Wiedmer: Ironman's soft side is strong, too

Competing in events like Sunday's Ironman Chattanooga 70.3 is about more than earning medals, writes columnist Mark Wiedmer.
photo Mark Wiedmer

Chris and Michelle Ray were going to run Sunday's Ironman Chattanooga 70.3 together. They were going to run for their 10-year-old daughter Addie, who suffers from Angelman syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder.

"It was my idea," Michelle said. "We started planning for this in March of 2015. But then I hurt my knee."

So Chris swam and biked and ran alone. Sort of.

For at every step of the way, he said, there were encouraging folks cheering his stocky, 37-year-old body to the finish.

"The crowd was absolutely amazing," said the Ringgold, Ga., resident. "It was incredible how everybody was so supportive, just cheering everybody on. Even pretty far out on the bike course, there were people cheering for you."

Ray said the support helped. A lot. He had trained for more than a year, logging more than 200 miles a month by foot, pedal and water. Even then, when asked if all that cheering made it easier, he grinned and said, "No!"

But he finished more than an hour ahead of the 4:30 p.m cutoff, then got hugs and kisses from Michelle, Addie and friends.

"It's just amazing," said Michelle, who attended the Center for the Creative Arts here in Chattanooga, then met Chris at the University of Alabama. "I'm so proud of him. I know Addie's so proud, too."

There were reportedly close to 7,000 visitors in our city this past weekend, many of them here to cheer the 3,000-plus participants in the competition, which is half the distance of a regular Ironman.

And while most left as proud and happy as the Rays and their friends, this Ironman was also marked by tragedy in Sunday's early hours, a participant dying during the swim. It was almost assuredly no one's fault, but it is a grim reminder of what so many of these weekend warriors put their bodies through for the sole purpose of hearing their name shouted at the finish line, followed by the words: "You're an (half) Ironman."

In fact, tragedy hit the Chattanooga triathlon community before the weekend began, with Chattanooga Triathlon Club member Sam Lamb passing away Wednesday at age 53, leaving behind wife Melissa and daughter Sarah.

"You never know when death is going to come," said Hamilton County Sheriff's Officer Robert Starnes, one of the late Lamb's closest friends. "But Sam was one of the most positive people you could ever meet. He never met a stranger, and this was something he loved. We used to compete against each other all the time. We used to see who could finish last. It's been a tough week."

To make the weekend better, a lot of those 90-plus members of the Chattanooga Triathlon club wrote "Sam" on their calves before the race.

A toe injury kept Starnes from competing this time around, but he first got into triathlons because he promised his late daughter Jessie that he'd lose weight for her before she tragically died of a brain aneurysm at age 9. To date, he has dropped 173 pounds, going from 425 to 252, with plans to compete in this fall's full Chattanooga Triathlon.

"I've gone from fat man to Ironman," he said.

Perhaps no one has endured more sports injuries before completing her first 70.3 Ironman than Coby Kozlowski of Massachusetts.

"I saw my first Ironman when I was in the 10th grade," said the 39-year-old Kozlowski. "I was weeping watching it on television."

She could have been forgiven for weeping throughout her 20s, when she endured nine knee surgeries. (Her bad luck included injuring both knees at the same time while playing Ultimate Frisbee.) But she has also run a Boston Marathon, and on Thursday morning she jumped in her Volkswagen station wagon and made the 15-hour drive to the Scenic City.

By around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, she had completed the course in 7:48.27.

"I'm just proud that I showed up," she said.

She's also said, "I love Chattanooga. First time I've been to Tennessee, and I was so grateful today to be around so many beautiful, inspiring, awesome people. I've got a week's vacation coming up this week, and I think I'll spend a lot of it right here."

You might think the professional Ironman competitors would see it differently. Their primary goals, after all, are to earn money, pick up a pretty crystal bowl, hopefully qualify for the world 70.3 Ironman in Australia later this year.

But the comments of women's pro winner Heather Jackson regarding our town weren't all that different from the amateurs.

"The people here - whether it's in a restaurant or the YMCA - are so friendly," she said. "They're so into it. This is my first time here, but this is one of those races we all look forward to. The people on the bridges, everyone calling your name. I'll definitely be back."

It's everything you want your city to be known for in other parts of the country. And it may be what keeps the Ironman coming back after all those years of losing NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title games, Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournaments, U.S. Cycling races and minor league golf tournaments.

At its core, however, these events that mix amateurs and professionals are best framed by the amateurs and their admirable thirst to merely finish what they started far more than their desire to mount a victory stand.

Or as Michelle Ray said of her husband when he was asked how he intended to celebrate: "He can have anything in the whole world he wants."

When what you want most of all is to put a smile on your 10-year-old daughter's face and you succeed, as Ray did Sunday afternoon, that's victory most sweet, whatever your race time or finish.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.