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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A triathlete hugs a loved one at the finish line of the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 on Sunday in Chattanooga.

Tim Morgan wasn't overwhelmed with worry. The grand poobah of enticing financially rewarding sports events to our city knows Chattanooga's greatest strengths, beginning with its citizens.

"Our people are our differentiator," Morgan, the chief officer of Chattanooga Sports, said Sunday afternoon as one of the most important sporting events in our area — the Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 — was winding down. "They turn out when we need them. They're such a credit to our community."

Still, 734 days had passed since the 2019 Ironman 70.3. A pandemic had placed a vice grip on our nation for more than a year, canceling or severely altering everything in sight. If it wasn't smart to attend or stage large gatherings in March, how could it be so much less questionable in May?

There was also a changing of the guard in City Hall to fret about. Would new Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly — not sworn into office until April 19 after his runoff win over Kim White — give his OK to a triathlon fully stocked with fans and volunteers?

"I wasn't really worried," Morgan said. "I don't want to use a bad pun here, but amassing volunteers in this town is kind of like riding a bike — you never forget. But I am very glad that this wasn't the first time we'd done an Ironman."

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Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 on May 23, 2021

In truth, it's the seventh time that Sunbelt Bakery has sponsored an Ironman, and the previous six have all left a taste as sweet as the company's signature granola bars.

But don't take my word for it. Listen to the participants of Sunday's event — in which competitors swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 and ran 13.1 — beginning with overall winner Brian Reynolds, who finished in four hours, seven minutes and 55 seconds.

"The spectators were great, especially on the run course," said Reynolds, who calls Richland, Michigan, home. "The volunteers were crazy, they were so supportive."

Added women's winner Meghan Fillnow, who finished in 4:35.26: "The volunteers are so friendly. Just great people."

There was this from Waxhaw, North Carolina, resident Karen Wood, the first woman over the age of 50 (she's 51), to cross the finish line: "I enjoy the people here the most. Everybody is so friendly, so helpful."

Finally, there was Samuel Browning, who was officially the first Chattanoogan to finish, though he grew up across the pond in England, moving here 18 months ago for "the outdoors lifestyle and Southern hospitality."

Said Browning of Sunday's race: "The volunteers are amazing, and local law enforcement is incredible out on the course. They're so nice and helpful. The support from everyone is awesome."

Judging from the license plates throughout the city this weekend, they come from everywhere to experience the Scenic City in all its glory: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, even Canada.

Some, like Reynolds, a mechanical engineer, hope to turn pro one day.

Browning, who trains 14 hours a week out of his St. Elmo home, harbors professional dreams as well, but he admits life as an entry-level pro triathlete "doesn't pay the bills."

The second official Chattanoogan to finish probably doesn't have to worry too much about bills. Dr. James Wahl is a physician at CHI Memorial Hospital. He and his wife and three kids also moved here about 18 months ago, but his appreciation for his new community is already off the charts.

"First of all, I can pretty much train outside all year," he said. "In Michigan, there's snow on the ground six months every year. Second, we all love barbecue. Down here, barbecue joints are like 7-11s in Michigan. There's one on every corner. It's a great place to live."

Not every visitor's best story was about visiting Chattanooga. Women's winner Fillnow went to Davidson College with her twin sister Kelly. One day Kelly lost her Cat Card, which students use to purchase food, books and other items around campus. Turns out a guy who wound up being the most lethal 3-point and free-throw shooter in NBA history, some kid named Steph Curry, found it.

"He walked over campus until he could find her and give it to her in person," Fillnow said. "That's the kind of guy he is."

As Wood was attempting to rehydrate from the heat, the woman who coaches middle school cross country and works with adults wishing to run triathlons said she hoped to find a good steak and a good bourbon — preferably Whistle Pig — for dinner. Then she returned to praising Chattanooga.

"It's an amazing place," she said. "A really neat and eclectic town. And everybody says 'Hello. How are you? Can we help you?'"

It's all music to Morgan's ears. For so many businesses in our town, it also just might be the differentiator between going great and going under after the longest 15 months of our lives.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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