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Heather Jackson takes the win for the second year in a row during the Sunbelt Bakery IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga triathlon presented by McKee A Family Bakery in downtown Chattanooga on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Photo by Dan Henry | DanHenryPhotography.com

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Braving the elements: Storms bypass Ironman

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The sun peeked through the clouds Sunday morning and smiled on Chattanooga.

Strong storms had threatened the Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, leaving officials planning for the worst.

Race officials met throughout the week and discussed options that included canceling portions of the race, but the storms stayed east of the Scenic City and its spotlight event.

"We were very happy to see that," Ironman Regional Director Audra Tassone said. "We were extremely happy when we woke up to see that it was just cloudy this morning."

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Even the most optimistic expected at least a wet morning, but though clouds loomed overhead, the rain stayed away on race day.

Wind and rain did come through Saturday night, destroying some small tents in Ironman Village and strengthening the current of the Tennessee River.

Tassone and other race officials met over the course of the week and multiple times yesterday to discuss every scenario for the expected storms. That included possibly shortening or canceling the swim leg, shortening the bike or running leg or continuing as planned.

Ultimately, race officials elected to shorten the swim from 1.2 miles to 0.8 miles for age-group competitors to keep them from swimming against the strong current, while the professional athletes raced the full course.

"Even the professional athletes —who are usually the stronger swimmers — struggled some with [the current], so we saw that and I think we made the right decision," Tassone said.

Women's professional race

American Heather Jackson claimed her second consecutive Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga victory.

Jackson finished in 4:15:20 and claimed Chattanooga's similarity to her hometown as a key reason for her success in the city.

"I love Chattanooga," Jackson said. "It reminds me of my home town in Bend, Oregon. It's pretty similar."

Coming out of the water, Jackson was in fifth place, two minutes and 25 seconds behind leader Sheila Treleaven.

"The swim is always my worst. Every time, I'm always behind," Jackson said. "The bike is my strength, so I just go all-out on the bike and see if I can hold on on the run."

Jackson did just that. By the first cycling checkpoint she jumped to the lead and stayed there through the finish line.

She finished two minutes and five seconds ahead of runner-up Sarah True. Jackie Hering took third place.

Men's professional race

In the men's professional race, Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches came out of the swim 30 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, and it would be several hours before any other racer saw him again.

He extended his lead to about seven minutes after a strong bike leg and start to the run, but the Canadian ran out of energy in the last several miles.

"The running was going super good the first lap," Desroches said. "I didn't want to eat too much or drink too much because I was afraid I was going to cramp, but then I completely bonked at 15 [kilometers]."

After not eating enough, Desroches quickly replenished and ended up overcompensating, which led to cramps at the finish, he said.

Matt Russell overtook the nearly start-to-finish leader in the final two miles to claim the victory.

Russell, of Florida, finished the swim leg outside the top 10 before gaining ground in the bike leg and ultimately overtaking all competitors in the final leg.

Russell credits his victory to his newly found power: dad strength.

"My wife is due with a baby boy next month," Russell said. "Someone told me it's going to give me dad power, and I'm already starting to feel that dad power in a way."

Russell finished in 3:57:35.

This is Russell's fourth race in Chattanooga. He finished third in 2016 Ironman Chattanooga and has completed two full Ironman races and two 70.3 races in the Scenic City.

"It takes a little bit of luck, too; to win, you have to have a good day," Russell said. "I got a little bit sick earlier in the week, but I felt myself getting fast and faster throughout the race."

Adam Ostot, from Virginia, finished in second place. Desroches finished a career-best third.

The amateurs

Knoxville accountant Alan Horton claimed the amateur victory with the fastest time among age-group athletes.

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Horton has competed in the Ironman world championships and finished high in his age group in other events. Sunday marked his first Ironman victory.

"First of all, we lucked out on weather," Horton said. "We thought it was going to be 100 percent rain and were prepared for the worst."

Some of Saturday night's rain may have aided Horton in his win.

The swim leg, which was shortened, is admittedly his worst of the three.

"Swimming is my weakest link," he said. "But honestly, I was kind of disappointed because I wanted to swim the full distance. They have to take safety first, though, and I think that's important. I see their reasoning and fully support it."

Horton finished in 3:55:57, eight seconds ahead of Kevin Denny of Missouri, but it was Denny's Every Man Jack team that filled the standings.

Every Man Jack placed second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh overall for amateur athletes, with several of those finishers winning their age groups.

Horton's training partner, Jack McAfee, races for Every Man Jack and finished fifth.

"We kind of paced each other," Horton said. "On the turnarounds we would give each other thumbs-up and high fives."

Every Man Jack competitors are spread out across the country but the team is based in San Francisco. It brought 16 riders to Chattanooga to race on Sunday.

Blaire Kniaziew Gervais of Canada was the top female finisher for age group athletes. The 41-year-old finished in 4:23:41.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6361. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace.

Updated May 21 at 4:15 p.m. with additional photos and the section about age group racers and again at 11:55 p.m. with minor edits.

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