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Monday, July 1, 2013
In the grand scheme of things, a running race that draws 85 participants may seem like small potatoes.
When you compare this past Saturday’s Jackson River Scenic Trail race to events such as Roanoke’s massive Drumstick Dash, the Blue Ridge Marathon or even the Appalachian Power Run, the Jackson River race was small.
But the run along the Jackson was a big deal, and not just to those who competed in the 10K and half marathon.
It’s another nice step forward for the Alleghany Highlands, where the region’s push to market its vast and amazing array of outdoors resources continues to build momentum.
There’s another unique event just around the corner.
On July 13, Covington and Clifton Forge will host the fourth annual Alleghany Gran Fondo bike ride.
Then in August comes another new one, a 1-mile open water swim at Lake Moomaw.
There have been others, including the recent Bath County Triathlon and the Middle Mountain Momma mountain bike race at Douthat State Park.
“With us being more than 50 percent national forest, you have to be able to market those amenities,” Teresa Hammond, executive director of the Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said of events that take advantage of publicly owned natural resources.
To accompany its water- and trails-related tourism initiatives, the chamber has launched accompanying web sites (www.alleghanyhighlandsblueway.com and www.alleghanyhighlandstrails.com).
And it’s helping to create events that can further attract attention to the region’s outdoors draws.
Provided directors are marketing savvy, special events can find their place on listings with distant reach.
As long as those events are appealing — and the Alleghany Highlands’ scenic setting alone adds to that appeal — some folks who see the listings are going to be lured in.
The Gran Fondo (www.ahcyclingfestival.com) is a good example.
It continues to grow as cyclists come and enjoy the ride, the scenery and hospitality, and then spread the word.
Last year it drew about 140 riders. Hammond said 100 riders are already registered, and she expects numbers to climb well over 150 by July 13.
Speaking of climbing, that’s part of the reason why the event is growing.
The Gran Fondo option is 108 miles long, with more than 11,500 feet of climbing, including a trek up the ridiculously steep, switchback-choked road up Warm Springs Mountain out of Clifton Forge.
Just as the Mountains of Misery century out of Newport has built its rep on its difficulty, the Gran Fondo appeals to riders who want to push their limits.
For those not quite as ambitious, 72- and 29-mile options are also available.
Like with the half marathon, that’s not a huge number of people. But the toughest thing is getting started. Once the ball is rolling, these things add up.
When tourists come to town for an event, event organizers aren’t the only beneficiaries, of course.
Visitors spend money on motels, at restaurants, and on other goods and services.
“We had a group of cyclists come up from Florida last year,” Hammond said. “They stayed the whole week at Douthat.
“The economic impact of the event has been significant.”
That’s the simple tourism model, and it’s one that some fishermen have cited when talking about another Alleghany Highlands jewel, the Jackson River.
The Jackson tailwater, a coldwater trout stream between Gathright Dam and Covington, had potential to be a nice angling attraction, but two decades of disputes over fishing and wading rights on some sections of the river have hurt its appeal.
While access issues remain on the Jackson, Hammond’s group can help visitors determine where they can get on the river, and where they can legally wade and fish.
It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.
The Jackson River Scenic Trail itself is also progress.
It runs along an abandoned rail bed, and now stretches to about 14 miles. It’s not a paved path, like the Roanoke River Greenway, but rather a cinder path. That’s fine for mountain bikes, and ideal for running and walking.
It provides walk- or bike-in fishing access to the river in some areas, too.
It’s unlikely that a tourist from Washington D.C. or Virginia Beach would visit Covington just to go hiking or biking on the Jackson River Scenic Trail.
Rather, a hike on the trail — or a half marathon, or a 108-mile bike ride, or a 1-mile swim race in Lake Moomaw — could be one of many fun outdoors adventures they do over a long weekend.
That’s the message Hammond and her team are working to spread, and it’s one that seems to be catching on.
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