Thirty-five years ago, Chattanooga's downtown was desolate; its riverfront was polluted; its air quality was substandard. But in the 1990s, the city began to transform.
Now, between its green mountains, blue waters and revitalized downtown, Chattanooga attracts tourists from all over the world. And this month, it will attract more than 3,000 athletes from all over the world during the two-day Ironman 70.3 World Championship event.
Since 2014, Chattanooga has hosted Ironman events, and every year, the prestigious triathlon has returned, both the Ironman 70.3 in May and the Ironman 140.6 in September. This month, for the first time, Chattanooga will also host both the men's and women's Ironman 70.3 world championships, making the city the first in the world to host all four events in one year.
Indeed, like the city itself, Ironman Chattanooga has finally arrived. But, like the city itself, Ironman Chattanooga's road to glory was not without bumps — or tacks and oil, as was the case in the inaugural local event.
As the Scenic City prepares for this record-setting month, we take a look back at some of Chattanooga Ironman's most memorable headlines from over the years.
"Chattanooga Ironman scarred by sabotage, body in water"
– Outside Magazine, 9/29/2014
On Sept. 28, 2014, at 7:30 a.m., the first-ever round of capped and goggled Ironman Chattanooga athletes splashed into the dusky Tennessee River. One hour later, just downstream from Ross's Landing where the 2.4-mile swim finished, the body of a non-competitor, a local man with known addiction issues, was discovered in the water.
Then, at noon, Ironman officials confirmed that oil and tacks had been deliberately placed on the cycling course in North Georgia, resulting in more than 30 flat bike tires.
But the shadow cast by those unfortunate events was fleeting. Visitors and locals alike refused to be discouraged. In response to the sabotage, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said, "People are celebrating our status as a premiere outdoor city. Over the last couple days I have heard again and again how excited people were to be at that event."
"Chattanooga Ironman 2015 was the closest finish in Ironman history"
– Chattanooga Times Free Press, 9/26/2015
Eight hours, eight minutes and 32 seconds after he started the race, Estonia's Kirill Kotsegarov crossed the finish line, winning the 2015 Ironman Chattanooga. Less than two seconds later, America's Matt Chrabot followed on his heels. Six seconds after that, Germany's Stefan Schmid finished.
The scene was spectacular as the three men collapsed one right after the other, side by side, a couple of feet beyond the finish line. Chests heaving and tears streaming, their mixture of elation and exhaustion was palpable.
"This is one of the closest finishes we've ever seen! Absolutely unbelievable!" an Ironman official shouted over the speakers. The next athlete did not finish for another four minutes.
"Why do so many middle-aged men die during Ironman competitions?"
– The Daily Beast, 5/24/2016
In 2016, during the Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga's 1.2-mile swim, 51-year-old Gene Montague's heart gave out. Emergency personnel pulled him from the water and administered CPR, but the first-time Ironman competitor could not be resuscitated. While his death was tragic, according to an article published two days later by online news site The Daily Beast, it also "fit a pattern identified by experts who have studied triathlon fatalities."
One such study, authored by heart surgeon Lawrence Creswell, who analyzed fatalities among amateurs competing in U.S. triathlons, found that out of the 109 deaths between 1985 and 2015, 85 percent were men around age 50. Moreover, it showed that 70 percent of those deaths occurred during the swim.
The first leg of Ironman triathlons, the swim is considered the most dangerous due to both the adrenaline surge and the physical exertion. In an attempt to offset that risk, in 2013, Ironman officials introduced a SwimSmart Initiative for both its volunteers and its athletes, which includes modified swim starts, pre-race warm-ups and the monitoring of water temperatures.
"More than 600 treated at Ironman event; majority for heat illnesses"
– WRCB-TV 3, 9/26/2016
According to U.S. climate data, Chattanooga's average September high is 83 degrees Fahrenheit — warm by most standards, but especially for Ironman contenders who cover a total of 140.6 miles over the swim, bike and run courses.
But on Sept. 25, 2016, during the Ironman 140.6 Chattanooga, temperatures soared to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest that day had been in 85 years. More than 600 athletes and spectators were treated in Ironman's medical tents and 14 athletes were hospitalized.
"A majority of those individuals received treatment for heat-related illness," reporter Tim Pham wrote in his article for Chattanooga's WRCB-TV Channel 3 news.
In contrast, 200 athletes and spectators were treated at medical tents and nine were hospitalized during the Ironman 140.6 Chattanooga in 2015, when temperatures had topped out at a cool 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Chattanooga: Get ready to be charmed"
– Ironman News, 12/15/2016
The official Ironman website posted the above-mentioned article, which lauded the Scenic City for its food, coffee, hiking trails and high-speed internet, before the results for its annual Athletes' Choice Awards were even official.
When the more than 55,000 votes had been finally tallied, Chattanooga had indeed charmed.
