Cyclists ride up Riverfront Parkway to begin the bike portion of the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga on Sunday morning.
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Mark Wiedmer

Until 8:39 Sunday morning, Chris Watson had rarely put much more than a big toe into an open-water venue. He'd certainly never attempted to swim 1.2 miles in water as swift and strong as the Tennessee River.

But the 39-year-old systems engineer from Louisville, Kentucky, was recently found to have a fatty liver. Though he'd sometimes embraced distance running, entering and completing 11 or 12 half marathons over the past decade, he decided he needed to do more than that to get healthy, both through exercise and diet.

"I do better in making lifestyle changes if I have a goal," Watson explained. "Competing in the Chattanooga Ironman (70.3) became my goal."

So a little more than 10 months ago, he started biking and running in preparation for the 56-mile bike ride and the 13.1-mile run. The swim was a little different, however.

"I went on Facebook for advice," he said. "I'm not much of a swimmer. I asked anyone I could find how to handle it."

As one might expect, when he first jumped in the water from a ramp at Girls Preparatory School, "there was a little fear.

"It was more about being nervous, though. Then I got seasick midway through the swim. I was dizzy as I could be. But I never puked."

Beyond that, Watson struggled to settle on a single stroke, often switching from freestyle to backstroke.

"When I was on my back for a little bit I could hear these creaking sounds in the water," he said. "It was like a horror movie. I was freaking out."

Yet he never quit, completing the swim, the bike race — "I absolutely rocked the bike course; I think I passed more than 100 riders," Watson said — and the run to earn his medal and complete his goal of sparking a healthier lifestyle.

Not that such success necessarily has him dreaming of a return trip to Chattanooga this fall to compete in the full Ironman.

"Absolutely not," Watson said. "Absolutely not."

Each and every one of the close to 4,000 registered participants hailing from 21 countries and 49 states (Montana sat this one out) in the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 had a goal slightly different than his or her fellow competitors.

For 57-year-old Roger Godsey of Johnson City, Tennessee, it was to get in a little extra training for the full Ironman.

"It was a little hotter than I'd hoped," he said, "but the city's wonderful. They treat us well, and I've been to places where they haven't treated us well. I can't wait to come back in the fall."

Godsey's wife Stephanie Stout — "We're married, I just haven't changed my name yet," she said with a smile — is also excited to return, if only to "carry all (Godsey's) gear."

As for Sunday's race, she said, "I liked it. The biking was hilly, just like home. Right now, I just want to get a shower and order out. We're too tired to go somewhere for dinner."

Spencer Sharp grew up in London, England, and has the accent to prove it. But the 45-year-old now calls Nashville home, and while he's been to Chattanooga many times before, he had never competed in an Ironman.

"Beautiful, beautiful scenery," he said. "Had a really good time. The people of this town are angels. The volunteers shine like diamonds."

His travel mate on this trip, 37-year-old Michael Valdez, agreed on the hospitality, saying, "Wonderful people here," before adding of the running course, "Finest one I've ever done."

Then there was 57-year-old Cathy Coletts of Cincinnati, who was competing in her second half triathlon but first outside Ohio.

"It was much tougher than I thought with the heat and the hills," she said less than an hour after the Regions Bank sign at the corner of Broad and Sixth showed a temperature of 91 degrees at 4:06 p.m. "But the scenery was great, just beautiful, beautiful views. And the volunteers couldn't have been nicer. I don't think I'll eat much tonight, but I can't wait to get cleaned up and go have a nice glass of wine somewhere."

You wonder sometimes why they do it. It would be hard to find a bigger collection of miserable expressions than the ones on the faces of most Ironman participants as they make their way to their cars or hotels or homes once the initial thrill of crossing the finish line wears off. They often look as if they'd be as happy to down a cyanide pill as a Gatorade.

So why cough up the $300 entry fee to participate in something all but guaranteed to make you feel as if you just got run over by a Mack truck? Why pay as much as $10,000 for a bike and hundreds more for travel and skin-tight running, biking and swimming suits — plus shoes — to be so drained you're too tired to eat much at all, much less eat out afterward?

"You hate life until you cross that finish line," Watson said of the six hours or more that many amateurs are on the course. "Then you're overcome with joy. You pushed yourself to your limit and you succeeded in reaching your goal."

And the only way to do that in any endeavor, be it sports, business or life in general, is to jump right in and get your feet wet.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at