oregon — eventually landed television coverage and a big national sponsor (Ford Motor Company) after organizers had nurtured it for a number of years. The event now draws about 40,000 spectators and participants.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Mountain Sports Festival — whose inaugural edition drew about 5,000 people — has already attracted interest from international companies like The North Face and national magazines like Sports Illustrated for Women. And while the MSF may one day rival the Gorge Games in size, right now it’s still very much a local festival, stresses Cowles. As such, it already brings a variety of benefits to local restaurants, outfitters and other small businesses; nonprofits such as RiverLink; and the community as a whole, he argues.

According to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, even the event’s current, more modest draw generates an estimated $500,000 in economic benefits — sales-tax revenues, hotel stays, meals and more. And if the festival grows as expected, its economic impact could eventually reach $3 million, says Kelly Miller, vice president of the Chamber’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The Tourism Development Authority recognized several years ago that mountain sports and activities are part of Asheville’s trademark,” he reports. Mountain sports and activities, Miller explains, are part of what draws people to the area … and entices them to spend their money here.

What’s more, asserts Cowles, actively enjoying the region’s stellar natural resources gives visitors and locals alike more incentive to protect them. “We in WNC have a commodity that’s so valuable; my passion is to let people know about it,” he proclaims. Besides natural attractions like Looking Glass Rock (a local climbers’ and hikers’ haven), the Asheville area boasts unique, high-quality restaurants and other small businesses, plus a host of very active local nonprofits. Cowles sees the festival as a way to bring all those elements together for mutual benefit.

Climbing-events coordinator Jessica Tomasin agrees, noting that the MSF is positioned both to draw outsiders to the area and to jog locals’ memories about the remarkable variety of activities available so close to home (such as running, hiking, biking and climbing in Pisgah National Forest and paddling the Nantahala, French Broad and Ocoee rivers). In addition, the festival provides opportunities to learn about other sports, check out the latest gear, and meet the elite (like that team of world-class Kenyans), says Tomasin.

It can also serve as a steppingstone to greater glory — two young climbers who competed at last year’s MSF, for example, went on to do well in national and international competition.

“If you’re thinking about getting into a new sport, come down and check it out,” urges Tomasin, adding, “There’s something for everyone.”

Growing the vision

Ultra-runner Ann Riddle is equally pumped up about the MSF. “It’s real exciting to see something like this come to Asheville and to be a part of it at the grassroots level in the beginning,” she says, predicting, “We’re just beginning to see the potential for what this festival can be.”

Riddle, a national champion in “ultra” long-distance running (try 100 kilometers, you marathoners), won last year’s grueling MSF trail-run competition. This year, she’s jumped to another level of involvement: volunteering her time to coordinate the festival’s running events.

Like Cowles, Riddle emphasizes the increased number of offerings compared to last year (including more youth activities), as well as the festival’s role in showcasing Asheville. There wasn’t much happening around the festival’s downtown headquarters last year, she concedes. This year, however, City/County Plaza will be a hub of activity, with a children’s area (sponsored by Ingles), local food vendors, local bands, equipment vendors demonstrating their wares, and hands-on activities such as the kayak roll and the tower climb. To add to the excitement, a number of races will finish there, she notes.

Riddle also reiterates that most of the festival’s competitions are suitable for all levels of athletes: “We want to attract national-caliber athletes, because that adds to the excitement. But we want to attract beginners, too. [The festival] gives you the opportunity to branch out and try a sport you wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

Among the many offered are mountain biking, road racing, climbing (both indoors and out), paddling, running and disc golf, she mentions. And being smaller, muses Riddle, may render the MSF a little less intimidating than its elder sister, Bele Chere (the city’s biggest festival). As for Asheville, she believes it has the potential to be even more of a recreation destination. (Riddle should know — she used to live in another of the country’s premier outdoor-sports meccas, Boulder, Colo.)

That’s the vision, many participants agree. But nurturing a young festival into a nationally prominent event is a challenge, admits Curwen. Since last year, the budget has doubled (to about $100,000). Funding comes from a combination of corporate sponsorships, individual donations and event revenues, Cowles explains. Besides money, however, the expanded festival also needs more volunteers — at least 100 this year, he reports, adding, “It’s the community that makes the event.”

But it’s not just about giving, either: Another new event at this year’s festival offers community members a chance to grab the gold ring. Winners of each MSF event will earn points in a “Best of the Fest” contest, says Cowles. And that kind of all-around competition favors local competitors who can do well in several events — not stars like the Kenyans, who are specialists. So lace up your trail shoes, pump up your bike’s tires, and dust off your paddles: The winner could be you.

For more information about the MSF, visit the Web site ( or check out the official guide, coming in the May 29 Xpress.

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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