Where to begin. This was such an incredible weekend and it came out of pure randomness, which I always delight in. Last year when I was picking my races I wanted to tackle another 70.3 before Ironman Lake Placid but was stumped on which one to pick. I live in Ontario so Muskoka was the obvious choice, but something inside of me was resistant. I was at work quickly scrolling through my emails when a promotional Ironman email popped up on my phone screen. “Ironman Chattanooga 70.3, voted best overall bike, will recommend to a friend, best race venue experience, best host city experience”....where do I sign up?!
Without considering travel plans, checking out the course elevation profile, or doing any form of research, credit card in hand I would say within the 10 minutes my eyes hit the advert I was all signed up to hit the road for Tennessee. Now, I'm not a total spontaneous hooligan! I still had a year to wait for actual race day to come and spent the next 12 months incrementally having meltdowns about the elevation, travel plans, how to ship my bike, etc etc that a typical newbie triathlete tends to encounter, but I knew in my heart, in my gut that this was the perfect second 70.3 distance for me.
I was right, fast forward to the week before race day. I thought I had everything planned, the only big glitch was back in October my hubby (and personal bike mechanic) hurt himself pretty severely and although was three months post op ACL surgery still had significant swelling in the lower leg and couldn't make the trip. No biggie on the social problem, my two awesome sisters-in-law (don't worry you will hear more about these gems later on) offered to join me on my first major away race, but I lost my personal bike mechanic. Now I know that this is my own fault and I'm working on it, but my bike maintenance knowledge is essentially zero to none because I have had Tom to always help me out. I was in a bit of panic mode.
For anyone new to the sport, and traveling to their first venue I highly recommend renting a bike box. I also encourage you to go with a hard case versus soft. It's not worth the risk of your bike being jostled around. If you have the coin and it's not a big deal, go wild and get a sick new hard box. But for $75 I reserved a box from a great local shop down the street from me and was able to have it for a week. They would have packed it for me included at that price point as well, but like I said its nice to have your own personal bike guru for a life partner. I was able to take it home three days prior to leaving, have it packed in the comfort of our garage, and have an extra day at home before I had to return it. I'm sure in the future if I really go for it on Ironman vacays having my own would be rad, but even realistically if you are only traveling to one or two races a year via flight save yourself the $800-$1000.
So bike packed, all my gear good to go, girlfriends ready for a wicked weekend...shit, who is going to assemble and disassemble my bike? I had reached out to Ironman a few weeks before via email and they assured me that bike mechanics were on site. And they were totally right, but when talking to a fellow athlete those mechanics are not there to unpack and pack your bike.
"You idiot, Krista.”
So literally 72 hours before I am about to get on the plane I am scrambling and call a Chattanooga bike store about a mile from our hotel and this is the beginning of the absolute kindness this city has to offer. I explain my mistake and the gentleman was like “So, my name is Aaron. Just ask for me, Miss when you get here. You know other people have reserved spots for us months ago, but the second you get off the plane get your bike into our shop and we will make sure it is ready for check in.” Seriously so nice!
Chattanooga was definitely not on my bucket list, I didn't know anything about it and truly had no expectations on the trip, but right off the plane, I was already smiling. It has a teeny little airport and the Southern charm was already hanging in the air. I grew up in a small town so was smiling from ear to ear with all the waves, and good mornings from those passing me by. My coach recommended the CUTEST hotel, The Choo Choo Hotel, where a local train station was converted into the happiest/eccentric place to stay. They have a shuttle that you call when you land to pick you up and if you ever get a fellow named Marvin, you are in luck. He was the sweetest man. Instead of me having to lug this giant ass hard case a mile from our hotel to the bike shop Marvin wouldn't hear of it and took us directly to the shop, where the mechanic laughed and gave me a super reasonable price for unpacking, tuning, and packing my bike for the weekend.
As long as I came back at 4:00 pm with a six-pack of his favorite beer...because yes, even though I only called three days earlier they were going to have my bike ready for me five hours after I landed! Sweet Marvin then told myself and my sister in laws he wouldn't dream of leaving us at the shop and needed to know we were at The Choo Choo safely. The whole trip from the airport to the hotel he gave us all the tips for having an excellent time in a city he so obviously loved.
