“We should do Chattanooga as a relay.” The statement sounded totally reasonable as the three of us discussed timing and logistics for the September Ironman race. Calendars were checked and within a couple weeks we were committed and signed up to participate. I had been swimming with Barb and Blake a couple days a week for about four years. They are both more serious and experienced triathletes than I and the thought of competing with them as a team in an Ironman event was appealing. I’m a decent swimmer, Blake is a strong cyclist and Barb is a good runner.
The level of excitement was high initially, then the realities of life made the race more of an option than a strong commitment. Work, injuries, and other priorities dulled the excitement we had felt for the late-season race. Then as summer was winding down, Chattanooga became a more positive topic. We made travel plans and each of us focused on training for our specific leg of the race. About a month prior to the race, our coach had us swim an hour for distance. I was able to complete two miles without being totally exhausted. So, I felt good about the 2.4 miles downstream swim in the Tennessee River.
We traveled on Friday for the Sunday race. Barb arrived at her hotel before Blake and I checked in to our rental. We met for dinner and enjoyed a couple specialty pizzas from Community Pie. We coordinated our Saturday plans which included picking up race packets, wandering the expo and attending the race briefing. A pre-race bike ride with Blake proved to be more frustrating than fruitful due to our lack of familiarity with the area. Still it was good to check out the equipment and warm up the legs.
A little shopping, burgers at Jack Browns, and final race preparations were all completed prior to an early bedtime. We met Sunday morning for gear check and one more discussion of race logistics. Then I boarded the bus to the start of the swim. After a short ride the bus opened and athletes of all age, size and experience spilled out into a park that served as the pre-race staging area.
While I consider myself a veteran triathlete, this was only my second Ironman branded event. Oddly enough, my first was a 70.3 event three years prior in Chattanooga. Pre-race staging for the two events was quite different. At the 70.3, my daughter and I got off the shuttle and immediately into a long, single-file queue snaking through a parking lot. Staging at the full was much more organized and relaxed. People sat along a winding sidewalk in self-seeded groups based on predicted swim finish times. People held signs noting the 10-minute increments and there was plenty of space to sit, chat and make final preparations. It was well-organized but still felt very organic and relaxed.
As the start time drew near, athletes filled the sidewalk. Pre-race instructions were given, the national anthem played and the cannon fired signaling the start for the professional triathletes. I had seeded myself in the 60 to 70-minute group which was the third of many. A slow, orderly walk led us the dock where we entered the Tennessee River three or four people at a time.
The water was a perfect temperature and swimming with the current made for a great start. Instructions were to stay close to the buoys during the swim. “Yellow buoys will turn to orange half way through,” were the other instructions I remembered. My goggles were fogging by the time I reached the third buoy. Seeing the swimmers ahead became difficult but I could still spot the next buoy. As I passed the fourth buoy, I couldn’t locate the next one. I tried clearing one eye-cup while keeping my stroke cadence. That proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, I was in a spot without many swimmers close. So, I rolled onto my back, removed the goggles, cleared the fog and repositioned them on my eyes. The maneuver went surprisingly well and results were ideal.
Although I heard that the color of the buoys would change, I had failed to ask about the number of buoys. I was pretty sure my count was accurate as I passed the sixth yellow buoy. I looked forward to the color change signaling the halfway mark of the swim. I was confident in my stroke and cadence being able to carry me to completion as I passed several athletes. The width of the river coupled with the time-trial start allowed for plenty of room to swim. There were only a couple times where I had to drastically alter my line or speed due to congestion.
I normally breathe on the left which was great for this swim. The shoreline provided a variety of natural and man-made sights. I enjoyed seeing the trees, parks, cliffs, bridges and homes as I passed. Buoy nine was yellow, but the next one appeared to be orange. I was getting tired but excited to see that I was entering the second half of the swim.
Trying to maintain a steady pace, I decided I would push the pace once I knew there were only two buoys remaining. This worked well for me. With the final red buoy in sight, adrenalin kicked in as swimmers vied for the same vector leading to the finish. The first step of the ladder leading out of the water was high and my arms were too fatigued to help much as I pulled up. Volunteers assisted and soon I was running the concrete walkway to the transition.
