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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 9/25/16. Marino Vanhoenacker #2, from Jabbeke, BEL, raises his hands in victory as he wins the 2016 Little Debbie IRONMAN Chattanooga triathlon on September 25, 2016. Vanhoenacker won overall with a time of 8:12:22. More than 2,700 athletes registered to compete in a 2.4-mile swim, 116-mile bike and 26.2-mile run throughout Chattanooga and North Georgia.

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Belgian wins record-hot Ironman Chattanooga race

Last year's Ironman Chattanooga finish set a record for being the closest finish in the organization's history. Sunday provided yet another record.

A high temperature of 97 degrees welcomed thousands of spectators, volunteers and competitors to the city's third full Ironman triathlon event.

The last time it was hotter on Sept. 25 in Chattanooga was 1931, before any of the 2,500-plus competitors in Sunday's race were born.

Athletes ranging in age from 18-80 subjected themselves to summer heat on a fall day by swimming 2.4 miles, biking 116 and running 26.2, all with the goal of hearing, "congratulations, you are an Ironman" at the end of a long day, and months — even years — of training.

Winner Marino Vanhoenacker of Belgium spent 20 minutes in a medical aid tent after crossing the finish line at Ross's Landing in the middle of the afternoon.

"I don't think anyone saw this coming," he said of the heat.

Second-place finisher Jeff Symonds of Canada needed to be escorted to the same medical tent just minutes after telling reporters that, "we sign up because it's tough, it's hard and it's going to test our limits physically and mentally."

Dozens more ended up in the same tent before they made it to the finish line, but fan support remained high along the course, despite the searing heat.

Ross's Landing served as the race hub, but spectators found shade in places ranging from the North Shore to Chickamauga, Ga., and at spots in between to cheer on those attempting the grueling challenge.

Hundreds gathered at Chickamauga's town square in the middle of the day, ringing cowbells, holding signs and encouraging the competitors as they churned through the 116-mile bike ride with the sun hovering overhead.

The top riders came through the town square between 9:45 and 11 a.m. on their first of two loops on the bike course.

Ryan Werner of Charlotte, N.C., wasn't too far behind them.

His young daughter, Sela, held up a sign for him as he rode through.

"You are the best. I love you," it read.

"It was really cool, because last year when he did it, it wasn't his best race," Sela Werner said, just moments after her dad passed by. "So I'm really glad it's going well. Now he knows what to expect."

For Sela's mom and Ryan's wife, Allyson, seeing Sunday's race in Chickamauga and Chattanooga carried even more meaning, because she said she is originally from Chickamauga.

"It's great," she said. "It's great for the community, and great the way that they support it."

The top professional finishers agreed, including Symonds, whose Ironman resume includes a third-place finish in the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championships, among other stops around the globe.

"It was amazing, and I come from a town where we had one of the original four Ironman events, and this is on par with that with the way the community has gotten behind it," he said. "You've got a great sponsor in Little Debbie that seems to support the race. As I was driving in out of the airport, I saw the billboards, and just the volunteers.

"There's no shortage, and just whenever you need that ice or that water, Chattanoogans are there for you."

Putting on a race of Sunday's magnitude requires detailed coordination among volunteers, race officials and public safety agencies. But with Chattanooga now in the third year of a five-year agreement to host a full Ironman, area law enforcement have gained a better sense of what to expect.

"It's a long day for our [officers] — a long weekend, really," Chickamauga police Chief Ronald Roach said. "It's also an excellent chance to showcase the town and show what we have. Look at the turnout, it's great. It's all friendly, too."

Roach's officers and some brought in from neighboring counties guided foot and vehicular traffic all day along the bike course.

Back in Chattanooga, police did the same while emergency medical personnel stood on guard, ready to tend to those suffering from injuries or heat exhaustion.

"We've had a few people go down, but nothing much more than usual," the event's chief medical officer, David Bruce, said at about 3 p.m. "But just give it a couple hours."

The grimaces of sweat-soaked competitors failed to discourage the Chattanooga couple of Dan and Annette Tolliver from their Ironman aspirations. Dan was taking photos of competitors along the bike course, while Annette tried to spot competitors they might know.

They were cheering for their competing friends from a group of black triathletes, a veteran's advocacy group called Team Red White and Blue and some of Annette's co-workers from Little Debbie.

Next year, they're planning on competing in the local Ironman 70.3 (half Ironman) relay event.

"When Ironman came the first time, I had to be out there at 4:30 in the morning," Annette Tolliver said. "Can you imagine having this in your city? People from everywhere in the world are here. If you're not a sports person, you might not know what this means for Chattanooga.

"I'm a runner, and this is the pinnacle of it."

"And it's in our city," Dan Tolliver added.

As night crept onto the race that began at dawn, the biggest crowds of the day gathered at the Ross's Landing finish line.

Upbeat music played as competitors finished their journeys. Spectators shouted and waved glow sticks, creating a festive atmosphere to cap a festive day.

Competitors had until midnight to finish.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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