The Choo Choo was epic. Perhaps not a five star and if you are super particular about staying in the most balling place, then it's not for you. But if you want to be treated with 10/10 customer service, have an amazing courtyard that is stunning with twinkling fairy lights at night, giant Jenga, cornhole, and your very own boxcar to stay in...then this is the spot for you. The main entrance was so cool. I love how much of the train station feel they kept. You have the option of staying within the main building or in an actual train car. I would recommend the train car. It's just so neat. They also have in the non-sleep cars different shops and bars.
I was still alcohol-free for race day, but my sister in laws were loving American Draft right across the courtyard from us. It was super nifty, all craft brews on tap that you can operate with a card given to you. Many hands of Cards Against Humanity were played there because they have all the games at the Choo Choo.
Chattanooga is a green city, and very easy to get around. They have a free shuttle that takes you around the main downtown area as well as Chattanooga bike transport. Ironman Village is about three miles from the hotel and the shuttle takes you right there. This was my first Ironman branded event and they did not disappoint. The energy in the Village was palpable the second you hit it. Excitement was buzzing in the air. The athletes were incredible, the volunteers were crazy efficient.
The nerves really started to hit me. I looked around and saw all of these fit gods/goddesses and suddenly felt my tummy contract in. I felt like an imposter. My mouth got dry as I heard them talking about this “brutal hill at mile 29 in the bike, where last year people were falling off their bikes and walking it." Shit, did I do enough hills? The bike, the bike!!! My weakest link and people are falling off the damn thing. Another factor that was impossible to ignore, the blazing heat. When I was at the athlete briefing it was scorching and once again running in weather like that, especially after our cold Canadian winter is not my strong suit.
My eyes got big, my hands got shaky. My sister in laws took them and calmed me right down by first saying some very nice things, and then being open to forget the race for the next 30 or so hours and explore the darn city.
My first pleasant surprise. The FOOD! I was blown away. I'm not sure if the rest of Tennessee is like this, but all of the restaurants we hit sourced their food within 100 miles of the place. And! Free ice cream, haha. A shop had just opened up and I guess this typically happens in Chattanooga, but there was a full street party with a DJ and kids dancing their butts off, beer, whiskey, and lots of people having a hoot. Check out Clumpies Ice Cream Co. and get the Lemon Blueberry Basil flavor. It was unreal. I will admit I had it two days in a row. So many cute coffee shops, mom and pop breakfast gigs, and interesting restaurants for dinner. Your palate will most certainly be taken care of.
We had all day Saturday to explore and the two spots aside from the actual city of Chattanooga we decide to hit were Rock City and Ruby Falls. Rock City was unreal. It was so neat and magical. It was initially an estate in the early 1900's and the owners loved Botany and fairytales so much they opened it to the public in 1932. It is a series of paths and caverns that have been carefully designed to hit all of your senses. Music is playing to set the ambiance of the trail, there are cute little gnomes everywhere and when you get to Lookout Point you have a view of seven states. They created “Fairytale Caverns” where an artist created essentially a carved out storybook within the walls. You are led to the delta of the cavern where this amazing, massive, masterpiece of all these various stories are in the middle to walk around. It was such a memorable experience and takes about 90 minutes, I feel like it is a Chattanooga essential.
Now, finally the actual race! I'm sorry you got so much backstory but I truly felt like I was gone for weeks, not a weekend. The trip was already a blast before the race. 4 am wakeup, and even though the Choo Choo normally only uses their private van for the airport (going back to the cities kindness) they drove me down to T1.
Ironman didn't disappoint. I was body marked and in T1 within three minutes getting set up. The bike staff was great and pumped my tires for me and onto the shuttle over to the swim start I went. So full of nerves, questioning everything and working on trying to get into the zone. I really, really love the self-seeding option for the swim. I know some athletes feel like it loses the excitement of a mass start, but this is the perfect swim option. It was so emotional watching the Pros getting going and I met an awesome fellow newbie in the corral. It was his first 70.3 and it was incredibly sweet, his mom and sister ran out the start and the proud looks on their faces for him was all I needed to pump myself up. The nerves started to dissipate and I remembered why I was doing this. The JOY of it. The faces of everyone who worked so hard to get here, the limbs being stretched to warm up, the vibration of 2600 people coming together to do something extraordinary.
