Starting about 7:30 this morning, thousands of athletes will step onto a temporary pier on the Tennessee River just over two miles upstream from downtown Chattanooga. The morning air will be charged with nerves, excitement, perhaps even fear.
The journey that brings these individuals to this point will be different for every person, but the goal is the same: Finish the day as an official Ironman.
The inaugural Ironman Chattanooga will be held today, with more than 2,500 athletes striving to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 116-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run before the day is over.
Some of the Ironman competitors are professional athletes, trying to win the race and be the best in their sport. But for others today is about survival and achieving something perhaps they thought they could never have achieved and would not have been possible without the help of friends and family who have supported them as they've trained for this day.
"What I feel in the morning is excitement and nerves, and I usually feel emotional," said Chicago-area athlete Dave Bartoszewski. "There's a lot of sacrifice by family and friends as well as myself to get to this point. It wasn't just me that got to the start line -- it was a whole group that got me here.
"So you really feel a sense of pride, and you want to do well for the people around you."
Bartoszewski, 35, will be cheered on by his pregnant wife and young child as well as his father, sister and friends, who have traveled to Chattanooga to support him today. But his mother won't be cheering for him from the sideline -- she'll be joining him on the 144.6-mile odyssey as they both attempt to qualify for the 2015 Ironman World Championship.
Dave Bartoszewski failed to complete his first triathlon in 2005 after his bike broke and he injured himself on the run, but by 2007 he was ready to compete in his first Ironman in Madison, Wis., where his mother, Sue, came to watch. What she saw inspired her.
"It was probably the most amazing thing I've ever seen," she said. "I was quite overweight and not athletic. I had spent my life raising my kids and working, so never really any time for that.
"Just to watch my son and all those athletes compete like that, I remember standing there thinking, 'I want to do this.' and then thinking, 'What, are you crazy?'"
Crazy or not, Sue Bartoszewski began training, joined a triathlon group, completed her first triathlon in 2008 and by 2012 was back in Wisconsin for her first Ironman as a competitor with hopes of a decent finish.
Sue Bartoszewski did better than finish -- she won her age group in that race and qualified for the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, although she passed her qualification down as she didn't yet feel ready to take on the challenge of the world's greatest triathlon.
"I just wasn't prepared for it," she said. "But I did go to Kona with Dave (who had qualified for the 2012 World Championship), and it was so exciting to watch him compete out there. I have just progressed since then. Dave is now my coach, and we are doing Ironman Chattanooga together, which is just so exciting."
Everyone who takes on the challenge of an Ironman is inspiring, and some of the stories shared by the Ironman public relations office are a small slice of the amazing things this event has done to change lives:
Jonathan Anthony of Thompson, Tenn., has overcome addictions and alcoholism to compete today.
Kristen Balla of Richmond, Va., missed the 2012 Ironman Mont Tremblant when she was found to have multiple pulmonary embolisms and was sent to intensive care. Fully recovered, she's in Chattanooga to complete the Ironman that was denied her more than two years ago.
Go to timesfreepress.com/ironman for race updates, photos and video.
More Ironman coverage Monday.
PAYING THE PRICE
Triathlete Dave Bartoszewski has coached his mother, Sue, from a sedentary life to becoming an Ironman triathlete. An accomplished triathlete himself, Bartoszewski said most people training to complete an Ironman triathlon average 10 to 12 hours a week throughout the year leading up to race day, increasing to 18 to 25 hours of training in the "build" weeks about two to four weeks prior to race day.
Activities inluded in a typical build week:
Four bike rides
One to two strength-training sessions
Most athletes do multiple workouts in the morning and after work during the week, while weekends are reserved for longer workouts with a longer bike ride and maybe a swim. In the past week or two heading into today's race, Bartoszewski said most athletes should have been resting, eating well and staying well-hydrated in the past few days.
- Jim Tanner
David Storm of Hixson is a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football player who weighed 350 pounds five years ago. After losing 110 pounds, the 42-year-old is looking to become an Ironman in his hometown.
Dayna York and Michael Oyler are cancer survivors who have overcome grave illness to race in what some call the toughest one-day endurance event in the world, while Austin Lasource will be racing in honor of his son, Ryan, who is battling leukemia.
Chattanooga Fire Department Lt. Eric Stone and Senior Firefighter Jason Greer will be representing this area's first responders as competitors in their hometown Ironman.
The inspirational stories are endless, and everyone has their own amazing story to tell. But all who start today have one thing in common -- a determination to accomplish something that seemed almost impossible when they began their individual journey to the start line this morning at the edge of Tennessee River.
"I know a lot of times I'll talk to people about this, and they say, 'Oh, I could never run.' And I say, 'Well, I couldn't, either,'" Sue Bartoszewski said. "But if you put your mind to it, you can do it. You can do what you put your mind to."
Now 62, Sue hopes to finish well enough today to qualify again for a spot in the Ironman World Championship, an opportunity she's now ready for because, as she says, "You don't pass on that twice."
Dave Bartoszewski said that training for the Ironman and coaching his mother strengthened what already was a tight bond between them.
"We've always been close, but this has brought us much closer," he said. "She's a true inspiration for me. She started at 57 without an athletic bone in her body as far as we knew.
"What she's been able to do over the last couple of years has been nothing short of amazing."
Sue also has enjoyed sharing this passion with her son.
"He's very knowledgeable," she said, "and I can't think of anyone I'd rather do this with besides Dave. He's just so supportive, and it's taken our relationship as mother and son to a whole different level. It's been amazing."
That doesn't mean that it's always easy for a son to push his mother to her physical limits.
"There are some workouts that I don't like her to do," Dave said. "I don't like my 62-year-old mom to be out riding a bike by herself for five or six hours.
"Sometimes that can be a little bit of a struggle for me as a son to put those emotions aside, but my mom wants to do this and this is something she's dedicated to."
As the start time approaches this morning, every athlete will contemplate all of the steps that have brought him or her to this point -- this moment of truth. Many will use a phrase -- or mantra -- to help them get through the grueling hours ahead as they try to finish before the 12:15 a.m. official cutoff time to complete the race.
Sue Bartoszewski has her mantra for the day -- a mantra given to her by her coach who is much more than a coach.
"This year is very important, and my coach -- my son -- gave me three words to focus on: smooth, which is fast; steady, which is smart; and strong, which he says I am.
"So smooth, steady and strong, that's what I'm going to do. And I'm going to keep repeating that so I can stay on task [throughout the race]."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.