This story was updated May 20, 2018, at 11:42 p.m.
Heather Jackson of Bend, Oregon, won Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga women's race Sunday for the third year in a row, fending off new mom and Ironman veteran Meredith Kessler in a battle between two of history's greatest American triathletes.
"I just love this town. I love this course. It's hard; it's tough; it's fair," Jackson said to the crowd immediately after the win. "Every year I just come back because this is so awesome. You just find these races you fall in love with."
Kessler and Jackson are two of the most accomplished women in the sport. Kessler has won 11 Ironman and 15 Ironman 70.3 races. She was recently voted the greatest female triathlete in American history. Jackson was runner-up in the same poll.
The Chattanooga course was seemingly tailor-made for the 34-year-old Jackson. She admittedly isn't a great swimmer or sprinter compared to the other top professional athletes. However, the swim course is mainly downstream, allowing Jackson to stay within reach of the leaders so she can use her strength on the bike and in the run to catch up and take the lead.
In her first two Chattanooga wins, Jackson had a comfortable lead after the bike leg. That wasn't going to be the case if she wanted to three-peat. Jackson and Kessler rode together, taking turns legally pacing each other. They finished together and ran side by side for much of the first 10 miles of the half- marathon. That's when Jackson made her move.
"She's such a strong runner, obviously," Kessler said. "I'm not trying to devalue myself, but I really knew at that point I had no chance. I was just trying to keep up."
Jackson did not want to find herself in a sprint or alongside Kessler going up the final hill with about a mile left. Jackson made her attack with less than three miles to go to beat Kessler by a minute and 12 seconds.
It's one of the first races Kessler has competed in since returning last month from delivering a son, Mak, late last year.
"I'm trying to race my way back into shape," she said. "I'm glad phenomenal athletes like Heather Jackson are here to whip me back into shape."
Jackson finished with a time of 4:11:08. Kessler finished in 4:12:20. Linsey Corbin finished five minutes and 35 seconds after Jackson to place third.
MEN'S PRO RACE
In the men's race, one of the strongest cyclists in Ironman history, Andrew Starykowicz, rode to the front of the field during the bike leg and held off a group of three challengers at his heels to win in his first race in Chattanooga.
Starykowicz holds the iron-distance and Ironman 70.3 World Championship records for fastest bike legs. He beat all challengers by more than five minutes on the bike to take a sizable lead heading into the final discipline: the run. Canadian Jackson Laudry made up considerable time and nearly ran himself to victory but placed second, letting out a roar at the finish in one of the best races of his career. Starykowicz finished in 3:46:28.
For Starykowicz, it was the first time his wife and their two young children got to watch one of his races together.
"This win is really special," he said. "It shocked me. I told my wife this was either going to be a wreck or it was going to be awesome, and it was awesome."
2017 Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga champion Matt Russell returned to the city for the race and placed seventh, but a lot has changed for the American since last year.
His wife gave birth to their first child, a boy, shortly after the victory. Later in the year, Russell traveled to Kona, Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships. During the race, a van pulled out in front of him. The resulting collision nearly killed him. He is still recovering from the incident but has returned to racing.
"There's been lots of ups and down in the last year. My first day with more than three hours of training was February 9, so that was more than four months completely off or with little training," he said. "This is my third race since. There's been lots of therapy; lots of setbacks, too."