In the corral, I found Blake ready to take the timing chip and start his 116-mile trek through the hills of Tennessee and Georgia. My watch showed a finish time of 58:38 which was surprisingly fast thanks to the current. With the chip exchanged, my portion of the triathlon was completed. After talking with some other competitors, I walked back to our rental to wash the river off my body and put some leftover pizza in it.
Clean and fed, I rode my bike to Velo for coffee and a sweet snack. I checked Blake’s progress on the Ironman app and planned my trip back to the transition area. I had time to grab a burger at 5 Guys on my way to meet Barb ahead of the second transition. We watched Blake’s progress together until I was asked to leave the area. I walked up the course to catch riders coming down the last hill leading to transition. I tried to recall Blake’s helmet and kit as each rider came into view.
Temperatures quickly raised to unseasonably high levels during the late September triathlon. Although our team was one of 40 participating as a relay, the majority of the athletes in Chattanooga were completing all three legs of the full Ironman race. Cycling in the heat was tough, but the hardest part had to be the run. Rarely would someone start a marathon at 2:00 PM when the air temperature is in the mid 90’s. But Barb had been sensible in her preparation, spending much of the morning resting inside. She looked fresh and ready as she left the transition corral to start her 26.2-mile journey.
Blake took advantage of on-site massage to help recover from his ride. Then we walked back to our rental as Barb tackled the last leg of the triathlon. During our down time, Blake confided in me that bike ride had been tougher than he had anticipated. “You know, that ride wasn’t much fun,” he said. I’m working on being empathetic so I leaned in and nodded as he spoke. Then an uncontrolled smile covered my face as I confessed, “Sorry. I had a blast”.
The first leg of the race was, by far, the easiest of the three. It covered less distance and took less time to complete than the other disciplines. The entire swim was in a consistent 78 degrees Fahrenheit river flowing totally downstream. The bike ride would have to be 25 miles, downhill, in the shade to be near equal.
After cleaning up and getting some food, we walked back to the race course to encourage Barb at the start of her second lap. Tracking her progress on the Ironman app, we were confident she would soon join the line of runners passing by. We noticed the athletes running by presented a wide range of physical conditions from fresh to fatigued.
We decided to walk up the course to find the third member of our relay team. Our walk led to the corral where athletes transitioned from bike to run rather than the bridge marking the end of the first 13-mile lap. Looking at the map more closely we realized we were a couple hundred yards away from where we should be. Under the wrong bridge as our partner passed over the right one. We messed up and missed our opportunity to cheer on the anchor of our team.
Our next logical chance was around mile 20 before the course crossed back over the Tennessee River. We had an hour to get to the location about a half-mile away. This gave us time for ice cream and a leisurely walk. We HAD to be there to encourage Barb as she started the last quarter of the marathon.
We found a place near an aid station to watch and wait for Barb. There was something strangely entertaining about watching the heated athletes react to the iced sponges administered near the end of the rest area. The heat was taking a toll on the participants as they endured through the course. After spotting our runner, we walked along with her as she left the rest area.
Weather conditions had sapped Barb’s energy and she was suffering physically through the final leg of the Ironman event. “I’m going to finish and earn that medal,” Barb exclaimed. While “the boys” had been total idiots in missing the opportunity to encourage her earlier in the race, we were there to be supportive of Barb’s final 10K. Ironman rules prohibited us from crossing the line together, the triumphant trio with arms raised in a combination of exaltation and exhaustion. So, Blake and I cheered from the spectators’ gallery as Barb ran the finishers’ chute. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment as we heard “Fueled by Rice” called out over the public address system.
Together, we finished the Ironman Chattanooga. There is no delusion on my part of being an equal contributor to our team. Without Blake and Barb, there is no way I would have seen the finish line. Yet, as a team we accomplished our quest which started months earlier as a casual conversation at the pool.
The experience taught me a lot about triathlon and the culture of Ironman. Those who complete a full event are truly accomplished athletes. There is such a tremendous physical and emotional demand on Ironman competitors. In addition to all the training and preparation, so many things have to go right to make it to the finish line. There are plenty of opportunities for things to get off-track. The Ironman organization does a great job of planning and producing events that are safe and accessible to people of all levels of athleticism and experience. Chattanooga is a fine host city, easy to navigate as long as you know where you’re going. I need to take a little more time to check the maps before putting my feet into motion. Our team of three learned a bit more about each other and strengthened our friendships.