Among the 40 full Ironman events and 96 half Ironman events hosted around the world in 2016, the Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga was voted first in "Best Race Venue," first in "Best Host City Experience," third in "Overall Bike" and fourth in "Overall Run."
Athletes who competed in the Ironman 140.6 Chattanooga voted the city second in "Best-Post Race Celebration," fourth in "Overall Swim" and "Best Race Venue," sixth in "Overall Satisfaction" and seventh in "Best Host City Experience."
"This weekend's Ironman 70.3 starts Chattanooga's year in the spotlight"
– Chattanooga Times Free Press, 5/20/2017
Now in its fourth year, Ironman Chattanooga will reach unprecedented heights this month. Not only will this be the first time the Ironman 70.3, Ironman 140.6 and Ironman 70.3 World Championship events will be hosted in the same city in the same year, but it is also the first Ironman 70.3 World Championship hosted in the U.S. since 2011.
"Every city is unique, but we have such a great relationship with Chattanooga that it just made sense to bring the world championship to Chattanooga. [Chattanooga and North Georgia] are a very welcoming community, and that's why we loved being there," Ironman Regional Director Audra Tassone told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in the above-mentioned article.
Naturally, this month's events are expected to attract record-breaking crowds, first with the world championships taking place on Sept. 9 and 10, then with the Ironman 140.6 on Sept. 24. In years past, Ironman Chattanooga events have attracted more than 21,000 spectators, who amass downtown to cheer on more than 2,000 worldwide athletes: determined, resilient forces of nature with which to be reckoned — the very embodiment of Chattanooga itself.
What some of the top athletes had to say about Chattanooga:
"I was fortunate enough to be able to race Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga in 2016. The entire city comes out to support this event and the energy that the community brings to this race is very special. Chattanooga will serve as a perfect place for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship."
— Justin Metzler, Boulder, Colorado
"I had a great experience in Chattanooga last year when I raced the Ironman 70.3. Having kind people who really care about professionals really makes a big difference, especially when we travel all over the world to new places. There is a warm, small-town feel to Chattanooga and the vibrant downtown makes for a great location to do a triathlon. I am excited to be going back to Chattanooga later this year for worlds."
— Jeanni Seymour, Johannesburg, South Africa
"Chattanooga was one of my favorite races last year! The town is just big enough, but still has that small-town feel with great restaurants and pubs and where everyone talks to you. As a race venue, it was great because everything is centered around one area. Most of the hotels are all in that area, so race morning, it's easy to just walk to transition and anywhere else you need to go. The people are all extremely friendly and so excited about the race. And I love the course: a downstream swim, rolling, punchy bike course through farmlands, and then an awesome run along the river where you get to cross over two different wooden bridges packed with spectators."
— Heather Jackson, Bend, Oregon
" The views throughout the run are really quite exciting, especially when running across the bridge on the last loop of the run. There are also some great things to do with the family while in Chattanooga, like take a drive to Lookout Mountain for a hike, visit the Tennessee Aquarium, head to Ruby Falls, and see some great Civil War history. Of course, my personal favorite was visiting the Quintana/Litespeed Factory and seeing how all of the handmade titanium frames were assembled — a true work of art and an absolute must for cycling fans! You won't be disappointed with a 'race-cation' to Chattanooga."
— Matt Hanson, Storm Lake, Iowa
The following are some of this year's top Ironman 70.3 competitors from around the world. Ironman's All World Athletes Program ranks each calendar year's full- and half-Ironman competitors in various age brackets based on their finish time at the 140.6, the 70.3, Ironman 5i50, Life Time Tri International and Sprint distance events. Representing some of the top 10 percent of their age group, the following Ironman 70.3 World Championship registered racers were projected in the top spot in their age bracket as of press time. Come race time, be on the lookout for:
Wednesday, Sept. 6
» 6-10 p.m. Public “Made inTennessee” celebration featuring bluegrass and country artists whose careers were made in Tennessee (Broad Street & West Aquarium Way)
Thursday, Sept. 7
» 4-5 p.m. Parade of Nations (Tennessee Aquarium)
Friday, Sept. 8
» 9 a.m. IronKids 1/2 mile and 1 mile fun run (Ironman finish line on Ross’s Landing)
Saturday, Sept. 9
» 7:30 a.m. Race start for professional women (south side of Tennessee River)
» 7:33 a.m. Race start for physically challenged women (south side of Tennessee River)
» 7:38 a.m. Race start for age group women (south side of Tennessee River)
» 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ironman Village (Ross’s Landing)
Sunday, Sept. 10
» 7:30 a.m. Race start for professional men (south side of Tennessee River)
» 7:33 a.m. Race start for physically challenged men (south side of Tennessee River)
» 7:38 a.m. Race start for age group men (south side of Tennessee River)
» 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ironman Village (Ross’s Landing)