This past weekend, I drove with some friends of mine from a local run group I had recently joined down to Chattanooga to watch the Ironman race. There were about 5 people we were hoping to cheer on that day.
If you’re not familiar with an Ironman, it’s a race where they swim 2.4 miles, bike for 112, miles, and then run a full 26.2 marathon after all that. (There are smaller versions where you run half those distances, for a half Ironman; and even shorter for an Olympic distance Ironman.) [I should also mention that the bike portion of the Race in Chattanooga ends up being more–116 miles as the out-and-back portion–and deemed safer if they lead the racers that extra 4 miles.]
Weather conditions at the race were higher than average. The thermometer climbing up to 97° by the height of the day. (The hottest day for late September on record for the City since the early 1930’s…) Sure, you say, fall season in the South. Try running in the heat of the day , when your body temperature cranks up about 20° more with exertion. That’s ramping up Temps to 107-117° per athlete!
Most people we met just past the bike transition area were walking or easy jogging to conserve energy and reduce body heat output. Definitely not a day for any PR’S (Personal Records)!
Meeting the runners at the run transaction seemed best because it’s not easy for the athletes to see you from the shore while they’re swimming and the bike section is out and back with little area to spectate. The run loop in Downtown Chattanooga provides at least 2 chances to watch and cheer for your favorite competitor. (We added more viewing and cheering time by shifting from one watch area to the other, then did the whole rotation again once they passed the halfway mark.)
Doing that meant a lot of walking, but I was up for that (even though I’m rehabbing a small injury). I was eternally grateful for the team tent, where we met with the coaches of their group, shared some shade, and swapped some stories in the intense heat of the day.
Families and support groups were crowded in every available shaded spot they could find in order to help tolerate the heat to some small level of comfort. Still, everyone was dripping in sweat, especially in the low-lying areas of the city. Moving from cheering for their friends and family to seeking air conditioning, when they could.
Watching them run/race walk in grueling temperatures for hours on end after having biked an extra-long time, I was in awe of the ability of the human body. I watched a grown man, muscles seizing in the heat and obvious fatigue contemplate stopping. His family had stopped there (temporarily) to cheer for him. He contemplated giving up. While waiting for the wagon, he stretched out his throbbing legs in a shaded area of overpass. When at last the wagon swung by his area, his determination and grit had returned. He stood up and waved the ride away, deciding instead to keep on running. (I saw him once later on in the day and yelled encouragement.)
I kept out of the way of support vehicles and made conscious efforts to keep my words of encouragement to acceptable turns of phrase. (Like not shouting “Almost there!!!” at mile 8 of 26.2. Lol!) For the most part, I would silently ring my cowbell or holler to lift someone’s spirits. Inside, my thoughts were a turmoil of processing and logic in true Gemini-style. I thought about the day, this race, the tired/sweaty people still gutting it out, the sacrifices and hundreds of hours of training involved to bring these people to this point in their lives. While I am not sure I will ever get to that level–or ever truly WANT to be–The experience was generating a slow fire in my heart.
My small problems, discomforts, and complaints burned in those ashes. My “excuses” and lame reasons meant nothing while staring this level of Dedication head-on. Sure, I was currently rehabbing a small injury, but that shouldn’t mean that I throw my hands up in despair and claim that as my official excuse to never push myself further, once healed.
Later on, the heat of the day started dissipating incrementally. The sun moved to a different point on the horizon, offering more shade to the sweaty watchers like ourselves. We huddled on the other side of the road for relief and would jog across the way to cheer once again when a familiar race number was called, signalling a friend on their way that we needed to keep cheering for. Once most of them had passed, it was back to Checkpoint 2, where the sun was just past set in the airless bowl just before Memorial Bridge and the mighty Tennessee River. The cooler temperature offered the runners who were still going some level of reprieve. At this time, the occasional runner was up to light running to make up race time from their sweaty mid-day slog and all day efforts. The cheering levels intensified here, hoping to give the runners buoyancy for the miles left to go.
We eventually exited this area once again and made our way to a different part of the city that most of us hadn’t seen yet. The art district–which sits on a hill–offered a much-welcome breeze, some pleasant musical distraction, and some wonderful sculptures to remark upon. Descending the lighted stairs in the evening was a scary, but exciting experience as you felt as if you could quite possibly keep walking to the aquarium rooftop, if this sensation of flying continued…
We found a circuitous route past Barton Ave to reach the Finish Line and tucked in to an open area to find people we knew and cheer on those we did not. Multiple high-fives were requested by passing runners, on their way further down the chute to the Finish Line. Quite a lot of cowbelling or shaking of lighted tambourines that were passed out with the Little Debbie sponsored logo on them. The atmosphere was Electric. The excitement palpable. The physical pain and struggle written clearly on each athletes’ face, whether smiling or gutting it out to the end.
Hearing the announcer offer the proclamation to each finisher, by name, “You are an Ironman!!!!!!!” rang like church bells in the air, next to the winding Tennessee River on Ross’ Landing. Emotions floating to the surface and rising up as an offering to those who had stuck with it, the athletes finishing in the 14-16 hour mark, with cheers ringing louder as the minutes crept further into the night and the midnight cutoff time.