Review: 2015 Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga

Overview

(Note: Includes updates to run course for 2016.)

This was the inaugural Chattanooga IM 70.3, following the inaugural Chattanooga IM 70.3 the previous fall. The people of Chattanooga provided wonderful support, on a physically lovely course. It is easy to see why WTC has made Chattanooga one of the few towns hosting two races. Early season, but late enough that those from St Louis region will have gotten in a couple of open water swims and some outdoor rides beforehand. Mostly downstream swim, variable bike, and some decent hills on the run. The course crosses the Tennessee River six times – four crossings over two bridges on the run, crossing the river from one bank to the other on the swim, and the bus ride taking you from transition to the swim start!

Date

May 17, 2015

Location

Ross’s Landing Park, Riverfront Parkway, Chattanooga, TN 37402
The village and transition area are adjacent to the wonderful Tennessee Aquarium, which is highly recommended. And since your swim will be in the Tennessee Reiver, you especially want to see the River Giants exhibit for motivation.
Parking is not much of a problem There are street parking, and parking lots that you pay by credit card. I always got there early enough to park across from the Aquarium. If you can’t find anything, just keep heading east (i.e., along the river) and you will eventually find something. There is a public transit system that I did not make use of, I didn’t really have need for it.
Typical lodging. Expensive downtown and less so as you get further away. My daughter attends University of the South in Sewanee, TN, west of town, and I usually stay in one of the motels on US 24 and just drive 20 minutes to the race.

It’s on the website, dude

Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga website

Weather

68 degrees at the start, overcast with occasional sprinkles.
73 degrees at the start of the run.
Wetsuit legal (mid 60’s?) (73 degrees in 2016)

The Swim

The swim is point to point, in the Tennessee River. The swim actually begins on the far side of the river, meaning you cross the river during the swim. We were transported via bus from transition over to the swim start. We were encouraged to get ourselves on the busses soonest with the promise that there would be plenty of PortaPotties near the swim entry area and, true to their word, there were plenty.

At this time of year (mid-May), in all likelihood the swim will be wetsuit legal. I remember the water temperature as being mid-60’s. (73 degrees in 2016.)

The swim was a self-seeding start, you got into the back of the line at whatever point you felt like. The line wound down the bank on a sort of temporary bridge and dock.

The first 0.25 miles are upstream. However, on the side of the river you are on when you start, you are actually in a bit of a backwater and there is little current. Then when you turn at the buoy and head for the center of the river – WHOOSH! In fact, if you zoom in on the Garmin Connect window below and place the cursor on the pace chart where my pace suddenly picks up, you will see on the map that it is right at the turn buoy. My swim time for for 1.2 miles in a wetsuit is usually between 52 and 58 minutes. This one was 46. So, it took me 14 minutes to swim the first 0.25 miles (1.07 mph), and 32 to swim the last 0.95 (1.78 mph)!

(Update from 2017. In 2017, the current on the upstream part showed up, and did so with a vengeance! It took the pros something like 9 minutes to swim that short upstream portion, and then about 12 to swim the downstream! The age group swim was changed to a shortened swim that headed straight out from the shore to a turn buoy which had been moved there, and then head downstream to the finish. This is why, if you look a the results from 2017, you will see pro times like 21 minutes and age group times like 19! )

One of the features of the swim is that you pass under three bridges in the process, which is a neat thing to look up and see.

Sighting is straightforward. In the beginning, you are heading east into the Sun, but there are a lot of folks heading in the same direction, and you are swimming fairly close to and parallel to the river bank.

The exit is up steps with helpers to get you out. It is the same exit as the full Ironman.

T1

The is probably not going to be your favorite. It wasn’t mine. The good news is that you will have plenty of folks cheering you along. As you can see, you begin by running along the Tennessee Riverwalk, and under a pedestrian bridge which has even more cheering people looking down on you. The wetsuit strippers are where you turn left. The less fun part begins there, as you run (or otherwise move yourself) up what amounts to a ramp that  takes you to the transition area. Since the transition area is in a parking lot at the top of the bluff overlooking the river, you have a bit of elevation to deal with, basically 20 feet over a 70 foot distance.

