It all started with a promise to a little girl who loved her father.
When Hamilton County Sheriff's Lt. Robert Starnes enters the Tennessee River this morning to compete in the inaugural Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga triathlon, he will be taking another step toward keeping that promise to his daughter, who passed away seven years ago (remember that number -- it's important).
Starnes, 51, is among about 2,500 athletes competing today in the swim/bike/run through Chattanooga and North Georgia. It is the second Ironman event Chattanooga hosts, along with the full Ironman Chattanooga in the fall.
Today will be Starnes' first attempt at an Ironman triathlon, but the journey he's been on has more than prepared him for the miles he will cover today.
Jessie Anna Starnes was a third-grader at Wallace A. Smith Elementary School in 2008. Like most 9-year-olds, she loved school, her friends and her family and wanted the best for them. That's probably why she asked her father -- who then weighed 425 pounds -- to get healthy.
"I had her at my house, and she said 'Daddy, I wish you'd lose some weight and get healthy,'" Starnes said last week. "I said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' I mean, I figured I had 20, 30 or 40 years to make a lifestyle change.
"And then a month and a half later, I had to declare her brain-dead."
Jessie had a brain aneurysm and collapsed at her mother's house. Despite the best efforts of doctors at Erlanger, she suffered massive brain damage and died March 19, 2008.
But her spirit lived on through organ donation. Her eyes, lungs, kidneys and liver were used to help seven other people in need of transplants. Jessie's parents knew sharing to help others, even in death, was what she would have wanted.
"Jessie was such a loving child," Starnes said. "We didn't know this at the time, but she would give away her school supplies at school to other kids who either forgot them or didn't have them. She didn't want them to get in trouble, so she said, 'Here, you could have my pencil,' or 'Here, you can have my paper.'"
"So this is what she would have wanted -- here, have mine."
To this day, Starnes and others keep "Jessie's Desk" stocked with school supplies at Wallace A. Smith Elementary so any student who needs school supplies can have them for free.
And the tragedy had a deep impact on Starnes as well, changing his outlook on life as he struggled through the toughest moment a parent can go through.
"I'm a better man today than I was the day before she died," he said. "My life perspective has changed. Things that used to be important to me aren't anymore."
"Living my life, being happy, trying to make a difference for other people: That is my focus now. I put others first, and I enjoy living. I enjoy life. There's life out there, you just have to sometimes find it."
KEEPING HIS PROMISE
With his daughter's sudden passing, Starnes knew he had to keep his promise to get healthy and lose weight.
He began eating better, participated in Scenic City Boot Camp in 2010 and finished second in the Chattanooga's Biggest Loser competition in 2010. He had gastric band surgery in 2013 to help him lose more weight. He was keeping his promise, but then another touching story inspired him to go even further.
Starnes came out to last fall's Ironman Chattanooga to support his friend Jason Greer, a local firefighter. Greer completed the 144.6-mile triathlon to honor his son, Tristin, who suffers from neuroblastoma, and to raise money for research into a cure for this form of pediatric cancer.
Greer's story was widely told leading up to the Ironman last September, as he also had to get in shape to finish the event. He made it before the midnight cutoff, with Starnes and others cheering him on.
Starnes was impressed -- and inspired.
"I went down to watch Jason and was there six or seven hours to cheer him on," he said. "As I was watching, I started thinking 'You know, I think with training I could do this.'
"I made the decision, and asked Jason if he'd do it with me and he said he'd be glad to."
GETTING TO WORK
Starnes signed up with trainer Andy Sweet at HUB Endurance and began working to become a triathlete. Despite his weight loss to this point, becoming an endurance athlete was a new and daunting challenge.
"A year ago if you had seen me running, you'd better catch the man that's chasing me," Starnes said, laughing. "The only way I would have ran is if someone was chasing me."
In November, Starnes' first half-marathon wasn't the most auspicious beginning -- he walked the entire way, finishing in four hours and 15 minutes. But he finished, and he didn't quit.
