Archived Outdoors

It’s all about the schwag: Race organizers get creative with attracting participants

out frYou’ve been training for months. You’ve skipped the kids’ piano recitals and parent teacher conferences; you’ve bailed on dinner with the in-laws (several times) and nights out with the friends — all to adhere to your strict training schedule to prepare for the big moment: the big race.

Finally it comes, and as you cross that finish line — exhausted, sweating, proud — an event volunteer thrusts a cheaply stamped medallion in your direction along with a XL T-shirt. (You wear a medium.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Race coordinators around Western North Carolina are growing ever-creative about the unique prizes and participation schwag they’re distributing at their events. Although most racers don’t pick events to run, ski, kayak or bike based on the prizes, if there’s a conflict on the calendar or doubt about the worthiness of event itself, the giveaways might just be what tip the scale one way or the other.

And there’s nothing that says “winner” more than a metal belt buckle. Brian Barwatt, organizer of the Assault on Black Rock in Sylva, decided to eschew the standard-style medals that dangle from the neck and picked one that goes where it counts.

After hearing about a mountain bike race in Colorado that offers custom belt buckles to the top finishers, Barwatt imitated the idea for his trail race to the top of Black Rock Mountain: if runners finish in under 101 minutes, they get the coveted belt buckle.

He characterized it as a versatile prize.

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“You can use it as trophy, too,” Barwatt said. “You can wear it and put it on your mantle.”

Barwatt has yet to see someone walking around sporting his race prize, but with the race only in it’s third year, there’s only 20 of them out there. Sae Smyrl, a participant in last year’s race, said he’s got his eye set on joining the elite buckle bearers.

But with the race approaching in March, Smyrl still has 13 minutes to shave off his time.

“I’d like one,” Smyrl said. “It’s something you can wear — not just stick in a drawer.”

Just down the road, at Tsali Recreation Area along Fontana Lake, famous for it’s 42-mile trail system, is a trail race with a common sense concept: give people stuff they’ll use.

Aaron Saft, co-owner of FootRx in Asheville, said he pools the resources of his store and all the brand names he carries to provide the Frosty Foot Trail Race runners with quality prizes.

He awards Montrail shoes, Princeton Tec headlamps, Swiftwick socks, Timex watches, hats with race logos and more — and that’s just for one year. Sometimes, it takes a little extra enticement to get people to leave the warmth of their homes for a outdoor event in January.

“Most of the people are coming for the event, the experience of the trail run and especially Tsali,” Saft said. “But, prizes are definitely a bonus.”

After the race, the participants will head to Nantahala Brewing Company for the award ceremony and after party — another sort of prize that sets some events apart from others.

The brewery’s owner Joe Rowland said his company sponsors four or five events per year. Usually, the sponsorship includes a custom pint glass — a win-win, for attracting customers to the brewery and for the participants. Because even the losers feel like winners once they fill up their glasses with a post-race brew.

Rowland said there are too many reasons to count as to why beer and race events go hand-in-hand.

“There’s a million reasons why,” he said, before deciding to mention the most obvious. “A wider range of people, after doing an event like that, will drink a beer rather than a liquor drink — it seems like a more natural fit.”

His statement might even hold true when held up against water. One of the brewery’s pint glasses features the slogan “water is for quitters.”

Local races also get a boost from big-time beer sponsors, such as the likes of Anheuser-Busch. Up at the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley, the ski-racing season is set to begin in early January. But with a wide variety of the sponsor’s gear to dole out to winners of the adult races — everything from cardboard cut-outs of NASCAR drivers to bicycles to barbecue grills — the only thing race director Joe Yeager has to worry about is who gets what.

To address that problem, he uses a number-from-a-hat system. Then, it’s up to the winners to pick from the pile of prizes.

“The cut-outs don’t stack up well against bicycles, barbecues and coolers,” Yeager said. “But, besides that, there are a lot of NASCAR fans around.”

For the high school and middle school races, age-appropriate ski prizes such as ski wax, gloves, hats and t-shirts are awarded.

But to contribute to race prizes, you don’t have to be a large company, or even a small one. Many race organizers are turning to local artists and chefs to provide the goods.

For 19 years, the Bethel Half Marathon has been giving away handmade prizes with local roots. The awards have included ceramic bowls, napkin holders, local photographs, sewn goods and canned food.

Several years ago, the organizers started providing homemade, post-race potato soup by the gallon and baked goods. Needless to say, participation has increased.

In Bryson City, the Rotary Club, which puts together the annual Firecracker 5K on the Fourth of July and the Reindeer Dash in December, awards watercolor paintings by a local artist to top finishers. The organization also put an interesting twist on the traditional factory-made neck medal, and instead used custom-made discs of maple wood.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center also went wooden for its summer Duck n’ Run event, combination paddle and run race in the Nantahala Gorge. This year, organizers awarded wooden duckies to participants.

Except, next year, NOC event organizer Zuzana Vanha, wants to have the same artist make the duck figurines out of concrete.

“They’re going to float terribly,” Vanha said. “But that will be OK.”

Greg Duff, president of Glory Hound Events, organizes a series of races and events in WNC, including the Maggie Valley Moonlight Run and the Lake Logan Multisport Festival.

For prizes, he has used pottery from the Mud Dabbers studio in Waynesville, laser-etched with images of athletes; custom wooden coasters; and hand-made baskets from the Qualla Arts and Crafts cooperative in Cherokee.

But the prizes hadn’t always been that way; Duff described the evolution that items awarded at his events have under undergone.

“We started out doing the old-fashioned medals — that you can hang on your neck or put in your drawers,” he said. “But then, I wanted to look at something you could actually use afterward.”

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