Sunday was a day of firsts in Chattanooga. The city hosted its first-ever Ironman Chattanooga, with about 2,400 people taking on the 2.4-mile swim, 116-mile bike and 26.2-mile race throughout the city and Walker County in North Georgia.
There were a few minor issues -- notably tacks and oil placed by someone on the bike route causing a few flat tires -- but for the most part it was a successful debut for the city.
For the male and female professional athletes in Chattanooga competing for the honor of being the first Ironman Chattanooga champions, it was also a day of firsts.
Matt Hanson of Storm Lake, Iowa, and Canadian Angela Naeth each won the men's and women's races -- the first career Ironman victory for both athletes -- and they finished to thunderous cheers from thousands of spectators who lined the streets.
"It's pretty awesome," Naeth said of her victory. "I've only done three of them, and to win this one is just an amazing experience. If anyone could do it, I would tell them to go out and try.
"It's just unbelievable. The people yelling and screaming, and the ability to push yourself that far. That's just what it's all about ... just pushing yourself as far as you can go."
Hanson finished the 144.6-mile course in eight hours, 12 minutes and 32 seconds, more than six minutes ahead of another Iowa resident, Daniel Bretscher, who came in second. They were followed by third place finisher Trevor Wurtele, a Canadian pro who was a late entrant after last weekend's Ironman Lake Tahoe was cancelled because of heavy smoke from wildfires.
On the women's side, Naeth finished first, with a time of 8:54:55 in her third Ironman. When she crossed the finish line, the public address annoucer mentioned that today is her wedding anniversary -- a fact she didn't realize until that moment. She was followed by 38-year-old first-time Ironman competitor Ruth Brennan Morrey of Rochester, Minn., (9:09:39) in second, and third place finisher Jennie Hansen (9:12:37), a Rochester, N.Y., physical therapist.
Hanson and Naeth each will be taking home $5,000 as their share of the $25,000 total purse for the race, which paid out for the top six pro male and female finishers.
A strong current on the Tennessee River kept the elite athletes bunched together heading into the bike course and set up a showdown in the run portion of the race.
"The swim was great," Hanson said. "The current was pushing you the whole way, and that really was a great equalizer and it was hard to separate out. I think there was a group of about 20 up front that kept everybody really close on the bike.
"I was happy with the bike time overall. Then I had a really good transition. ... I think I started the run in fourth, so that set me up with a lot of confidence."
Wurtele, a strong cyclist, tried to push the pace on the bike and was in second place heading into the run portion, but he was unable to put enough time between himself and the stronger runners to claim the win.
"Conditions were perfect for racing; the weather was just ideal," he said. "I was hoping the bike was going to be a little bit harder, but there just wasn't anyone else who wanted to ride hard.
"It was a fast course, and a beautiful course. I hadn't been out on the course until today, and just to be able to look around and see everything was great."
The common theme expressed among all the pro athletes was praise for Chattanooga, enthusiastic spectators, the massive group of race volunteers and local race organizers for putting on a successful and world-class competition in their inaugural year of a five-year contract to host the Ironman.
"This is absolutely the most perfect course with the most incredible volunteers. Everything was so flawless," women's runner-up Brennan Morrey said of her experience in the Scenic City. "It's like you've had this for years and years and have worked out the kinks already. Really, I was so impressed with every little detail.
"There were always volunteers, never any tough spots and just absolutely flawless execution by [the Ironman Chattanooga] team. ... It was great to be here, and I really appreciate it."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.