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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Skye Moench celebrates as she approaches the finish line on Sunday at the Little Debbie Ironman in Chattanooga. About 2,000 athletes competed in the triathlon that started at 7:30 a.m. with swimming, continued with bicycling and ended with a marathon.

When Skye Moench competed in the 2017 Little Debbie Ironman, the physical demands of the triathlon caused her to walk the final 10 miles of the 26.2-mile running course to the finish line.

Sunday afternoon went a little differently for the Salt Lake City resident.

"Sweet redemption," Moench exclaimed after being the first woman across the finish line of the latest Little Debbie Ironman, doing so with a time of 8 hours, 34 minutes and 7 seconds — a whopping 25:29 ahead of women's runner-up Gurutze Frades Larralde of Spain.

Moench was happy to be back in Chattanooga.

"I honestly love the river and bridges here," she said. "And the community is great — so friendly and supportive. Plus, I came in first, which is always nice."

First felt pretty nice for men's winner Joe Skipper as well. A native of Great Britain, he finished in 7:46.19, comfortably ahead of second-place Lionel Sanders (7:54.46) and Ben Hoffman (7:57.50).

Because Skipper had already qualified for the 2022 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii by winning the United Kingdom Ironman, Sanders, Hoffman, Moench and Frades Larralde also all earned spots for Hawaii next year.

"Awesome race, great location," said Skipper, who had never competed in Chattanooga. "I'd love to come here again."

If so, he believes the crowd hopes American favorite Sam Long can finish the race after dropping out of this one during the run after challenging Skipper in the 2.4-mile swimming and 116-mile cycling portions of the triathlon.

"This is bloody Sam Long's home race," Skipper said. "He was breathing right down my neck, then he fell off. I'm sure we'll see each other again."

Photo Gallery

Little Debbie Ironman in Chattanooga on Sept. 26, 2021

The Little Debbie Ironman isn't only about professional competitors such as Moench or Skipper, of course.

The vast majority of the 2,000 participants who began the swim in dawn's earliest light at Ross's Landing are weekend warriors, striving for a personal best or to honor someone in their lives who can't compete.

It's Michelle Ray and friends forming Addie Ray Racing to support Michelle's daughter Addie, who suffers from Angelman Syndrome, which causes developmental delays, seizures, no speech and scoliosis. Addie Ray Racing is a group of adults who compete in 50 races a year alongside children with disabilities. The organization raises money for equipment that allows those with special needs to compete in endurance sports.

It's also folks such as the four Kentucky state troopers who entered the Little Debbie Ironman to raise money for Trooper Logan Smith's sister Raina Simpson, diagnosed with cancer last year.

Wrote Logan Smith in an email: "If Raina has to be in pain, then I need to be in pain. The Ironman is going to be tough, but nothing like what she will be dealing with."

A GoFundMe page has been set up for those wishing to help Simpson and her family.

It's also Michael Flanagan, a 38-year-old firefighter in Forsyth County, Georgia. Ten years ago, Flanagan injured his back seriously enough to have surgery. Afterward, he could barely walk. But as his rehab progressed, he focused on entering an Ironman.

In the beginning, he'd walk past two houses, then run past three. Then walk past three houses and run past four.

"I'm so proud of him," said his 10-year-old daughter McKenzie, who came to watch the race with her 8-year-old brothers Andrew and Barrett.

There was lots of pride flowing through the Scenic City on Sunday, and men's third-place finisher Hoffman neatly gift-wrapped a future billboard for the community with this thought as the Litttle Debbie Ironman returned after being canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic:

"Chattanooga, you're awesome. There's no better reintroduction to long racing than this."

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

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