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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 9/25/16. Age group competitors compete in the swim portion of the 2016 Little Debbie IRONMAN Chattanooga triathlon on September 25, 2016. More than 2,700 athletes registered to compete in a 2.4-mile swim, 116-mile bike and 26.2-mile run throughout Chattanooga and North Georgia.

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Belgian wins record-hot Ironman Chattanooga race

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Mark Wiedmer

Having just become the first woman to cross the finish line in the Little Debbie Ironman on Sunday afternoon, Canadian Richele Frank was asked what she most liked about visiting Chattanooga.

"From the moment you arrive at the airport they treat you like a superstar," she said. "They think you're nuts, but they treat you like a superstar."

By that measuring stick, our town was treated to more than 2,700 superstar athletes the past couple of days, though none of them may be more of a superstar human being than William "Hank" Stieh.

Running in his first Ironman, the 39-year-old Virginia resident will donate a kidney to his 63-year-old father in approximately three weeks.

"It's a tough surgery," said his longtime girlfriend Amy Caddy. "He's not even supposed to lift anything as heavy as a phone book for at least three weeks after the surgery."

As Caddy spoke, Stieh emerged from his 114-mile bike run a little after 5 p.m. He hoped to complete the final leg of the triathlon — the 26.2-mile run — by 11.

"I'm tired as (heck) and my bike's bare," said Stieh in a soft voice as he gave Amy a quick hug before trudging up Riverfront Parkway toward the Hunter Museum.

"I could smell sunscreen on him, so that's good," said Amy. "He didn't bring any. He told me this morning, 'I'm wearing a hat and a shirt.' That's just not enough protection in weather like this."

The weather was brutal — 95 degrees at mid-afternoon with high humidity and not a cloud in sight.

Or as Frank described it, "It was like running on the surface of the sun."

Caddy said Stieh's journey began roughly two years ago when, "Hank joined a gym to get in shape. But he hated running on a treadmill, so he started running outside. He's probably lost 10 to 15 pounds training for this. I'm always telling him, 'You need to quit eating salads and eat more pasta,' but he's in great shape. He told me before he left the hotel this morning: 'I don't care how broken I am, I'm running this whole marathon.'"

To help Stieh keep his spirits unbroken, Caddy tried to write his name on the road with lipstick, "but it's already smeared. I used a whole tube of lipstick on it, too."

There were plenty of loyal friends and family members such as Caddy giving more than lip service to supporting their loved ones through perhaps the hottest late September day in memory.

There was the father who briefly jogged alongside his son at the start of the run, asking him, "Are you OK?" The man's T-shirt read "Irondad" on the back.

There was University of Tennessee sophomore Noah Brook, who left a night of "burning couches and going to bars" after the Vols' big Saturday win over Florida to cheer on his uncle from Michigan, Ivan Katz.

"I haven't ever seen Cumberland Avenue more alive than last night," said Brook, who was clad in a Tennessee ballcap and orange Volunteers T-shirt. To make the moment even sweeter for Brook as he sat in Neyland Stadium's student section, "That was my high school quarterback who made the play of the game."

Brook was speaking of his former Murfreesboro Blackman High School teammate, Jauan Jennings, whose 67-yard touchdown reception gave the Vols their first lead in their eventual 38-28 win. It was Tennessee's first win against the Gators since 2004.

"I'm just ecstatic," he added. "The last time we beat Florida, I was in the first grade."

Not that she was necessarily a grumpy Gator fan, but one participant dressed in Florida-esque blue and orange groused after finishing her bike race and beginning her run: "I hate that bike. It's going into the river."

What should make all of us ecstatic who struggle to walk to our mailbox and back without breathing heavily is that so many of these Ironman athletes didn't embrace such rigorous physical activity until well into adulthood.

Though a fine baseball player in his younger days, Stieh didn't start training for the Ironman until two years ago. Even more surprising, the 41-year-old Frank didn't even learn to swim until she was 35, yet the Little Debbie was her 12th Ironman started and her 10th completed.

"I ran and played soccer growing up, but nothing like this," said Frank, who lives in Vancouver with her Australian shepherd Rufus.

Yet having also competed here last fall, she's already excited about returning to the Scenic City next year for the World Ironman, which she's already qualified for.

"There's just a tremendous community vibe here," she said. "I love it. Great shops and restaurants. That's part of the reason I wanted to come back here."

So how was she going to celebrate her time of 10 hours, 23 minutes, 43 seconds?

"I might hit Terra Mae and get a couple of desserts," she said. "They have this wonderful berry sundae."

Two desserts in one night? That might be enough to make any of us nutty enough to enter an Ironman, whatever our age.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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