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Recalled: The Evolution of Championship Racing in Chattanooga

How did this Southern city become a triathlon championship hot spot?

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This weekend, thousands of athletes will dive into the Tennessee River, roll through the hills paralleling Lookout Mountain into North Georgia, and run through downtown “Scenic City” en route to the finish line of Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga. Once the site of the 70.3 World Championship and this year’s host of the North American Championship, Chattanooga has become a go-to race for age-groupers and elites. Here’s a look at how a small Southern city evolved into a high-caliber race destination—and some of the most epic finishes there to date. 

RELATED: How to Watch the Ironman 70.3 North American Championships

2014: Triumph (and some trouble) 

After beating out other southeastern cities including Hilton Head, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina to win a bid for a five-year contract, Chattanooga hosts its first full Ironman on Sept. 28, 2014. The race picks up Little Debbie as the title sponsor (the snack cakes are made in the nearby suburb of Collegedale), and a $25,000 professional prize purse draws some of the sport’s biggest names. In the end, American Matt Hanson  and Canadian Angela Naeth both earn their first career Ironman victories with times of 8:12:32 and 8:54:55, respectively.

The day is not without its darker moments, though. At around 8:31 a.m. on race morning, a body is found under the Olgiati Bridge, close to the swim course. It was later determined that the victim was not part of the competition. And some 30 competitors suffer flat tires on the bike course after rolling over tacks and oil thrown onto the road by vandals. 

2015: Chattanooga 70.3 added 

On the heels of the (mostly) successful Ironman, the city nabs a four-year bid to host a 70.3, becoming just one of ten cities worldwide at the time to host two Ironman-branded races in one year. The half-Ironman, which follows a similar, but truncated, course as the Ironman race, goes off on May 17, with Andy Potts and Ashley Clifford, both of the U.S., winning the inaugural pro titles.

2015: A World Championship destination 

Just one year after hosting its first Ironman, Chattanooga adds another feather to its by being selected as the host of the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Chattanooga becomes one of just ten cities in the world to host both a full- and half-distance Ironman in one year—and with the two-day World Championship format, it becomes the only city in the world to host four races in one year.  

2015: A historic Ironman sprint

Ironman Chattanooga makes international headlines as the site of one of the closest finishes in history on Sept. 27, 2015. Less than two seconds separate winner Kirill Kotsegarov of Estonia and runner-up American Matt Chrabot, with the men both in a full-on sprint in a thrilling race to the finish line.

2017: World Champs are crowned in Chattanooga 

The 70.3 world championship event welcomes 4,500 athletes from around the world on Sept. 9 and 10—as the first two-day world championship race, with women on the first day and men on the second. The challenging bike leg—which includes a 3.5-mile ride up Lookout Mountain and a total elevation gain of 3,442 feet—makes for one of the toughest 70.3 Championship courses to date. In the pro races, Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf dominates, beating Great Britain’s Emma Pallant by more than six minutes to win her third 70.3 world title, while Spain’s Javier Gomez outruns American Ben Kanute to win the men’s championship. Both champs take home $45,000 a piece for their victory. 

2017: Moms rule the women’s pro race

A few weeks after the 70.3 world champs, three women with six kids among them top the podium at Ironman Chattanooga, which features one of the only all-female pro fields at the distance on the circuit that year. Americans Liz Lyles, Kim Schwabenbauer, and Jessie Donavan go one-two-three to compose one of the first all-moms podium in Ironman history. 

2019: Sam Long makes it two for two in Choo 

A relative newcomer on the pro scene named Sam Long surprises everyone—himself included—by taking the win at Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga in 2019. Just 23, Long beats Jackson Laundry and Matt Hanson to take the top step of the podium. Four months later, he’ll go on to take the tape in the Ironman there, his first full Ironman win as a pro.  

2021: Joe Skipper and Skye Moench are the fastest ever…to date

After COVID-enforced cancellations in 2020, the Ironman event comes roaring back, highlighted by the fastest-ever finishes in Chattanooga by both the pro men and women. Great Britain’s Joe Skipper sets course-record bike and run splits en route to a win in 7:46:19, which beats the previous total course record by 22 minutes. On the women’s side, Skye Moench wins by more than 26 minutes in 8:34:07, setting course and American records in the process–all just eight days after a breakthrough sixth-place finish at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

2022: Chattanooga Hosts the North American Championship

Chattanooga once again earns championship status and is named as the host of the North American 70.3 Championships. Some of the best age-groupers and pros are slated to race this weekend, including pro Tim O’Donnell, who will make a return to competition after suffering a mid-race heart attack at Clash Miami in March of last year. Coverage starts at 6:30 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 22; tune in for live coverage on Outside Watch.