Archived Outdoors

Lake Logan triathlons say goodbye

Competitors in the 2022 Lake Logan Half Ironman wait for the race to start. Glory Hound Events photo Competitors in the 2022 Lake Logan Half Ironman wait for the race to start. Glory Hound Events photo

After 17 years, one of the most beloved triathlons in the southeast has crossed the finish line.

The Lake Logan Multisport Festival , which consistently drew hundreds of athletes from across the country to compete on an idyllic course in Haywood County, has been discontinued. 

“Events are a lot like children,” Greg Duff, who created and organized the race through his company Glory Hound Events, wrote on a blog post explaining the decision. “You conceive them; you nurture and develop them; you see them through good times and bad; and, you eventually let them go. Such is the case with the triathlons at Lake Logan.”

Falling numbers

Duff planned the first-ever Lake Logan race in 2006 after visiting Lake Logan on business, at a time when he was an active triathlete participating in a full schedule of events. Enamored with the tranquil lake and forested byways leading to it, he asked Johnny Keesee, then executive director of the Lake Logan Conference Center, whether he’d ever thought about hosting a triathlon.

“It just kind of went from there,” Duff said.

The property proved a centerpiece for a “perfect” international distance race, he said, anchored by the lake and scenic N.C. 215 for gorgeously quiet and shaded running and biking legs. That first year, 162 people participated in the international distance race at Lake Logan. As word spread and new events were added, numbers swelled. Eventually, the Lake Logan Multisport Festival grew to include a sprint triathlon, aquathon and half Ironman.

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“Lake Logan is just a magical place,” Duff said. “It’s so beautiful. It’s different than any triathlon venue I’ve ever seen. Just everything about it, the whole thing is pretty.  The run is pretty. You’re following the river the whole way. Most of the time, it’s in sight. It’s shaded. Trees are canopied. And the fact it’s so isolated, maybe it’s an attraction. You don’t have cell signal, you don’t connect. There’s no distractions at all.”

The highwater mark came in 2015, when 1,180 people signed up to race. Typically, about 90% of participants came from outside the mountain region. For many, Lake Logan earned an annual place on their race calendar, perhaps enticed by the event’s distinction as the Southeast’s only wetsuit-legal summertime race. In addition to insulating against the chill of the mountain water, wetsuits provide an extra bit of buoyancy, boosting performance.

All those out-of-town athletes created a significant economic impact, injecting an estimated $950,000 to the local economy in its first 10 years.

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Runners enjoy a downhill stretch during a previous Runners enjoy a downhill stretch during a previous Lake Logan Multisport Festival event. Paul King photo

But as the years wore on, participation began to drop. In 2019, only 731 people registered, and when the festival returned from its pandemic pause in 2021, it attracted only 662 people. The last Lake Logan Multisport Festival, held in August 2023, registered only 505 participants.

That’s not a trend unique to Glory Hound Events or the Southern Appalachians, Duff said.

“Unfortunately, the sport of triathlon is not what it used to be,” he wrote. “Races around the country and world are going away. Even the vaunted Ironman brand is contracting with fewer events on its 2024 calendar than it used to host. The decrease in triathletes has been especially evident in Western North Carolina. I stopped at 50 when I counted the people who I knew who raced regularly at Logan and don’t race at all anymore. The club I helped start in Asheville is nothing more than a Facebook page now.”

Falling participation was not the only reason Duff decided to sunset the event. Declining participation coincided with skyrocketing costs and increasingly scarce resources, he said.

“It is an annual struggle for our friends in public safety in Haywood County to find enough people to support the event, and it was particularly challenging this year,” he wrote. 

Under the waterline

The final nail in the coffin was the condition of the lake itself.

“The community thinks a lot about the flood [from Tropical Storm Fred in 2021] in terms of the health and business impacts that it had, but I think one of the lasting impressions of the flood is what it has done to the lake,” said Eden Lewis, interim executive director at the Lake Logan Conference Center.

As the water hurtled down the West Fork of the Pigeon River, it cut deep swathes of dirt out of the lakeshore, washing it into the water. Now, entire sections of the lake are so shallow they’re barely even swimmable.

“That directly affects the triathlon,” Lewis said. “It changed the location of where their input was, and that was something that concerned Greg [Duff].”

In addition to filling the lake with sediment, the floodwaters destabilized nearby trees, most of which ended up in the lake. For swimmers racing through the dark water with little visibility, that’s a safety hazard.

Regardless, the decision to cancel the race “came as a little bit of a shock,” Lewis said.

“Greg and I have had multiple conversations about that, and I understand where he’s coming from in terms of that and recognize that unfortunately, Lake Logan has limited options on how to solve that,” Lewis said.

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A Half Ironman competitor walks his bike during the 2022 event. A Half Ironman competitor walks his bike during the 2022 event. Glory Hound Events photo

Surprisingly, Lake Logan Conference Center has no jurisdiction over the body of water from which it gets its name. The lake, and the dam below it, are both owned by Pactiv Evergreen, erstwhile operator of the shuttered paper plant in Canton. Like the lake, the dam also needs maintenance. An inspection report issued in March “strongly recommended” an analysis of the dam’s structural integrity after finding cracks, spalling and seepage on the concrete downstream dam face. 

Lewis said she has been in communication with Pactiv Evergreen regarding the lake’s maintenance needs.

“They have been receptive to getting the trees removed,” she said. “However, it has not been something that has come to fruition yet.”

Duff was more pointed in his written comments.

“It doesn’t appear the company has any interest making the large expenditures necessary to fix these issues,” he wrote.

Pactiv Evergreen did not respond to a request for comment from The Smoky Mountain News.

Focus on running

While Duff may not have plans for the first weekend of August this year, he has plenty else to keep him busy. Glory Hound Events’ website currently lists 17 races, ranging from 5Ks to a grueling relay race that runs from East Asheville to Lake James.

Unlike when he started the company in 2006, nearly all the listed events are running races. The only exception is the Fire Mountain Inferno Weekend in Cherokee, which offers a variety of mountain bike events.

Earlier in its history, Glory Hound Events offered a more diverse set of races, including a duathlon at Lake Junaluska, triathlons at Haywood Regional Health and Fitness Center and Biltmore Lake and the Tour de Tuck cycling race.

“For various reasons those have all gone away,” he said. “So multi-sport is really not what we’re doing.”

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A competitor shows off her race number. Donated photo

Flagging interest and increasing liability issues for cycling races that share roads with ever-growing numbers of motor vehicles have both contributed to the shift. Meanwhile, running remains popular.

“Obviously the pandemic didn’t do anybody any favors, but I feel like at least from our standpoint, and I think other races will agree, that we’ve kind of recovered from that now,” Duff said. “The last half of the year has gotten back to normal. We’re seeing growth in pretty much everything.”

The decision to discontinue the Lake Logan Multisport Festival was a difficult one, but Duff is convinced it was the right call. He’s looking forward to continuing to offer opportunities for both veteran and beginning runners throughout the region.

“People who have never really got involved in sport, or any physical activity before, will do a race of ours, and we get to see them, and that’s what makes us special,” he said. “It’s always been part of the mission, is to get people active, and we’ll continue to do that.”

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