After an announcer said just how close three competitors were to each other in the final stretch of Sunday's Ironman Chattanooga, several hundred spectators at the Ross's Landing finish line waited in excitement and suspense.
They craned their necks over barriers, rang cowbells, clapped their hands and screamed as Kirill Kotsegarov, Matt Chrabot and Stefan Schmid came into view, all grimacing in pain in the race's ninth hour.
With more than 2,000 other competitors still strewn out on the miles-long course, these were the first three to sniff the end, and the 144.5 miles behind them had done little to create separation between them.
They already had swum 2.4 miles in the Tennessee River and biked 116 miles through the city and deep into Walker County, Ga. Now here they were, 26.1 miles into their journey's final leg — a 26.2 mile run — and giving all they had to finish first.
"Come on, Chattanooga," the announcer yelled as the trio entered the final 100 yards. "Go crazy! This is one of the closest finishes we've ever seen!"
Kotsegarov darted ahead of Chrabot in the final few feet, creating a dramatic photo finish that delighted the crowd. Schmid stumbled across the finish line just seconds after Chrabot, and all three fell sprawling on the ground. The Ironman's announcer shouted that he had "never seen anything like this, unbelievable!"
City officials later tweeted that the finish was the closest in Ironman history.
It was a true highlight-reel finish that, from a competitive standpoint, made Chattanooga's second full Ironman memorable.
But for every snapshot taken of the men's professional finish, spectators took thousands more of their friends and family members — the lawyers, teachers, firefighters and insurance agents — pushing themselves to the limit on the latest marquee day for Chattanooga's ever-growing outdoor identity.
More than 2,500 athletes from 24 countries and 50 states, including 424 from Tennessee and 106 from Chattanooga, registered to compete, and about 12,000 visitors were in town on a weekend that, traditionally, had been slow for tourism until the Ironman came last year.
Early reports from race officials were positive. As of Sunday evening, no serious injuries had occurred and no interference had been reported on the route. Last year, vandals in Walker County, Ga., spread oil and tacks along the bike route.
"Everything's been going great," Ironman operations manager Audra Tassone said. "The city has been more than helpful, and the community has welcomed us back. We didn't really have to make that many changes [from last year] except for maybe a few crowd-control barriers."
People lined the riverfront from sunrise, when the swim began, until well after sundown. Competitors were given 17 hours to finish the course, and they had no shortage of support along the way.
In Chickamauga, Ga., hundreds of fans and volunteers took over the town square in the middle of the day as bicyclists pedaled through.
"It's a long day for the spectators as well as the participants," said Terri Davis, of Lenoir City, Tenn., who came with her husband, Joe, to see their son, 30-year-old Red Bank resident Ryan Davis, compete.
The Davises watched Ryan get out of the water and onto his bike at Ross's Landing. Then they boarded a free shuttle to Chickamauga, where they waited for his bike to appear as noon approached.
"We're so proud of him," Joe Davis said moments after snapping a cellphone picture of his son. "The amount of training they put in is incredible."
The scene in Chickamauga improved from last year, Terri Davis said, explaining that more barriers were in place and the shuttling system seemed to be operating more efficiently.
Food vendors set up beside the bike route, and some downtown Chickamauga businesses typically closed on Sundays were filled with customers.
Back in Chattanooga, groups of spectators watched as bikers rolled through St. Elmo. The racers were either on their way to Georgia or headed back to the race's downtown hub, where spectators got creative with their vantage points for the running portion of the race.
Some watched from the Veterans Bridge or Walnut Street Bridge while others were stationed at the deck of the Burger Bar on the Southern Belle riverboat. Some spectators could be seen looking out from the upper-floor glass windows in the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee Aquarium, and more than a few were stationed in portable hammocks along the route.
Stephanie Graham, of Chattanooga, and Patty Page, of Chantilly, Va., set up a tent overlooking the beginning of the running course on a terrace in front of the Southern Belle on Friday morning. Both have been to numerous Ironman events as competitors and spectators, developing a network of friends through the sport.
"I think Chattanooga is going to become the premier racing event for Ironman, because it's new, it's fresh and there's a big crowd support," Page said. "I think it's a great venue. I think they need to fix some of the expo areas that have gotten muddy. But as they get better at it, I think this will be the premier event.
"It's easy to get to, it's a fun place. It's got a great, challenging course, and the water is fast."
As the first three finishers closed in on the final stretch and the crowd gathered around the finish line, Chattanooga resident Laura York offered her take on the spectator frenzy surrounding the day.
"It's motivating," she said. "It's emotional to watch, for some reason, seeing these people push through."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.