More than 2,200 athletes are registered for Sunday's Ironman Chattanooga.
Of those, just five — or 0.002% of the field — will compete two weeks later in Kona, Hawaii, for Ironman's most challenging event: Ironman World Championships.
The five have vastly different stories and individual reasons for competing. For one, it was another stop in his quest to compete in every Ironman worldwide. Another saw it as a harder challenge. And a third — a professional competitor — believes it will better prepare him for a high finish in Hawaii. The remaining two — Chattanooga area residents Steve Ruffin and Scott Sandlin — will be competing in the bike leg as part of a relay in Chattanooga before racing the full event in Hawaii.
"I just enjoy the race and think doing the double is a challenge," West Virginia doctor and competitor Tim Deer said. "If you can survive Chattanooga and do Kona 12 days later — if you can survive both — it's just another thing we like to do to show our own self we can overcome obstacles."
The 55-year-old will be competing in the Chattanooga/Kona double for the third time.
They'll be his 21st and 22nd Ironman races. The president and chief executive officer of The Spine & Nerve Centers in Charleston, West Virginia, cites Chattanooga as one of his favorite race courses.
"It's up there with Hawaii for my favorite place on the Ironman circuit," he said. "The way the city uses the river as a focus is amazing to me. Your town does a great job of using the river for social life. Second, the people are amazing. It really is an amazing atmosphere."
Deer began competing in Ironman events in 2009 after a successful stint as a marathon runner. He plans to compete in the New York City Marathon in early November, three weeks after the world championships
"And then hopefully I can rest," he said.
PLACES TO WATCH
Ross’s Landing: The public park behind along the Tennessee River near the Tennessee Aquarium will serve as the race’s hub and the site for Ironman village. Here, spectators can watch all of the transition and the finish.
Walnut Street Bridge: This pedestrian bridge will give spectators a stunning view of Chattanooga and the chance to see runners pass twice during the marathon.
Barton Avenue: The most infamous feature of the Chattanooga course feature a running ascent of this hill on Chattanooga’s North Shore. Stop by to give your racer and added boost as they look to climb Barton Avenue.
Chickamauga, Georgia: This historic town home to a National Park Service battlefield is a top place for spectators to view the bike leg of the race. Racers will come through the town’s downtown area where there is also an aid station for competitors.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
9 a.m. Ironkids Chattanooga Fun Run for registered participants
4:30-7 a.m. Athlete & spectator shuttle from Ross’s Landing to swim start at Curtain Pole in Riverwalk Park
7:20 a.m. Pro start at Curtain Pole (Riverwalk Park)
7:30 a.m. Age group start at Curtain Pole (Riverwalk Park)
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information tent/lost & found
10 p.m. to 12:40 a.m. Finisher Party — cheer on the final finishers
8 a.m. to noon: Information tent/lost & found
9:30 a.m. Awards ceremony
11 a.m. 2020 Ironman World Championship slot allocation
Qualifying for Kona is a lifetime goal for many. The race includes the best competitors who finished at the top of their age group in an Ironman race during the previous year. It throws strong winds, heat and a challenging course at the elite athletes.
However, "legacy" invitations are sent in each age group to competitors who have raced in at least 12 Ironman races. That's the case for Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detective David Duarte.
"The reality is, I'm not fast," Duarte said. "Of the people interviewed, I'll probably the slowest. But when they called me [about the world championships], I had already registered for Chattanooga. When they gave me a chance to do Kona, I wasn't going to say no."
Duarte, 39, has competed in 27 full Ironman races. His goal is to do every Ironman in the world. The number of races fluctuates as races are added or drop out of the circuit, but there's typically about 40.
Duarte expects to finish the race in about 14 hours.
At the head of the race could be Matt Russell, a professional triathlete who won 2017 Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga and is among the pre-race favorites for Sunday's overall victory.
Russell has largely recovered from a major accident at the 2017 world championships that severed his neck muscles and nearly killed him when a van pulled in front of him while cycling on the race course.
"It was tough, both physically and mentally," he said. "I couldn't exercise for three months or so. Even getting back to racing, my first full [Ironman] back, my neck was giving me a lot of pain."
Russell will be the only professional athlete competing in Chattanooga and at the world championships.
Athletes typically see a fitness boost after competing in the race as long as they can recover in time for their next event, Russell said.
"I recover pretty well from it. Every single Ironman, I have a much better performance 2-3 weeks after," he said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't do Chattanooga. A lot of people don't. It is my weapon that I recover pretty quickly."
Russell raced in Chattanooga last year, which would typically mean he would have had to find another tune-up race for Kona. Historically, the local event has alternated between a male and female professional field, with men racing in even years and females racing in odd. The goal was to provide an equal spotlight to both genders.
However, it was actually a disadvantage for many of the athletes in the competing gender as most would choose to skip the event since it was so close to Kona, leaving one less race to qualify for next year's world championships, according to Ironman communications coordinator Ben Yarrington.
"Additionally, with IRONMAN Louisville not being included in the pro circuit this year, the team had to be cognizant of providing the same opportunity for qualifying slots to next year's World Championship in the Sept./Oct. time frame," he wrote in an email.
Ironman Chattanooga, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 116-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, will begin Sunday morning at 7:20 a.m. The male winner is expected to finish around 3:30 p.m. with the female winner finishing about an hour later.
This is the first year under a new contract between Ironman and Chattanooga. The city's initial agreement with the race was scheduled to lapse at the end of last year. The two sides announced the new agreement in May 2018, estimating the economic impact for the race at $80 million over the five-year contract that stretches through 2023. Chattanooga officials estimate the event has already had an impact of more than $100 million in the city.
Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau leaders are currently working with new software to calculate economic impact totals that follow newer practices and industry standards. They are waiting until after the race, when they have a better idea on how many people come to the city, to provide an economic impact estimate for this weekend's event.