Cook: Chattanooga is the endurance capital of America

Cook: Chattanooga is the endurance capital of America

August 18th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

With the announcement of the Chattanooga Ironman, it's high time we went ahead and said it.

Our city is the Outdoor Endurance Sport Capital of America.

And maybe the world.

"No question about it," said Randy Whorton, part of the Chattanooga Sports Committee that enticed Ironman here.

Long have we labored under the widely held belief that Boulder, Colo., was the crown prince of outdoor endurance sports.

Ever the bridesmaid, Chattanooga was content with that deferential, we'll-hold-the-door-open-for-you phrase: Chattanooga, the Boulder of the East.

"Forget that," said Whorton. "Boulder should be the Chattanooga of the West."

A thumbnail sketch of all else our Endurance Capital offers:

• USA Cycling Championships ($1.5 million economic impact).

• Rowing's Head of the Hooch ($4 million each year).

• The Triple Crown of Bouldering, a 10-mile open water swim, the 50k Stumpjump, a 100-mile bike ride, all part of the 12-day River Rocks Festival.

• Trail running, at distances from three miles to 50. Rumor has it, there's an upcoming 100-miler.

• Dozens of road races: from 5ks to marathons.

• Stand-up paddleboarding and our local hero Ben Friberg, who just became the first to stand-up paddleboard from the shores of Cuba to Florida.

• The Block: a 25,000-square-foot climbing gym opening in the heart of downtown.

"There are 56 trailheads within 25 minutes of downtown," said Whorton. "Not a city in the world can say that."

If you don't know Tony Stark about the Ironman, picture a gentle 5k, and keep picturing that for the next 15 hours.

The distance, longer than Ted Kennedy's drink list, is startling: a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile run.

I know, I know, but people really do it. And starting next September, they'll be coming here, from all over the country and world, for that very reason.

Landing an Ironman is like landing a college bowl game, only better. Ironman Chattanooga is expected to generate $8 million a year, in the same ballpark as the $14 million the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl brings Detroit.

Few football fans travel to a city to watch a bowl game and then decide to stay. Football-watching is, well, about watching, inherently a spectator sport. You watch, not participate. (The same could have been said for Tyler Bray.)

But the beauty of endurance sports is that they are inherently active. You don't watch, you participate. And you can't replicate our trails or rivers anywhere else. So if we're offering the best around, then people will come here to climb, swim, bike and run, and then live and work.

Like Whorton, who used to live in Boulder.

Plus, Ironman Chattanooga's economic impact is expected to be four times what we received from the women's Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in 2000, and more than three times the 2007 impact of the Football Championship Subdivision title game at Finley.

In other words: Chattanooga is becoming less and less of an old-school, traditional sports town and more of a mecca for endurance sports. The athletic texture of our town is changing.

"We're leading the South and maybe the country as far as changing the way people look at sports," said Whorton, also the executive director of the trail advocacy group Wild Trails.

It used to be that high school glory days led, perhaps, to some college playing time. But then, you get older, and the sport you grew up playing is the one you wind up watching.

"A lot of people are starting to spin that around," he said. "It's far more rewarding to get out and do something."

You can't play football at 50. But you can kayak or trail run, rock climb or cycle.

(Whorton envisions a marathon that draws 40,000 people through the streets and neighborhoods of downtown.)

We should have seen this coming. Chattanooga has a history of endurance. The locomotive legacy of the Choo-Choo. Our looming mountains, which are the tailfeather of the Appalachians, mountains far older than the tots they have in Boulder. And, of course, WDEF's Luther.

"We are an outdoor adventure sports destination," said Tim Morgan, president of the Greater Chattanooga Sports Event Committee.


We are THE outdoor adventure sport destination.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.