Wildwood Park will be the site of the inaugural Wildwood Games sports festival this weekend.
Randy DuTeau, the executive director of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he’s been pondering such an event for more than a decade when he first visited the park on Clarks Hill Lake in Appling.
“I was just walking around thinking there’s so much you could do with this,” DuTeau said. “I’m excited.”
The sports festival, which DuTeau hopes will become Columbia County’s trademark sporting event, will feature 50K and 100K “marathon” mountain bike races on Saturday as well as trail running races on Sunday, with trails for 5K, half-marathon, marathon and 50K races. Some of the courses follow Bartram Trail.
DuTeau said the event is actually a “trial run” to prepare to host the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships in 2015 and 2016.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Dave Kozlowski, president of SORBA-CSRA, the local chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association. The group helped design the trails riders will take on two giant loops extending from West Dam to Mistletoe State Park. “To be part of it is pretty phenomenal.”
The group has volunteered nearly 400 man hours to identify, create, clean up the trails, which were badly damaged during February’s ice storms, and maintain them until the races.
“We’re givers,” Kozlowski said. “We knew what we were getting into.
“It’s worth it in the big picture for mountain biking in Columbia County and the CSRA. .. In the end, we think everybody wins.”
DuTeau said he expects about 180 athletes to participate in the games, which will spotlight the county and the park.
“We’ve got to make sure the experience that these athletes have and the people that come in with them is really, really positive because that’s 180 ambassadors that will go out,” DuTeau said. “If they enjoy it, they are going to be posting pictures on Facebook and telling everybody in the world.”
DuTeau said the inaugural games will be a test, a test of the race courses, the venue and the organizing team.
This year won’t be the “full dog and pony show,” but DuTeau said he’s going to make sure it has the spectacle and fanfare of a major sporting event including a 200-foot long finish shoot for both the running and bike races.
“The thing is going to look cool,” DuTeau said. “It’s really important, even if its run on a small scale, you’re got to give it the look right out of the gate.
“Otherwise, where’s the fun in that?”
The sports festival will feature a sports expo, with some vendors hopefully including some manufacturers, and food vendors. The “festival” atmosphere is expected to grow at the first championship event next year with many more vendors, food and live entertainment.
DuTeau said he’s already got plans to expand the games next year to include an open water swim, but not necessarily turn it into a true triathlon.
He expects the three events to be spread out over three days to appeal to the “niche athlete,” who may be interested in participating in more than one event.
He hopes to create a buzz, a “happening” with the event that people will want to be a part of.
The athletes who participate in the inaugural games will see the park, other county facilities and how the event is run.
But DuTeau expects lots more people to be exposed to all the other activities available in the county and at its facilities.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic that we could be considered a premier outdoor destination in the Southeast,” DuTeau said. “When you have excellent amenities, obviously, in a lot of ways, they sell themselves.
“Not only do you want events that bring in critical mass during that designated period of time, but you also need to do events that are going to showcase and highlight the things as a county you want to showcase and highlight.”
Once the inaugural games are over, DuTeau said the real work begins to tweak and improve the event before the first championships in 2015.
“That’s when it’s really going to start cranking up.”
For more information about the games or to register, visit www.columbiacountyitshere.com.