"I was dying the next day and wasn't sure I wanted to do this," he said. "But I kept doing it, and I just completed my sixth half-marathon since November at the end of April. Every time I run one, I set a new personal record."
Starnes' determination is what defines his quest to complete today's Ironman and the full Ironman Chattanooga, which he is also entered in for this fall. His commitment remained strong even as he struggled through another tragedy in March -- the death of his father.
Sweet calls Starnes "one of those clients you love to have."
"If it was on his (training) program, he did it. It didn't matter if he had a 24-hour shift or anything else going on. It's really neat when you have someone who will do what you're saying to that T."
Sweet put Starnes on the road to becoming a runner and a triathlete, but Starnes found he received more than training tips from the tight-knit endurance sport community in Chattanooga.
"Since I have become a runner and now a triathlete, I have received so much support," he said. "It doesn't matter what your body type is or what your skill level is. Everybody is so supportive.
"When you have a good day, they're all there for you. And when you have a bad day, they're there for you. When you run races everyone is cheering you on, the cowbells are ringing. It's a family atmosphere."
Sweet believes that unstinting support is what draws athletes with a cause to compete in triathlons and marathons to raise money and honor others. It's a sport of "compete-ers" and "complete-ers," where those trying to win and those just trying to finish are equally celebrated for an accomplishment that is months or years in the making.
"There are going to be times (today) where people are going to say 'This really hurts. I'm tired; pizza and beer sounds really good right now,'" Sweet said. "And that's where people either go 'I don't care, I'm finishing,' or they quit.
"And I believe that those who have a bigger purpose to race make the right decisions during those times in the race."
THE POWER OF SEVEN
Starnes is competing today to highlight several causes. He's a member of the Emily's Power for a Cure team to support neuroblastoma research, and he's racing to honor fellow law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty.
But perhaps the most important cause for Starnes is Tennessee Donor Services, which helps families through the tough process of organ donation. It's a cause he knows well and a program he hopes more people will participate in.
"Personally, I can't imagine my child needing a liver, or my child needing a set of lungs and all of a sudden getting that call saying, 'Your donor is available,'" he said. "So we took our tragedy and turned it into another set of parents' triumph."
As he's trained for today's Ironman, Starnes has seen a pattern that lets him know Jessie's spirit is at work in his training. It's the power of seven.
This March was the seventh anniversary of Jessie's death, and seven people benefited from the seven organs she donated. But there's more than that.
* The half marathon portion of today's Ironman will be Starnes' seventh.
* Jessie would be 16 years old today: 1+6=7
* Starnes' badge number is 1150: 1+1+5+0=7
* Starnes' old patrol car number is 124: 1+2+4=7
* Starnes' current patrol car number is 007
Even Starnes' race number of 2564 fits the pattern. Two plus five equals seven, and '64 is the year he was born.
"People think I'm crazy, but the signs are there," he said. "It all goes back to the seven organs that were donated. There's a lot of significant numbers there that come up the same."
'MY RACE, MY PACE'
Starnes feels ready for today's challenge. The work he's put into training with the help of Sweet and others has him peaking at the right time and he's confident.
"Right now I'm trusting the process," he said. "Personally, right now I feel I'm ready."
He may not be the fastest triathlete in Chattanooga, but he knows that this journey is just beginning and it won't end at the finish line at Ross's Landing.
"I use the slogan 'My race, my pace,' and that's exactly what it is," he said. "I'm not a professional athlete, but I am an athlete. ... I'm doing this now to honor my commitment, but I plan to continue doing Ironman races."
While his life has changed in so many ways since 2008, it's still the promise to a little girl that remains the driving force in Robert Starnes' personal, spiritual and physical journey to the starting line of this morning's Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga.
"I started this journey six months ago to become an Ironman," he said. "I have the right reasons to do it. I've done the training, done each of the different events. Now it's time to put them together.
"It's time to honor my commitment."
Contact Jim Tanner at JFTanner@bellsouth.net. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.