There it is: the dock, feet hitting the wetness of the wood, timing mat and here we go. You will have the SWIM OF YOUR LIFE. It is about 200 meters upstream, 100 meters cross stream and the rest you cruise downstream. I love, love, love being in open water and the temperature was perfect. You get to swim underneath two bridges and I just found it lovely. I had no issues fighting the current. It was over in a flash, I felt like I just got in and was enjoying my swim flow and then there was the exit. I glanced at my watch and had to double take it “29.50”, that cant be right. I placed myself in the 38-40 minute time estimate. Final time was 30 min, I frigging crushed my PR by eight minutes and was so stoked.
First time with wetsuit strippers. They were animals! Haha, so efficient and wetsuit off and ready to go in no time. Onto my most feared section, the bike. The sunscreen volunteers were awesome and I was sprayed perfectly as I ran out of T2.
Once again I had the best bike experience. At this point the temperature was perfect. There was zero wind and I was cruising. I know I'm a slow rider but I averaged 16.7 miles an hour which was great for me. I paced myself and loved the rolling course. It was idyllic and I felt more like I was touring an awesome place rather then grinding out in a race. Funniest part of the bike. I look ahead of me and see this big, long black thing on the road and was thinking what the heck is that? Did someones tire blow? And then all of a sudden IT MOVED. This massive snake was crossing the road. In a perfect Southern drawl, all I hear is,
“OH MY SHOO SHOO in all my years racing I ain't never seen anything like this."
Maybe not as hilarious in writing but I laughed for like five miles after that. The miles are whipping by and this mile 29 hill is fast approaching. I'm thinking, "Be cool Krista, granny gear the shit out of it and slow and steady..." sharp turn at St Andrews and there it was.
I was like “That's it?” This is my warm up on the Hamilton Escarpment and I felt a wave of relief that I am not a total loser on the bike. I boogied up it, whooped at the top and then onto Chickamauga I went. Such a welcoming small town. I couldn't believe how much cheering there was on the course. People were truly awesome. Then in 3:15 minutes it was over. Once again, very average, but great for a second season bike rider who smiled the whole darn way.
T3 in I went and all of a sudden the temperature went up a bazillion degrees. It was so bloody hot. My skin started to crawl. But, there were my amazing sister in laws screaming my name. These women (any supporter) needs such a shout out. They are there for hours all over the place (probably covered their own half Ironman) cheering for you. I expected to see them maybe two or three times. I saw these sweet peas ten to 15 times. I have no idea how they did it but they were everywhere and really kept me going. I am just forever grateful that I have them in my life. The heat killed my run. I ran/walked the race even though I was hoping for a full run cruise.
It was just too hot for me and I could see people around me dropping like flies. People were overheating, dehydrating, vomiting, cramping and I really wanted this to be a memorable experience so I listened to my body. I ran what I could, and with the help of, once again, out of this world volunteers, poured gallons of water on my head, shoved loads of ice and sponges all over my body and just put one foot in front of the other. You know what? The course was beautiful. There were only two road sections that I found a little boring but the rest you were on a beautiful, tree-lined path. Chattanooga is an artsy city with sculptures and interesting things to look at so I just took it in. The streets were packed with encouragement and I never felt alone or defeated. Two loops and that feeling when you get to turn left towards the finish is just awesome.
I crossed under the Ironman Finish Line with a 2:16 blazing hot run with my hands held high over my head. I saw my two gals and couldn't hold it in, just a gut reaction of tears to see them. To feel the six hours and 9 minutes of effort I put in, and the gratitude towards this amazing city. I absolutely loved my Chattanooga 70.3 experience and could go on and on about the afterwards of this race, of the details of meeting fellow athletes I follow on social media, of the love and energy that the triathlon community brings, but I will put the brakes on here and hope that I have convinced you to check out this colourful city for your next Ironman adventure.
Much love and happiness to you,
Written by Krista Banik, Siren Luminary
Follow Krista on Instagram! @kristabanik