Is it the perfectly manicured green grass beneath the toes of swimmers before plunging into the Tennessee River? Or could it be downstream where competitors race to their meticulously organized bikes for the riding portion through our mountains? Or it could be the quick run through the city, showing athletes the best of downtown, all converging back onto the green for the finish?
For 64-year-old Steve Rogers, former Chattanooga Track Club treasurer and president, the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon is all of these things, plus a yearly reminder of family, tradition and a life-changing decision. "When I was 35 years old, I had three daughters and I was 210 pounds. I was drinking too much, eating too much red meat and I had to do something," Rogers says. "So I found running. I had to turn my life around." After running with his brother Richard for a few years and "getting pretty good at it" the pair decided to try out the Bencor Riverbend Triathlon, the event that eventually evolved into the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon. It was the event that helped Steve Rogers fall in love with the triathlon.
"I used my daughter's pink bike for it. It was my first, I had no idea what I needed or what to do. All I'm saying is it took a real man to ride that bike, with all those people," Rogers laughs. "At that time, 400 people jumped in at the Chickamauga Dam together for this crazy race, and we swam so close together. We had some fun times with that race, my brother and me, and we keep it going."
And when he finished that first triathlon, Rogers went to pick his daughter up from school with all of the indelible ink marks from the race. "They probably thought I was a thug, but it was funny to me; it made a memory."
Since that first race, Rogers has competed in all versions of the triathlon over the years, and though less competitive for him now, the race serves as a special day for him and his family. As a "pretty good runner" who travels for races and triathlons year-round, Rogers keeps coming back to the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon because of the history. "I remember in the '90s, if we had 400 people, it was a banner year for us. I take my hat off to the organizers now; they are seriously doing things we could have never done," Rogers says. "It's amazing to see the race as it is today."
For this year's event July 14, Steve, his brother Richard and nephew Russ are competing together as a team: the Stud Monkey Stallions. The race won't lose its special meaning to him as he bikes his portion of the race; instead, he says working as a team helps him push harder for the good of the family. "My nephew had some issues, but he's overcome them and running is such a positive thing for him, a positive addiction for him like it was for me. When I was 35, I found running and now at 33, he's found it too," he says. "It's an invaluable experience for me now, getting to do this with my family. I've done the Waterfront Tri alone before but it's so much better when you have your family there too."
Those memories and the attachment to Chattanooga are what Chattanooga Track Club President-elect Bill Brock hopes will continue to bring national and international competitors to the annual event. To Brock, the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon, now in its 8th year at the waterfront, is an evolution of the running community and Chattanooga itself.
"Before it moved to the waterfront, it was the Dam Triathlon for years and one of the key events of the Chattanooga Track Club. It was spectacularly run by Rita Fanning, but the reality is, when she retired we couldn't do it as well as she did," Brock says. When the Chattanooga Track Club was faced with the decision, downtown Chattanooga's waterfront had just opened the 21st Century Waterfront in 2005. Honored members Betsy and the late Calder Willingham had an idea: Take the event to one of Chattanooga's most valuable assets.
"We had to really consider if we could do it, and what we could do to do it differently. Are we the best fit for the race? We needed a concept, to do something pretty different and work the course differently. It needed to happen at the waterfront," Brock says. And like that, the event took off. This year's race will draw about 1,500 competitors from all over. "It's now a well-recognized event. Chattanooga's venue is unique, and it's just a wonderful venue and people love it," Brock says.
After a 1.5-kilometer swim from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Scrappy Moore Field to right before Ross's Landing, a 42-kilometer bike ride up Tennessee Highway 27 North and back, then finishing with a 10k run on Riverfront Parkway, competitors can take their families and friends and still enjoy Chattanooga, says co-race director Jenni Berz. She says the race route gives visitors and locals a glimpse of Chattanooga, from the waterfront to the mountain views, back into downtown. "People are really able to take it all in and we think that is nice, and then people will stay around the area a while, since it's summer," Berz says.
She and co-director Sherilyn Johnson coordinate everything local for the event-permits, volunteers and partnership sponsors. "We have over 300 volunteers who help us do this; we partner with the City of Chattanooga's Outdoor Chattanooga, we partner with the amazing Team Magic. There's all of this community support and we couldn't do it without them," Berz says.
Not only is this triathlon a Chattanooga favorite, it's also a nationally competitive event, Berz says. "We're also a part of the Best of the U.S. Amateur Triathlon Championship," she adds. "We do have some elite racers who will come, you know, and test their time. In July it is so hot, and that's really a challenge for them."
Elite, or new to the combo competition, racers mark their calendars each summer and get ready to race. For some it's family tradition, for others it's an individual challenge, but for all it's a passion for running and Chattanooga.
"There's nothing like the feeling of crossing the finish line. It makes it all worth it. I'll be at the starting line every year that I can, until I can't," Rogers laughs.