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The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation's Team Challenge is the only area organization to have partnered with Ironman Chattanooga since the internationally recognized triathlon came to the city in 2014.
The goal is to raise awareness and funds to treat and ultimately find a cure for ulcerative colitis and Crohn's — two similar gastrointestinal diseases that impact roughly 1 in 200 people.
"Just being out there is huge for us," said Kat Gunsur-Smith, the foundation's national manager for triathlons. "It's really impactful and helps people learn more about us."
The partnership brings added exposure for the foundation, which means more money and hopefully a better understanding from the general public about what it's like living with the chronic irritable bowel diseases.
The diseases bring complications that are often debilitating and can be life-threatening. The lining of the colon, for ulcerative colitis, and the layers of the bowel wall, for Crohn's, become inflamed with ulcers and lead to blood loss, diarrhea and extreme pain.
"I still think in the public domain, it's not well known and it's stigmatized because it's a [gastrointestinal] disease, so that's an important aspect of the foundation," Team Challenge member Niels Vande Casteele said.
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Vande Casteele is racing in this weekend's world championship in honor of his brother, Stijn, who has had Crohn's for 20 years.
Vande Casteele began competing in triathlons when he moved to the U.S. after being a cyclist in Belgium. He lived in San Diego and wanted to compete in Ironman 70.3 Hawaii.
"I thought if I was going to do this big accomplishment in Hawaii, I might as well raise money for it," Vande Casteele said.
He didn't think he would qualify, but he did, and has been racing long-distance triathlons since.
His brother's illness isn't the only connection to Team Challenge. Vande Casteele has a doctorate in clinical pharmacology and works as a researcher studying personalized medicine to help customize treatment for patients with Crohn's and ulcerative colitis.
"I got a lot of strength thinking of my brother and the patients I work with for my research," he said. "I use that as a focal point knowing all the things they do and go through. I look at them and think anything is possible."
Team Challenge takes racers to triathlons, marathons and other athletic events to raise money and awareness. Each racer is required to raise at least $5,000 to gain entrance into the events. In total, the team has raised between $3.5 million and $4 million, 82 percent of which goes directly back to the foundation. It has brought hundreds to Chattanooga for the races, none bigger than the 200 people that came to race in Ironman Chattanooga 2014. They raised $1.3 million.
The Ironman Foundation partners with organizations in each of its host cities. Its mission is to "create positive tangible impact in Ironman race communities through philanthropy and volunteerism."
In Chattanooga, the foundation has picked up partnerships with The Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation and Zero — The End of Prostate Cancer in addition to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. It has donated more than $215,000 in Chattanooga in previous years and is slated to give more than $130,000 to the city this year.
It has awarded a $10,000 community grant to Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga, raised $26,846 for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, given a grant to Limbs Without Limits, given a $5,000 grant to Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga, partnered with Tennessee River Gorge Trust to provide a boat to the trust and has provided other grants and donations across the area.
For Ironman, the donations and partnerships were about knowing their audience.
"As a whole, Ironman draws athletes in from all over the world to participate in our events, and the vast majority of the participants have a story or reason why they're participating" Ironman Foundation Executive Director David Deschenes said. "Many times, that story is a cause-related story."