Fontana Dam is the highest dam in the eastern United States; it was built during World War II to leverage the Little Tennessee River for electric generation to support wartime industry -- including the development of the atomic bomb in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It still generates power for the Tennessee Valley Authority today and is the centerpiece of a large recreational lake, Fontana Lake, many hiking trails, and a nice visitors center. The dam and the Little Tennessee straddle the Graham/Swain county line. The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the dam. And now for two years it's been the home of The Dam Race, a 5k/10k/mile event run in August to help bring visitors to the area during the slow weekend before Labor Day weekend. The race also benefits the Fontana Foundation, a non-profit that organizes relief help for families in the area, organizes recycling and education programs, and establishes hiking trails and fire departments in the area.
Race director Karl Sutter seemed to be everywhere race weekend. He was heading up the Friday afternoon packet pickup, and then he hurried to Fontana Lake where he hosted tours of the lake for the incoming runners. The lake was big and beautiful, and Karl took us all over, showing us the beauty of the area and describing the terrain. The water was gorgeous shades of blue and green, and the water level was down as the dam staff had begun releasing some of the summer buildup for the fall season. Fortunately, Karl told us, the race course itself was much flatter than the mountains and hills we observed from the lake.
He was correct! When the Little Tennessee exits the powerhouse at the bottom of the dam, it's in a very level area. There is an access road on both the east and the west of the Little Tennessee, with a bridge (NC highway 28) about a mile down from the dam. The race courses took us up and down the access roads and across the bridge; the 5k runners would only cross the bridge once and do the west-side up and back, while the 10k runners would cross the bridge three times, running the west-side twice and the east-side out and back once.
Race morning was nice and foggy and cool; I wish we could have started at 8:00 a.m. to take advantage of the weather rather than waiting until 9:00 a.m., but maybe next year. The finish area and race-day packet pickup was located at the lower Fontana Dam entrance, a wonderful big amphitheater with large rock cliffs on one side, the river on the other, with more green mountains beyond that. The small race staff was busily checking runners in and handing out the nice yellow tech t-shirts, and there was a wonderful bluegrass trio playing music for all to enjoy. (The first tune I heard them play was "Rocky Top," of course.)
The 5k runners and the milers were shuttled out to their respective starting positions; the 10k runners had only a little walk over the bridge and onto the east access road to reach our starting point. There was a very good crowd of 10k runners attending the event this year, and we spread out across the road as the course marshals got ready to begin the race. The 5k and 10k starts were coordinated over the radio so that both groups started together, and we were quickly off and running up the little hill that took us back up to the NC 28 bridge. The first pass across the bridge and through the finish area was great, with all the spectators cheering us on and the bluegrass trio serenading us as we passed. Then we had a nice, quiet stretch as we jogged along the river toward the dam. The dam itself is somewhat hidden behind a curve, so suddenly it appeared before us as if a curtain was being drawn back. I had surveyed the dam from the top on Friday, but the view from the access road along the river was very impressive, too, as you could really perceive its height and massive size. Off to the right you could see the exit pipes of the spillways, and above there was a big nest of electrical lines leading away from the powerhouse. We made a quick loop around the parking area in front of the powerhouse and then we were headed back to the finish area and the bridge.
By this time the 5k runners were starting to catch us, and after about 1.5 miles of my running, the lead 5k runner caught up and passed me. Fortunately, only about four or five 5k runners "lapped" me and got to the finish line before I passed it to head across the bridge and the east-side access road. We got a brief downhill and then we were running along the river again, this time at a little lower elevation, which gave us a good view of the 5k runners along the west side. The 10k leaders had already made their east-side turnaround and passed us heading back to the bridge, and eventually I was in the campground that is at the east turnaround, where some campers were there for the race and others were just out camping, somewhat surprised by the runners coming and going through camp. We could also hear some waterfalls on the eastern mountain face, but we could only see a bit of them; the majority of the waterfalls were hidden by the heavy rhododendron growth there.
Finally I was across the bridge for the last time and making the final out-and-back on the west side to the dam and back. There were some much-appreciated volunteers manning aid stations, and some spectators out for a walk gave us some encouragement. The weather was getting hotter and more humid by now, but every once in a while we got into a nice open space where there was a great breeze helping to keep us going. We ran up a quick rise and suddenly we were there at the 10k finish, with the 5k awards being given out and the bluegrass trio filling time with more music.
I finished in the last knot of runners, and there was some Powerade and cold water ready for all the race finishers. (Some fruit or bread would have been great.) Law enforcement and volunteers did a great job controlling traffic in the area, and as the awards were given out there was also a raffle to raise money for some military-related charities, with the prizes provided by resorts or running stores in the western North Carolina area. It was great to cool down in some of the remaining shade, and it was a very nice surprise to find out that I had finished second in my age group! The age group awards were big, ceramic coffee mugs with the race logo and colors to indicate how you did; the overall winners in both races received very nice backpacks with The Dam Race logo embroidered on them and beautiful pottery plates. It was also a bonus that Robbie Bass from The Athletes Foot in Raleigh was there to run and won his age group, so both of us got to bring some trophy hardware back to Raleigh!
I had a great time with my weekend at Fontana Dam; the accommodations at Fontana Village were great, the hospitality was wonderful, and it was a very enjoyable 10k up and down the Little Tennessee River at the foot of the dam. Karl Sutter and his crew did a great job, and I hope they will continue to see participant numbers increase year after year! Thanks for a great race!