The bike mount sets you up to head out on the Riverfront Parkway.

The Bike

The bike in the IM CHAT 70.3 is a physically lovely ride. There are a lot of hills in the area, and here is the good news: for the most part, you go between the hills and get to look at them! Also the bulk of the ride is actually in Georgia.

I always drive the bike course the day before the race for both safety and strategy. During the race I measured the total elevation gain as 1965 feet. It is a combination of about everything: rolling, long grinds, long descents, steep short climbs and steep descents. If you are from Saint Louis and spend any time Wildwood, Columbia, Babler, Innsbrook, you will have trained adequately for these hills, in my opinion.

You will have areas that are wooded as well as areas that are fairly open, so you will have periods with and without wind exposure. On the day we raced, it rained lightly through the day so we weren’t dealing with a lot of sun.

The race begins with some urban riding to get out of Chattanooga. About the only stretches of poorer pavement that I remember are in these areas, where you will be making a few 90 degree turns anyway. There is a set of railroad tracks about a mile out which are great at water-bottle ejection. And you will face them again at about a mile left to go.

After leaving town, you will be in the rural stretch, which comprises the bulk of the race. The long section is heading south is relatively narrow for a major road and without much shoulder, but there was very little motor vehicle traffic on the road. For the most part, this is rolling but with a gradual uphill trend until reaching the peak at around the turn, about mile 27. This is a spot where you have a 90 degree left turn (and no momentum) and then go up a fairly steep hill. This is where you’re Saint Louis area hill training comes in. It looks worse driving it than it is, and you will literally be done before you know it. But do the training.

After the turn, you will have rolling hills while gradually descending until around Mile 40, at the town of Chickamauga. As you leave Chicakamauga, you will begin a long climb at Mile 42, lasting about 3 miles. On the other side, you will have a very rapid and long descent, you will lose 200 feet in less than 2 miles. This is a spot you will want to make certain you check out before the race so you can plan strategically. If you are a great descender, you can really fly through here; if you are more timid, you will want to look for a line that will keep you out of the way of the good descenders. And there is a reasonably blind turn at the end of the descent so, once again, gain some familiarity beforehand.

After you join back onto the main road, you have only one remaining hill at Mile 52, then maneuvering back through town.

T2

Straighforward. The run out is very close to the swim in.

The Run

Remember how on the bike, we mostly visited the hills? On the run, not so much; you get to run them. The run is a two lap course, with a total of 500 feet of elevation gain.

The run, like the bike, is generally charming. You cross over the Tennessee River four times on two different bridges, and spend a good portion of the run on the Tennessee Riverwalk,  which is pleasant and wooded. The only “ugly” part of the race is the segment along Riverside Drive, as it is basically just boring roadway in a semi industrial area. (Update for 2016: the course has been changes to shorten this segment by adding more distance in the riverwalk park area, a VERY nice change; see 2016 map below.) But, plenty of fellow competitors and run support.

The run begins with a descent down to the RiverWalk, followed by an ascent back up the bluff. This takes you along Riverside Drive, and on your return you will duck back down onto the Riverwalk, a quite pleasant flat run on a wooded trail. At about mile 4.5, you will turn onto East 1st Street, and this is quite a climb.

At mile 5, you make your first river crossing on the run, the Veterans Bridge. This is a standard automobile bridge. You pass over an island and yes, this is the first of the three bridges you swam under earlier! A note about the bridge crossings – you will do 4 of them on the run – is that there is no shade, so you may be getting a bit warm if it’s sunny.

The opposite side of the river resembles downtown Saint Charles (MO) and, if you are lucky, the awesome band students from Ooltewah HS will be there manning the water station again. The trip back across the river is via the Walnut Street Bridge, where you will be on a pedestrian way; this is the second of the three bridges you swam under. At the end of the bridge, you will be at about mile 6.5 and you proceed to do a second loop.

At the end of the second loop, you turn towards the finish and have a nice long downhill run to the finish!

2015 Run Course:

2016 Run Course:

IMG_2335

Medal has a ChooChoo!

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