Finishing an endurance event like the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 North American Championship in Chattanooga has a special meaning for everyone from the top finishers to the final athletes to cross the finish line. The accomplishment means something different to each person.
Another 3,000 of those stories were told Sunday at Ross's Landing as the athletes completed a 1.4 mile swim in the Tennessee River, a 56-mile bike segment that took riders into North Georgia and a 13.1 mile run through downtown Chattanooga supported by an army of volunteers and the cheers of friends, families and spectators.
"Today has been fabulous for us," Drew Wolfe, regional director for Ironman, said. "Obviously a little bit warm out here today, but the thing that tops that is the reception from Chattanooga. It's great to be back here racing with about 3,000 athletes out here today."
As the age-group competitors crossed the finish line, Mississippi athletes Meg Barnes and Misty Dickerson waited after finishing to cheer on their friend and fellow Mississippian, Charlotte Burnham, who was completing her first Ironman event in Chattanooga. The three women said the race was a great event and a fun time for them to compete together.
"This is my second time racing in Chattanooga," Barnes said. "I love Chattanooga, and this is my favorite course. Everybody was so awesome, and the volunteers always had plenty of supplies. It was a great race."
The men's professional championship was won by Jason West, 28 of Boulder, Colorado, who finished with a time of three hours, 37 minutes and 15 seconds. Sunday was West's first time to race in Chattanooga, and he broke out of a pack of about 10 professional triathletes during the run segment to claim the win.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "I like courses that are kind of like country roads like (Chattanooga). The course had lots of ups and downs, so it was constantly engaging. That made it a lot of fun, and the crowds were just huge. When the crowds come out and support you, it's just awesome."
In the women's pro race, Jackie Hering, 36 of Wisconsin, used a strong run segment to pass runner-up Paula Findlay to claim her first regional championship with a time of four hours, two minutes and 35 seconds.
"I thought it was a really nice temperature," she said. "I don't mind racing when it's warm, and the river was a perfect temperature. The whole day really worked out nice, and we didn't get rained on.
"This race is extra special because it feels like it's just so well supported and there are so many people out here today."
After hosting the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2017, Chattanooga added another distinction as the host of the North American regional championship Sunday. Wolfe said the Ironman organization selects Chattanooga for these events because of the its history as a premier host city that makes these events special for athletes and spectators.
"Chattanooga is a top-tier community for hosting, especially for endurance events like Ironman. They welcomed us in 2017 for an incredible world championship and a North American championship today," Wolfe said. "It's always the best foot forward by the city of Chattanooga, and we couldn't be more delighted to be part of this fine community."
For Michael Savage, crossing the finish line represented more than just completing a physical challenge. Savage's path to Chattanooga was a step in his long journey from the depths of addiction that almost took his life.
Savage, 38, grew up in St. Louis in a rough neighborhood, and as a young man, he went down a dark road from smoking cigarettes to drinking alcohol and on to using hard drugs. As his addictions worsened, he lost his home and was in danger of losing his life, as many of his friends had.
"I was that guy you see sitting on the side of the road begging for money," he said. "My life was a mess and was in shambles."
After a particularly severe overdose sent Savage to the hospital for nine days in the intensive care unit, his family encouraged him to seek help from Lifeline Connect, a faith-based recovery program in Champaign, Illinois, that changed his life for the better.
"God has completely restored my life," he said. "I have a beautiful wife. I have three children. I bought my first home and have been living there for three years, and I'm very successful in sales."
As part of his recovery process, Savage took up running and found that the mental toughness developed through endurance sports helped keep him healthy in other parts of his life.
"Running is the battlefield of the mind — any of these endurance sports is," he said. "We can always go farther than we think we can. And it's about the work that I did and the support and the people in my life. It saved my life.
"Running and endurance sports helped me to discipline my mind."
Sunday's race was Savage's first Ironman event, and he said the experience made him think how far he has come and how much his life has changed since he began his recovery.
"I'm alive, and I shouldn't be alive. There's so many of my friends that I've buried because they didn't make it out, and I did. I'm just thankful to be alive, and I'm thankful I crossed that finish line today."
Savage said his wife and other family members were in Chattanooga to support him, and he hoped his story could inspire others to make the changes needed to live healthier and happier lives.
"No matter who you are you can make it and you can overcome," he said. "But you have to make that decision. We have to learn how to love ourselves and say, 'I am worth it and I can do it.'
"When I crossed that finish line, it showed me that God still has a purpose in my life."