Talk to past Mountain Sports Festival participants, and they stress one word: fun.
Many also point to the event’s evolution since its first run in 2001. Early editions featured teams of adventure racers converging on the lawn at City/County Plaza, map in hand, planning the best way to navigate mountains, rivers and roads during rigorous cross-country hikes, frantic cycling and frenzied kayaking. Those who weren’t into such extreme sports could practice rolling a kayak in a big portable pool, climb a wall in the shadow of Asheville City Hall, or watch a variety of demonstrations.
The adventure racing is no more, and the festival moved to Carrier Park on Amboy Road several years ago. But the heart of the event beats strong.
In part, that’s due to the other F-word behind most festival components: free. “We’ve expanded the clinics and demonstrations this year,” says organizer Jeff Makey, who owns River Right Instruction. Demos and clinics will get their own space at the Festival Village (aka Carrier Park), he mentions. Sessions will cover everything from knot tying for white-water sports to bicycle maintenance to backpacking equipment and skills. Among the more esoteric offerings are nonwinch recovery systems for off-road adventures and even a Hula-Hoop clinic.
“One of the keys to the festival mission is increasing awareness and participation in mountain sports. The festival is a chance to talk to the pros, check out equipment and learn something,” Makey explains.
Chris Thompson of the Asheville Ultimate Club agrees, saying, “The overall function of the festival is to get people outdoors [and] more active.” Ultimate fits the bill: Once called “ultimate Frisbee,” the sport combines elements of soccer and basketball, he explains. Along with its sister sport, disc golf, ultimate has a strong presence at the festival, which will feature a host of games and clinics in both sports. Thompson also emphasizes the Ultimate Club’s focus on kids: “We have an overall goal of getting more youth playing ultimate. Teach them to throw, then they want to play catch, then they want a team. They progress up to college and adult leagues in a sport that’s less competitive than others and emphasizes sportsmanship,” he says.
Spectators at Festival Village may be surprised to see no referees in an ultimate game: Players, he says, settle their own disputes.
Besides sportsmanship, the MSF also serves up a dash of altruism: A cycling event—- Wheel Ride for Food—benefits local nonprofit Meals on Wheels.
Variety is another festival hallmark, with adult competitions, a kids’ triathlon, a scavenger hunt, disc golf, ultimate contests between local school teams, music by local and national bands and a spectator-friendly location, says former MSF board member Sammy Cox. “Carrier Park gives the festival a more centralized location than in years past. It’s on the river, with plenty of room for a variety of events, interesting vendors whose equipment you can test, demonstrations and clinics, good music, kid activities—there’s always something going on,” notes Cox, who has a unique perspective on the event, having been involved as a competitor, a volunteer and an Xpress reporter in past years.
Moving the date back till later in May, he observes, avoids a conflict with the French Broad River Festival in Hot Springs while helping dodge some of the problematic weather that can crop up in a typical mountain May.
That said, Cox is a runner, and one of his favorite festival events is the Sunset Stampede, which features both an easygoing 5K and a tough 10-miler. “It’s a classic Asheville-area race, in that it showcases Sunset Mountain,” says Cox. “The majority of the course, you’re going up, up and up. Those of us who live and train here know that it’s challenging,” he adds. (A world-class Kenyan who ran it one year simply kept repeating one word to describe the course for the 10-miler, which starts next to Martin Luther King Park, then heads steadily up the mountain, looping north through the Grove Park neighborhood and back: “Steep!”) Cox, who’s run the Boston Marathon and aims to tackle the Western States 100 (an ultramarathon), simply repeats, “It’s a classic mountain race.”
Ditto for the Rock2Rock 10K in Black Mountain, he points out.
By their very nature, some events must be staged away from Festival Village: disc golf at Richmond Hill Park, a kayak relay race a bit upriver at the Asheville Outdoor Center, a bicycle demo at Alexander Mountain Bike Park, a “skins” disc-golf game (a kind of hole-by-hole challenge) and climbing competitions in downtown Asheville, the Sunset Stampede (which starts at MLK Park), and more. But most demonstrations and all the kids’ stuff will happen at the Festival Village.
Once the site of the Asheville Motor Speedway, Carrier Park now includes a playground, a volleyball pit, roller-hockey and basketball courts, a cycling track, trails, a picnic area, open fields, a ballpark and more. “It’s a great location for the festival,” says Cox. “My assessment of all of it? The Mountain Sports Festival is a fun event, no doubt about that.”