The world's most famous triathlon will be a two-discipline event in Chattanooga this weekend as race officials announced they are canceling the swim portion of Sunday's Ironman.
The 144.6-mile swim, bike and run is now 142.2 miles of cycling and running. However, race organizers still consider the race an official Ironman event, and finishers will be considered an Ironman, according to an event spokesman. Strong rain elevated water levels throughout the region, killing one woman and causing damage. Tennessee Valley Authority personnel kept Ironman officials updated on water flow and conditions but were focused on controlling flooding. Ultimately, the decision was up to Ironman officials, who determined it would not be safe to have competitors in the water.
"Ironman has strict swim safety benchmarks in place that have been surpassed, including the rate of water flow and water quality," according to an Ironman statement. "There has been a three-foot increase in water levels due to the opening of flood gates upstream, and the opening of a spillway outside of Chattanooga, generating additional flow with a rate three times higher than the limit deemed safe for swimming in the Tennessee River."
Water quality readings for E. coli came back more than 20 times higher than safe levels for swimming, according to the statement, and a considerable amount of debris was floating through the water.
The race will begin with a time trial bike start at 8 a.m. Competitors have 8 hours and 10 minutes per athlete to finish the bike leg with a 12:40 a.m. final cutoff for the full race, according to Ironman Senior Regional Director Keats McGonigal. The bike course will remain the same, but part of the run course is underwater and will be slightly changed. It will remain 26.2 miles. Officials are still working on the exact route, and all qualifying slots will be awarded.
"It's still going to be a fun weekend. We'll still have plenty of fun things to do," Chattanooga Sports Committee President Tim Morgan said. "Unfortunately, due to the environmental conditions Mother Nature has presented, Ironman had to make a decision based on the safety of the athletes and spectators, and they made the right decision."
Total water release from the Chickamauga Dam — located upstream from the planned Ironman swim — is considerably higher than usual, according to TVA. Seven of nine dams on the Tennessee River are at maximum turbine capacity and spilling.
For many of the more than 3,000 competitors, eliminating the swim was devastating news.
"I understand that they're making the right decision for the safety of athletes," competitor Wesley Donehue said. "But when you put this many months of training in, it's pretty devastating. I'm going to go, but I'm not going to consider myself an Ironman after this."
Donehue traveled from Charleston, South Carolina with his pregnant wife and two children for the race. It's his first Ironman event, and he had to teach himself to swim in order to compete.
He will look for another Ironman in the coming weeks. His body has peaked, he said, and he won't have time to dedicate months to training again if he doesn't race soon due to his growing family.
"The hardest thing is the training," he said. " For me, this is it. Either I do it now or have to wait another 10 years or so."
Sunday's race will be broadcast live on Facebook. Ironman officials reached an agreement in the summer with the tech giant to stream 16 races across three continents. As part of the agreement, Facebook has been airing a 20-episode live weekly show titled "IRONMAN: 40 Years of Dreams," highlighting the history of the event and its contestants.
As part of the anniversary, Ironman will honor competitor Stephanie Weldon, who has raced in every Ironman Chattanooga.
The 48-year-old Brandon, Mississippi resident began competing in triathlons in 2011 in honor of her father who was diagnosed with cancer. She made it her goal to complete 12 Ironman races, which would grant her automatic entry into the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii. She reached that goal at Ironman Chattanooga 2016 and will race in Kona next year.
"That first year, back in 2014, that inaugural year, I just fell in love with the city and the people and the course," she said. "I've always wanted to keep coming back. Now that I have a streak going, it's kind of hard to stop."
This weekend's race will be the final event under the city's original contract with Ironman. In May, the two sides agreed to a new contract for both the full Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races to continue annually until at least 2023.
Chattanooga is annually recognized by participants as one of the best host cities in the world. It was the first city to host four Ironman events in one year, has seen the closest finish in the history of the race, holds the record for most volunteers at one event and is a race some officials use as the gold standard when preparing other cities to host the event.
"Having done this at a number of different places, I want to express my gratitude for the support we get here in Chattanooga," McGonigal said. "Chattanooga is very, very unique in the circuit with the community support, number of volunteers. Everybody comes out and supports the athletes. That's what makes this so special."