UTC wrestling coach Heath Eslinger, left, and Signal Mountain assistant wrestling coach Phil Mansueto, bottom, prepare for a training swim while UTC campus recreation members prepare to support them in preparation for today's Ironman Chattanooga. Eslinger, Mansueto and others in the wrestling community are trying to complete the 144.6-mile triathlon in its second year in the Scenic City.
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University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling coach Heath Eslinger helped the Mocs put opposing wrestlers through misery over the years, but at 7:30 this morning he'll be on the receiving end of the pain as he takes on the second running of the Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga triathlon.

He's been waiting for more than a year for the 144.6-mile test of will and endurance.

"I think wrestlers by nature are intrigued by suffering, I guess you could say," Eslinger said. "When it came to Chattanooga last year everyone was excited, but it filled up so quick so there weren't a lot of spaces available."

Fortunately for Eslinger, misery loves company, so he'll have some support and competition from the local wrestling community.

Eslinger will be joined in the 2.4-mile swim, 116-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run by former UTC wrestlers Ben Smith, Brandon Wright and Dan Waddell. Wright's father and UTC wrestling booster Dennis Wright, Signal Mountain assistant wrestling coach Phil Mansueto and Mansueto's brother-in-law Andy Coombs — also a former wrestler — also will be taking part.

"Ironman is one of those things that a lot of people look at and say, 'Oh I could do that,' but not many people do it," said Smith, the wrestling coach at Bradley Central High School. "So there's a lure of going out and doing something that a lot of people probably could do but they never go out and try."

Former Bradley coaches Steve Logsdon and Turner Jackson were into triathlons, and Smith and Eslinger credit them for getting them into the sport at a young age. Smith completed last year's Ironman Chattanooga in just over 12 hours, and he sees similarities in the mindset needed to be successful in wrestling and triathlons.

"In my opinion, individual sports are different because you're relying on yourself," he said. "Track, cross country, swimming, biking, wrestling — in all these things you're completely relying on yourself, and I think over the years it develops an element of toughness."

"I think wrestlers are kind of inherently tough and in triathlons there's going to come a point when you have to be tough. I think that's an attraction — it's a way that we can still test ourselves."

Eslinger did an Ironman 70.3 in 2004 but hasn't attempted a triathlon in 10 years, and he feels he's training smarter now that he's more settled in his life.

"Age brings a little bit more maturity," he said. "You train smarter instead of going hard all the time. In wrestling, it's kind of pedal to the floor and nonstop with somebody trying to beat you up. This is a little more of a race against yourself, and your challenge is you."

The group has been able to train together at times to get ready for today, which has helped as they battle the grind of long hours running, biking and swimming.

"We've trained a lot together. When you're training for something like this, the training sessions are pretty long. It's not just about having someone to train with, it's about having someone to talk to the whole time.

There's that inner competition between all of us, but at the end of the day we're just going to try to enjoy the day as much as you can enjoy exercising for 10 to 12 hours nonstop."

The competitive nature among this "band of brothers" that pushes these men in the wrestling world also has added a bit of urgency as Smith looks to improve on his result from last year.

"It's all fun and games while we're out training together and getting in shape," he said. "But I know that come Monday, we're all going to be comparing our results with each other. So this year my training has been a lot better, because I know down the road at a wrestling match or camp we're going joking and kidding each other about how well we did."

Both Eslinger and Smith also see being a part of the 2,500-athlete field as important to show support to the Chattanooga area and inspire their current athletes to keep working hard to achieve their goals on the wrestling match and in life.

"It's great way to support the community," Eslinger said. "I believe we live in one of the best communities in America, and this is a way for us to be involved.

"And it's also fun to have our athletes to watch us suffer a little. I'm sure they'll enjoy the agony that we'll face at certain times."

SPARC, CPD grants

The area SPARC organization that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities on Friday was awarded a $10,000 community grant by the Ironman Foundation. Sports, Arts, and Recreation of Chattanooga is a division of Disabled USA, and SPARC president Jerry Hightower said in a foundation release that the grant "will be making a difference in the lives of many individuals with disabilities and the volunteers who support them."

Also, in conjunction with the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, the Ironman Foundation announced a grant of more than $15,000 to the Chattanooga Police Department to buy a 2015 Polaris Ranger, "which will increase their capability to respond to incidents in areas where traditional vehicles may be blocked," the release said.

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