Ironman triathlons can be a life-changing event for the athletes participating, the volunteers manning the aid stations and the spectators cheering the competitors. But the race also has helped transform a small Southern city into an internationally known outdoor destination.
Less than three years after the first Ironman Chattanooga was held in September 2014, the Scenic City will take another step in its Ironman journey next weekend when 4,500 athletes gather to compete over two days at the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships.
The event's impact on this area is not only economic, but also personal for some residents.
"I got back into triathlons when Ironman came to town," Chattanooga Tri Club President Billy Day said. "I had done some back in the early 1990s, but hadn't done one for 20 years. When Ironman came to town and you saw people complete it, that was kind of a line in the sand and you knew it was time to get back in shape."
Next weekend, Chattanooga will host the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, during which the top professional and age-group triathletes in the world will compete over a course featuring a 1.2-mile swim, 53-mile bike and 13.1-mile run. The women’s race will begin Saturday at 7:30 a.m. at Ross’s Landing, with the men’s race scheduled for Sunday morning. More than 4,500 athletes are registered for the race with thousands of other visitors expected in Chattanooga this week.
While Day won't be competing next weekend — he is preparing for the full Chattanooga Ironman on Sept. 24 — he now leads a club of more than 300 triathletes and will be hard at work Saturday and Sunday volunteering at an aid station on the run course.
The Scenic City has become the Ironman City in 2017, with next weekend's men's and women's 70.3 world championships joining the city's annual Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races for this year. It's an unprecedented undertaking that provides unprecedented publicity.
"We're going to be the first city in the world to host four Ironman events in one year," Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Friday. "That shows the height of our city as a premier outdoor location. It's also a tremendous brand-building opportunity for us."
BRINGING IRONMAN TO CHATTANOOGA
The city almost missed out on its chance at Ironman glory, said Chattanooga Sports Committee President Tim Morgan.
With the international Ironman organization looking to expand into the Southeastern United States in 2013, several midsized cities were competing for the chance to host a full Ironman and the economic boost brought by thousands of visitors. Hilton Head, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Asheville, N.C., were among cities in the running.
"We got a lead from a local businessman who is an Ironman athlete, and his email to us asked, 'Why are we not in the mix?'" Morgan said. "My response to him was, 'That's a good question.' We believed this would be good for our community, so we went after it and won the bid.
"They saw the beauty of our community; they saw the compact package of our downtown; they saw the body of water that they could swim in; and they saw the beautiful bike course with our partners in Walker County."
With the five-year contract secured, local organizers wanted to make a good first impression. Thousands of volunteers and spectators came to the first Chattanooga Ironman in 2014, creating an environment that impressed Ironman officials, as well as the athletes and their families. For many, it was their first trip to Chattanooga.
"When that first full distance event came here and the athletes had a 98 percent overall satisfaction rate, then it was easy to extend the business relationship," Morgan said.
Officials say happy participants and Chattanooga's enthusiasm for the event impressed Ironman officials, who found the city and area to be a near-perfect host.
"After the very first Ironman events, I spoke to one of the top Ironman officials and asked what should we be doing differently to make this a better experience," Berke said. "His response was to say that we have one of the best platforms in the world for this type of outdoor event."
But that first Ironman in 2014 wasn't without its problems. A man's body was found in the Tennessee River just downstream from the exit of the swim, and vandals attempted to disrupt the bike route by throwing oil and tacks on the roads in North Georgia.
For Chattanooga to overcome these setbacks and shine during its Ironman debut made an impression that helped define it as a premier host city, local organizers said.
"When you encounter challenges and you see how the team responds to them, then you know how strong an event you have put together," Morgan said. "We collectively as a community put together one strong dynamic.
"Everybody working together has truly defined the success for this event."
THE BUSINESS BOOST
After the 2014 Chattanooga Ironman, Dr. Andrew Bailey, a sports and leisure professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, examined the impact of the event on the local economy. His findings were a validation of Chattanooga's pursuit of the contract to host the event.
With more than 10,000 out-of-town visitors spending more than $1,000 apiece locally during their stay, Bailey found that Ironman generated more than $10 million in direct spending and a total economic impact of $13.4 million.
Ironman officials awarded Chattanooga a four-year bid to host a second event, an Ironman 70.3 held in the spring. That was followed by news that the Scenic City would host the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World championships, just a year after hosting its first Ironman event.
"I don't want to say it's been a surprise, but it hasn't happened often in our history," Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said of Chattanooga's rapid rise. "This is a place our athletes are going to want to go."
And area businesses stand to benefit from the influx of athletes and visitors.
"Chattanooga's largest industry is tourism — it's a $1 billion industry here," said John Wiygul, president of High Point Climbing and Fitness, a rock-climbing gym located downtown. "Chattanooga, and especially the downtown businesses, heavily rely on tourism. So for us to have three weekends where the city is completely sold out is amazing.
"With 5,000 athletes competing next weekend, the economic impact is huge. It helps everything from hotels to restaurants to local tourist attractions."
Wiygul, who will be competing next Sunday, expects to have plenty of visitors to his gym near the Tennessee Aquarium.
"These athletes are coming from all over the world every continent will be represented, and they will want to come early to be prepared for the race," he said. "They'll be bringing their families, and obviously, they'll be looking for something to do during the day, and we're an attraction right downtown.
"We'll provide a great activity for them to do before or after the race — or maybe even during the race while their family member is out on the course."
Chattanooga officials and local triathletes credit the enthusiastic support for Ironman as the key to its success and rapid rise in the sport. Thousands of volunteers man aid stations, rescue boats and transition areas to assist athletes.
"Our people is the differentiator between our market and other markets that are our competition," Morgan said. "That's why Ironman wants to continue to do business in this market. The athletes love it."
Day agreed the volunteer army is a key factor in Ironman's commitment to Chattanooga over the past three years.
"Chattanooga has been able to accommodate as far as the number of volunteers, and we have more volunteers than we have racers."
Also, public employees from Chattanooga, Hamilton County and Walker County in Georgia put in extra hours ensuring athletes' safety while managing the extra activity that comes with a world-class athletic event, Berke said.
"This is a major undertaking for them," he said of the work by law enforcement, emergency responders and public works employees. "We're trying to make sure the city looks great for thousands of worldwide visitors."
In the end, perhaps, the secret to Chattanooga's success as an Ironman city lies in something the city has prided itself on for generations: old-fashioned Southern hospitality.
"What I hear from Ironman and the athletes is they feel welcome," Morgan said. "They actually feel welcome here, and as an event host that's something you have absolutely zero control over. You can communicate, you can educate, and you can ask for people to show Southern hospitality. But then the proof is in the pudding.
"Chattanooga has continued to live up to its hospitable reputation."
Contact Jim Tanner at JFTanner@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.