CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:08 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, to correct the quote from Jay Nevans in the sixth paragraph to read that the shoes were sponsored by Fast Break. A previous version erroneously reported Fleet Feet.
Laura Powell crossed the finish line of the 7 Bridges Marathon on Sunday morning at Coolidge Park, having just completed her first 26.2-mile race.
The 23-year-old Atlanta resident finished in an astonishing third place overall.
Though improbable, the high finish encapsulated the spirit of a race geared toward non-elite athletes. There are no cash prizes or comped entries for top runners. The course is full of first-time racers like Powell and others looking to enjoy the race-day atmosphere in a scenic city while working on a healthy lifestyle.
"I've ran a couple of really big races," said Powell, who has competed in half-marathons and other events. "But I really loved the size of this one. It's like we're all just coming to hang out and run, which is really nice."
At the finish, athletes boasted their new water bottles, T-shirts, towels and medals that came with each registration. Professional photographers snapped shots of participants that would be later available to racers. Families took their own photos at the finish line in front of the North Shore's Blue Rhino sculpture with the Bluff View Art District and downtown Chattanooga across the river in the background.
The winners finished in a pack of half-marathon runners. Later, age-group winners and podium finishers would be recognized in a side tent for their accomplishments, where the overall male and female winner received a pair of running shoes sponsored by Fast Break — the first "big" prize the race has offered in its now nine-year history, according to race director Jay Nevans.
"We wanted to offer an event that would be accessible to anyone who was interested in pushing themselves," Nevans said. "That's always been the idea. We're not focused on the elite [competitors]. A lot of races are going this way."
That accessibility and easygoing environment was key for the Ray family of Ringgold, Georgia.
The family has now competed in more than a dozen events, pushing their 13-year-old daughter, Addie Ray, who has Angelman syndrome — a genetic disorder that leaves Addie largely without communication skills and other complications. But it was the 2015 4 Bridges half-marathon that got the family started in longer-distance racing.
"That's part of the reason we did the race and chose it as our first [long-distance event]," Michelle Ray, Addie's mom, said of the welcoming atmosphere after completing Sunday's half-marathon.
Michelle Ray and her husband, Chris Ray, have pushed Addie through parts of Ironman 70.3, the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon and other races, but it was the 4 Bridges half-marathon in 2015 that set the family on their course toward long-distance competition.
Michelle and Chris Ray wanted to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. She weighed about 200 pounds and Chris Ray had nearly reached 400 pounds.
They had started pushing Addie through some 5-K races in a borrowed stroller.
"She loved it and she squealed the whole way," Michelle Ray said.
She did the 2015 half-marathon on her own to improve her fitness and continued to train.
The family raised money to get Addie her own stroller and eventually set up a team, Addie Ray Racing, to allow kids with different ability levels to compete in races.
Sunday's race marked a first for Michelle Ray, a new achievement of which she was especially proud: she completed the entire half-marathon pushing Addie by herself. Typically, Chris Ray helps push Addie in her adaptive wheelchair, which weighs about 200 pounds in total.
"He did run with us, but I just didn't let him touch her today," Michelle Ray said with a smile. "This was my deal. I really wanted to do a half-marathon all by myself with her. [4 Bridges] was my first five years ago, my first half. It seemed like such a huge thing to be able to push her all by myself."