May has been quite the month for Chattanooga resident Ben Jungels, yet he still found the time, resolve and energy to complete his first Ironman triathlon at Sunday's Chattanooga Ironman 70.3.
Jungels graduated from Notre Dame High School this past week as the school valedictorian, and he's just days from competing on the track at the Spring Fling in Murfreesboro, where he will represent the Fighting Irish in the mile run and the 4x400-meter relay.
"It was very tough to fit the training in with track and all the (Advanced Placement) classes I was taking," said Jungels, who will attend Princeton University in the fall on a Navy ROTC scholarship. "But after all is said and done, I finished, and that's what matters. I absolutely want to compete in another one and as soon as possible."
Jungels was one of 3,051 athletes competing in Sunday's race, which consisted of a 1.4 mile swim in the Tennessee River, a 56-mile bike section that took competitors into North Georgia, and ended with a 13.1 mile half-marathon run along the Riverwalk and through North Chattanooga.
Sunday's turnout in Chattanooga was the largest field in any Ironman 70.3 in the world since the start of the pandemic in 2020, a sign that racing is returning to normal and continues to grow, race Director Drew Wolff said.
"That's a testament not only to the fact that people are coming back out to race, but that they're coming out to race in Chattanooga. We just love being a part of this community," Wolff said.
With no professional men's field competing Sunday, the first across the finish line was Canadian pro Paula Findlay, one of the world's top woman triathletes. She was runner-up in last fall's Ironman 70.3 World Championships and is ranked No. 4 in the world in the latest Professional Triathletes Organization world rankings.
Findlay, who finished with an unofficial time of 4 hours, 9 minutes and 44 seconds, said cooler temperatures and a breeze on the course was a benefit during her race.
"Today was beautiful, and the wind really helped cool it down," she said. "The temperatures were perfect. I know it can get really hot here, and that's not my favorite. So, I was grateful for the temps."
American Danielle Lewis was second with a time of 4:15:02, and South Africa's Jeanni Metzler was third, finishing just 35 seconds behind Lewis.
As the top pro women crossed the finish line Sunday, they were presented medals by 7-year-old Dakota Dupre, who was at the race with her father, Chris Dupre, and 4-year-old brother, Kai, to honor the memory of Carrie Armstrong.
Plenty of notable moments for Chattanooga's Ironman 70.3, world’s largest since pandemic
Armstrong, Chris' wife and the mother of Dakota and Kai, was registered to compete in Sunday's race in Chattanooga, but she was killed when her bike was hit by a car March 23 during a training ride near the family's home in Tryon, North Carolina.
Fans paid tribute to Armstrong and her surviving family, and the race winners took time to speak to the children and thank them for being a part of the day. Chris Dupre said the decision to attend the race was made by the children, who wanted to be a part of the event despite the loss of their mother.
"When I asked Dakota and Kai what they wanted to do, they were still gung-ho to do the kids run," Chris Dupre said. "So, I just thought we needed to see this through because that's what Carrie would have done.
"It's hard to put words to it. Just all the generosity ... and how everyone has just reached out to not only my children but to myself. It's just hard to describe, but I'm so thankful."
Ironman races are always about so much more than the top finishers standing atop the podium. For many athletes, overcoming fear and just competing is part of the challenge. As racers exited the swim Sunday, Kati Ardaugh, of Naperville, Illinois, took a moment to speak to cheering supporters and even speak by video call with family on the phone of friend Chris Marist.
Marist said completing the swim was a huge accomplishment for Ardaugh.
"This is her first half Ironman by herself," he said. "She's done the bike and run in a relay before, but she's always been afraid of the swim. She conquered her fear today, and I couldn't be more proud of her."
Jungels also had his share of adversity to overcome as well after a bike accident left him skinned up and in pain in the days leading up to Sunday's race. He completed Sunday's race, his first Ironman event, racing with his father, Matthew Jungels, and said competing against such high-level triathletes was an eye-opening experience.
"I was most inexperienced in the cycling part and got absolutely destroyed by other cyclists," Ben said. "But I had a great time, and racing with my dad was really special, too. It was definitely a challenging experience but in the best ways."
Sunday's cooler temperatures also made life easy on the more than 1,000 volunteers throughout the course and finish area.
Rose Cone-Mari, from Woodstock, Georgia, has raced in Chattanooga and was volunteering for her fifth time at a Chattanooga Ironman event Sunday. She said the conditions were ideal, especially compared to recent race days in the Scenic City.
"Today is amazing; it's unheard of," Cone-Mari said. "Normally, it's about 98 and above during the past two years. Today is just phenomenal racing conditions."
The volunteers are a crucial part of making any Ironman event work, Wolff said, and he was quick to praise the efforts of all who were working to make race day a success.
"That's the other category of athlete out here: the person that's lifting up a cup, handing out a medal or putting a hat on someone as they finish. They are the heroes of today," Wolff said.
With perfect racing conditions, lots of cheering fans and an army of hard-working volunteers, Findlay's first win in the Scenic City was a special experience.
"I really like the bike course. It's super fun, and the crowd and volunteers are amazing," she said. "This is a really special race with a lot of good history, and I usually race really well here. It's one of my favorites, so I'll be back."