It's located on a small piece of government property that many citizens of Chattanooga ignore because the only use in their mind is the swimming area. There isn't a whole lot of flat ground, so you can't throw a frisbee or a baseball very well. This piece of property is on the forgotten side of the Chickamauga Dam. On the other side, Chattanooga's Riverwalk and River Park is constantly crawling with people. However, on the opposite side, between the dam itself and a marina, lies a grassy field with a swimming area, several hills, and a sidewalk cutting through the middle. There aren't many who know it well, but a small portion of Chattanoogans know this piece of property, probably far better than they would prefer. This piece of property is the home of the Chickamauga Dam 5k Cross Country course. This weekend, it will be home to the Chattanooga Cross Country Festival.
The re-named and under new management Chattanooga Cross Country Festival--formerly the Charger Invitational and hosted by coach Michael Fingerle of Chattanooga Christian School but now being hosted and run by the Chattanooga Area Cross Country League --will surely make for an enjoyable day of racing on Saturday. Included in the festivities for the first time this year will be middle school level races that will serve as a regional qualifier for the KTC/TennesseeRunner.com Middle School State Championships, to be held at Knoxville's Victor Ashe Park on October 20.
Another change to the meet this year is the size of the field. Even though the race is up against the McCallie Invitational this weekend, which is drawing top teams from across the Southeast, Chattanooga Cross Country Festival has more than doubled the number of teams, jumping from twelve to twenty-seven, including Scottsboro High School (AL) and Graves County High School (KY). After a one year hiatus, the meet has also returned to it's original course at the Chickamauga Dam, one of the most difficult courses in Tennessee.
A "Dam 5k"
A modified two-loop course, the "Dam 5k," as it is affectionately called by local runners (due to a certain noun uttered by countless runners as they race up any of the several hills scattered throughout the course) is difficult from the beginning. In fact, it throws the first of it's fabled hills at runners only two-hundred meters into the race, even as athletes are still jostling for position in the field. The hill conveniently acts to significantly string out the field, quickly exposing the pretenders and pulling the true contenders to the front--in case they weren't already there. After looping around a large meadow, which would qualify as the second hill of the course due to it's slight but long incline, the field will race down a short but steep hill to exit the meadow and run along the waterfront for a couple hundred meters before coming to the first mile marker. With the first mile marker comes the most endearing part of this Dam course, The Hill. The Hill haunts runners for months after every Dam 5k. It doesn't look so bad, but once people race up that baby, they have been known to wake up screaming several times a week. Doctors have been unable to discover a cause, but Chattanooga's high school harriers know why: The Hill changes people.
"The Hill should not be underestimated. It can completely change the outcome of a race," Stephen Fassino told me. Fassino graduated from Red Bank High School in May and is attending and running for the University of Tennessee this fall. "I remember at Regionals last year that was a huge factor in the loss to a great competitor, Matt Baltimore. I'm not sure that it's about attacking it but rather surviving it, twice. Prepare all you can and make a mental note that it's going to hurt no matter how fast you go."
The implication is that, no matter how slow--not only fast, but slow too--you run up The Hill, you're going to walk off the course a new man. Many enter the course a boy, but you don't see very many boys finish the race. It's because they've all turned into men.
The Hill is only the beginning of the process of turning boys into men. After cresting that beast, there's still another small hill to run up and down and back up again before starting the loop over again and running in that original meadow. And eventually, The Hill comes back again. Except the second time, that small hill doesn't seem so small anymore.
Attack of the Wildcats
Everyone knows that any self-respecting king has a castle. And surrounding this castle is a moat. Scottsboro High School has a moat in front of their school building. The Wildcats' Track Booster website calls the program Alabama's number one running program. Between cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, the school has won over thirty-five state championships since 1991. Currently, they are ranked fifth in Alabama. Taking the personal bests of their top five runners, their average time is 17:14. I believe it's safe to say that they're the kings.
As the king's army travels to Chattanooga, the Cleveland Raiders are preparing their defenses, so to speak. Although Scottsboro is the favorite entering the meet, Cleveland holds some fine depth of their own, led by junior Alex Stephens, who has run the thirteenth fastest time in Tennessee thus far.
Most kings might not travel to battle with their queens, but in the case of Scottsboro High, the womens team is even stronger than their men. Ranked third in the state of Alabama and led by senior Emily Thompson and her 18:29 personal best, the Lady Wildcats should come in and roll over all competition present on Saturday. Individually, Jessica Duble--ranked sixth in the state and Chattanooga Christian School's front-runner--should be right up in the mix to be in the top two or three. If she's within reach of any girl with 800 meters to go, she will beat them.
Although the Festival does not carry the prestige of the McCallie Invitational, with their nearly one-hundred combined state championships spread across the field, it is a well-run meet and held on an extremely difficult course. Last year it drew Kell High School from Georgia. This year it has drawn Scottsboro and Graves County. Memories will be created on Saturday. One day, in the western part of Kentucky, someone will be telling their grandchild about the time they had a cross country race in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They will tell their grandchild about The Hill. And the legend will live on.