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Matthew Russell, first place, Adam Otstot, second place, and Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches celebrate on the awards podium after Sunday's Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 half triathlon in Chattanooga.

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Braving the elements: Storms bypass Ironman

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Swimming 0.8 miles, biking 56 miles and running 13.1 miles in six hours, 19 minutes and 14 seconds probably wouldn't be the way most of us would like to spend our birthdays, but it suited 29-year-old Josh Drummond just fine Sunday at the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3.

"Everywhere we've been this weekend has been awesome," said the Nashville resident as he began to cool down a few minutes after finishing the half triathlon in Chattanooga. "This is a great city for both work and play."

As the chamber of commerce, Ironman corporate folks and our town's hotels, bars and restaurants are no doubt quite happy to hear today, this was the theme of seemingly everyone who visited our Scenic City for the purposes of thoroughly draining their bodies of all electrolytes and energy. Oh, what some people will do in order to hear their names shouted over a loudspeaker at the finish line and have a handsome medal hung around their necks by cheerful and helpful volunteers.

"First time to do this in Chattanooga," said 51-year-old Atlanta resident and Coca-Cola executive Mike Suco."This is a phenomenal event. The city is great. And God blessed us with an overcast day, which was wonderful for someone my age trying to chase all these young people."

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Age group athletes begin the bike leg while competing in the Sunbelt Bakery IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga triathlon presented by McKee A Family Bakery in downtown Chattanooga on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Photo by Dan Henry | DanHenryPhotography.com

Tom Black and his wife Suzanne drove down from Washington, D.C., so she could compete in the 40-44 age group. Renting a house in North Chattanooga, they cooked most of their meals rather than dining out, but their opinion of the city was much like the one expressed by so many other visitors.

"The venue's outstanding," Black said as he waited for his wife to finish. "Everybody's so friendly. We're having a great time."

This is what the bigwigs want to hear, of course — and what they need to hear to keep gracing our city with these moneymakers.

Yes, the hotel rates go through the roof. And the lines can be longer than usual at the downtown restaurants with so many of the 2,944 who participated in this Ironman 70.3 — even if it was actually 69.9 for amateurs and age-group competitors because of a shortened swim course (0.8 miles instead of 1.2) due to a faster-moving Tennessee River — coming from out of town.

But that's the cost of tourism, and we need tourism dollars more than ever to continue the meteoric rise of our downtown. Heck, over time, some of that money might even find its way into our public schools, which have never needed financial help more.

"My wife and two children usually come up here with me," said Suco, who regularly visits the city on business. "You can park your car at the hotel and walk everywhere. You just feel safe here. It's not like that everywhere."

Not that it's only out-of-towners who appreciate both our city in general and the Ironman events. Local pharmacist Angie Matheny has lived here all of her 41 years, graduating from Central High School, Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"It's amazing," she said, referring to the changes in her hometown during her life. "It's grown so much. It's a perfect place."

Always an athlete, she also always wanted to participate in an Ironman event but needed a perfect scenario to take the final step.

"When (the Ironman 70.3) came to town," she said, "I knew I had no excuses."

Meredith Baker also grew up in the area and played sports at Georgia's Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. Now 42 and the mother of two children, she works at Unum. Sunday was her second half triathlon.

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"It's not just a physical challenge, but a mental challenge, too," she said after being greeted by husband Brad at the finish line. "It hurts, it hurts bad. But it's also exhilarating."

As for Chattanooga's Southern hospitality, she said: "It's just awesome. There's no other way to describe how everybody supports you. Whether you're downtown or riding your bike in north Georgia, it's incredible."

Here's an incredible snapshot into the passion of these weekend warriors: Birthday boy Drummond was on his way back to the Music City not an hour after finishing his race, though he did plan for girlfriend Erin McCloud to drive the pair home.

"Hopefully I'll get some beer and burgers tonight," said the technology consultant, who somehow also completed a full Ironman three weeks ago near Houston. "Then it's back to work in the morning. Work doesn't stop for the Ironman."

That didn't mean he and McCloud might not make a quick stop at Rembrandt's Coffee House before leaving town.

"Their Highlander Grog coffee is the best I've ever tasted," he said.

Her 69.9-mile workout complete, someone asked Matheny if she'd consider tasting the Little Debbie full Ironman 140.6-mile course this fall.

"No," she said with a smile, "I'm only half crazy."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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