Celebrating the great green outdoors

Bigger and better: That's the promise for this year's Mountain Sports Festival from director Christen McNamara. That means more sports events and a ramped-up entertainment slate, all wrapped up in a brand-new green package.

Get set, get ready, go! The Mountain Sports Festival offers fun and competition for athletes of all ages. Photo courtesy city of Asheville

Pomp and circumstance seem only fitting. After all, this month marks the MSF's 10th anniversary. The action-packed festival offers opportunities to learn about and participate in a wide variety of mountain sports, from climbing and mountain biking to running, kayaking and more. There's even a dodge-ball game sporting the tag line "It's not elementary anymore." In addition to the sporting events, demonstrations and clinics, visitors can buy gear from vendors, move their feet to local and national music acts, and enjoy locally produced food and brews (see box).

From spark to spectacle

In 2001, recognizing locals' passion for outdoor sports, a small group of folks got together to produce the initial celebration. By 2004, they'd formed a nonprofit that partnered with the city to produce the annual event. Two years later, the MSF outgrew its downtown location and moved to Carrier Park along the banks of the French Broad River in West Asheville.

The city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department hired McNamara as events coordinator in 2006, and she took over as festival director the following year. During her tenure, attendance has doubled. The 2006 edition drew around 8,000 visitors, she estimates, compared with the 15,000 to 20,000 who turned out last year some of them arriving from outside the Southeast.

With its emphasis on local parks and spending time outdoors, the festival has been a good fit with Parks & Rec. But McNamara also gives the nod to a cadre of hard-working volunteers who've helped make the event a success.

The MSF has always heavily relied on its all-volunteer board. This year's board chair, Jay Curwen, began volunteering in 2006 while working at Black Dome Mountain Sports. The company still sponsors the popular Rock/2/Rock Trail Run he founded that year. "I felt a need to be involved in the festival," Curwen explains. "I had competed in MSF events for years, and it seemed like a great platform for business as well as a cool event to promote the outdoor lifestyle."

He was not alone. The now-20-member board has seen the same kind of growth as the festival it oversees, and it's poised to make this year's event, in McNamara's words, "even more of a celebration for our athletes and visitors."

Old friends, new features

To mark this year's milestone, increased emphasis has been placed on entertainment. Scheduled acts include the buzzed-about local band Soulgrass Rebellion and the Brooklyn-based Pimps of Joytime, who recently collaborated with legendary artists Cyril and Art Neville of The Neville Brothers.

Meanwhile, the Festival Village has acquired new importance as the central location for performances, vendors and demos. Organizers, notes Curwen, have scheduled more events to begin and end there, including the new French Broad Challenge Triathlon. "It's close to the same course as the old RiverLink Triathlon," he says, "but with an addition of a final 5K run along the greenway trails that finishes on the track in the Festival Village."

They've also added an urban mountain-bike challenge that will take riders from the Festival Village to Richmond Hill and back, as well as Friday and Saturday night hikes for kids led by the Diamond Brand Outdoors team. Youngsters armed with glow sticks can explore nearby trails while their parents sit back and enjoy the evening entertainment.

But if you've enjoyed participating in the same MSF events for years, never fear: Staples such as the Rock2Rock 10K, Sunset Stampede, track bike races and Iron Kids Competitions are still on the schedule. And the Wheel Ride for Food cycling event, now in its third year, will once again raise money for Asheville's Meals On Wheels program. The past two rides brought in more than $30,000 to help feed local folks in need.

Going green

Beyond all that frenzied activity, however, this year's MSF will also reflect a fundamental philosophical shift. Organizers have joined forces with Deltec Homes, a local green builder, to give the festival an eco-makeover. Deltec, which manufactures prefabricated homes using renewable energy, "has given us lots of ideas," says McNamara. "They're helping to support us so that we can afford to be responsible and make good decisions about going green."

No printed festival guides will be distributed: Instead, all pertinent information has been posted on the Web site. (But if you're reading this article, you already have that info at your fingertips via Mountain Xpress.) In another key nod to sustainability, the festival's entertainment stage and food/beverage vendors will be powered by a generator running on locally produced biodiesel from Blue Ridge Biofuels. Beer vendors, meanwhile, will serve up their brews in compostable cups.

It doesn't all begin and end within the festival grounds, either. To encourage attendees to cycle to the event, Asheville on Bikes will provide free corrals for safe storage, and folks who pedal to Carrier Park can enter to win a Kelty tent and other great prizes.

An uncertain future

Despite all the progress, however, Curwen calls this year "a precarious time for the MSF."

That's because the city is planning to hand over the reins, in keeping with a three-year "stepdown" agreement inked in 2008, and the transition will begin as soon as the vendors pack up and the attendees head home on Sunday. But the city may not be out of the picture completely, notes McNamara; and looking ahead to 2011, the festival has already applied for the same sort of in-kind support Asheville provides to other special events.

Grateful for the city's past support, Curwen is concerned about the MSF's future. "As a free-to-the-public festival, our opportunities for revenue streams are limited, and we rely very heavily on sponsorship for the money to produce the festival infrastructure," he explains. "While the economy is improving, sponsorship dollars are very challenging to secure at all levels"  particularly the in-kind services the city has provided.

To keep the momentum going, Curwen is hoping for more involvement by the outdoors community in Asheville and Western North Carolina. "[We're] very rich in outdoor- and tourism-oriented businesses," he emphasizes. "I would welcome the opportunity to work with any and all of them to produce a coalition of local businesses that can draw on their resource pool and bring even more regional and national sponsors to the festival."

In the meantime, however, McNamara emphasizes that the event isn't limited to competitive runners, hikers, climbers and cyclists. She's encouraging everyone to come out, if only to relax and enjoy the park and the music. "The festival vibe," she notes, "is just fun!"

For a complete schedule of the weekend's events and entertainment, check the accompanying grid or visit the Web site at www.mountainsportsfestival.com.

Freelance writer and editor Maggie Cramer lives in Asheville.

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One thought on “Celebrating the great green outdoors

  1. Jeff Fobes

    Behind most start-ups, there’s a visionary who obsessively champions what he or she is driven to do. In the case of MSF, that person is Stuart Cowles, who didn’t get a hat tip in this article.

    In the 10 years of producing an annual event like MSF, amidst all the effort and the shouting, the early years of chaos and caring have a way of slipping out of focus.

    So, here’s a reminder: Thanks, Stuart; I doubt there’d be an MSF today if it weren’t for you.

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