After two 2020 deferrals I found myself signed up for this M-Dot 70.3 in Chattanooga Tennessee. I chose it partly because I have family 90 minutes away in Atlanta and partly because it’s a great one-transition venue where I raced the 2017 70.3 World Championships. It’s also known for fantastic volunteer support and the city seems to genuinely appreciate hosting 2000 racers and their traveling crews. After a cross-country flight, some family visits, and a Friday morning tune-up ride in Georgia, I rolled into town Saturday morning.

Due to Covid protocols, you had to sign up for a time slot to pick up your packet, and once there, sign up for a time slot to drop off your bike. Fortunately, everything is in the same place for this race, a huge downtown park overlooking the Tennessee River. A nice bit of news was announced just a couple of days before the race; due to recent CDC guidelines, masks would not be required at any part of the event except inside the med tent. This was my fifth Covid race and, being fully vaccinated, it was nice to forgo the mask.

I got there around 10:30 AM and it was already warm and getting hotter by the minute. The humidity wasn’t terrible by southeastern standards but was definitely noticeable and in contrast to what I’m used to in Northern California. The race day high was expected to be 90F with light winds. I knew a big part of success at this race would come down to how people handled the heat for the rolling, sparsely shaded, 13.1 mile run. At my last half ironman, I had trouble with leg cramps late in the run and was particularly worried about it for this race due to the heat. So I decided to break one of the cardinal rules of triathlon, which is don’t try anything new on race day. I poked around the expo and bought a pack of chewable salt tablets, orange flavor, and decided I’d take them on the run having never tried them before.

After a few changes over the years, the swim course is one-way downstream but lengthened to 1.4 miles. Part of that was logistics to hold the start at a rowing center that had a large dock that worked well for the purpose. But due to Covid protocols set well in advance, there weren’t any shuttles to swim start. Instead they grouped you by anticipated swim time while still in T1 and had everyone walk en-masse the 1.4 miles upriver. Since the race started at 6:50, the first groups left transition about 5:45, so yes, it was an early 4:00 AM wake-up call, east coast time, or 1:00 AM on my west coast body clock.

The walk wasn’t bad and I took hydration and fuel with me to be topped up for the start. The previous queuing got lost in the giant throngs roaming around the rowing center grounds and I ended up starting a bit further back than I wanted to. There wasn’t any river access for warming up so I planned to go easy the first few minutes. It was a rolling start with two lines and we jumped in two at a time to start. There were some navigation buoys but you could swim on either side of them and the field spread out pretty quickly. The water was a perfect wetsuit temp of 73F and felt great after the humid morning walk. I starting passing a lot of swimmers but never had to veer that much and only had to squeeze through groups once or twice. I can’t say I felt great but I was comfortable and made sure to enjoy the moment now and then, grateful to be racing again, and checking out the limestone walls and bridges that made it an unusually scenic swim course.

I made may way to the exit stairs and was out in 32:59, which is about right for me for 1.2 miles so the current pretty much made up for the extra distance. It was a decent run up to transition and I was soon there getting ready for the bike. Stats on the swim were 3rd best of 131 in my age group and 108th in a field of 1985. My pace was 1:25 per 100 yds which was elevated somewhat due to the current.

I always take all my bike nutrition with me, which if anyone is interested, is three bottles and six shot blocks. I mix the bottles with Gatorade and add 40 calories of whey protein to each one (a tip I read about years ago that works well for me). Due to the heat I also added the contents of an Endurolyte capsule to each bottle. During the ride I have a shot block about every 8 to 9 miles, and depending on temperature, usually finish with about half a bottle of liquid left. The bike course heads south into Georgia and has several railroad crossings as you leave town. There was lots of pre-race talk about bottle launching in these areas and subsequent nutrition deficits on the bike. I rode the crossings, already littered with bottles, carefully as I have launched bottles from my tri bike before but made it through just fine. Once out of town the course was fabulous with lots of pristine pavement, a few rolling hills, and one short, steep ramp near the south end of the course that was honestly pretty trivial. There were some rollers and rougher roads on the way back in but all in all the course was a blast to ride. I was feeling good and told myself to be patient, as I knew I would need to conserve energy for the hot and humid run. I monitored power and heartrate and didn’t worry about getting passed by faster riders; I just dialed into my own pace. It was getting pretty warm by the end of the ride and I decided I would take two Endurolytes in T2 with the last bit of liquid in my last bottle. But as luck would have it, my last bottle, then about half-full got launched on a railroad crossing coming back into town so I had to ride the last seven or so miles with no liquid and go to plan B for the Endurolytes. I rolled into transition with a 2:33:55 bike split which is a PR for me for a Half Ironman even though the course measured 56.8 miles. Stats on the bike were 13th age group, 188th overall, average speed 22.2 mph.

Once in T2 I changed shoes and gathered my hat, glasses, race number belt, another six pack of shot blocks, and the package of salt tablets I bought the day before. I then grabbed the two Endurolytes and put them in my mouth as I had no hands left to carry them. I was hoping for a water station at the transition exit to wash down the capsules but there wasn’t one. I needed a quick pee break before heading out on the run so I stopped in a porta and while standing there taking care of business, managed to swallow the two Endurolytes without any liquid. Due to run course logistics there wasn’t an aid station until maybe 1.5 miles in, so I probably went 45 minutes or so without any liquid at all; not a great way to start a 13.1 mile run in heat and humidity.

Once I got settled out on the run course I actually felt pretty decent. I was averaging about 8:00 minute pace and consciously dialed it back a bit as I knew I couldn’t maintain that for the whole distance. I stayed steady at 8:15 to 8:30 miles for most of the first lap and started a routine of taking a chewable salt tablet followed by a shot block every two miles. At each aid station I would grab a cup of Gatorade and some ice to dump in my hat which I would then put on to keep me cool as the ice slowly melted. The program worked pretty well for the first lap and on the second I actually felt pretty good, passing a lot of first-lap racers, several of which were already starting the survival shuffle or walking. I knew coming in that my training had been lacking in long runs with only one 11 miler in the two months before the race. So it wasn’t a surprise that when miles 9 and 10 rolled around I started getting some pretty clear instructions from my body to slow down. I started to walk the aid stations, switched from Gatorade to Coke, and walked one really short, steep hill that was pretty nasty on the first lap. It was a good decision as I felt just a bit better at the top having walked it and quickly got back into a decent rhythm. I knew all that was left was two river crossings so I again tried to enjoy the scenery and just stayed steady at 9:00 to 9:30 pace the rest of the way in. I did pass a TBF friend and rival with two miles to go having no idea he was in town for the race – great to see you Bryan. I finally hit the red carpet of the finish line and all in all was very satisfied with my race. Stats on the run were 1:56:25 (8:54 per mile), 20th age group, 391st overall.

My total time of 5:12:00 had me 11th of 131 in my age group. That placing did qualify me for 70.3 Worlds in St. George Utah in September as there was an initial allotment of 13 spots in my age group (a higher than typical number due to so many qualifying races being cancelled). But I had already decided to decline a spot if I earned one as it’s a bad time of year for me to travel and it’s also the same weekend as the local Black Butte Triathlon which I simply will not miss. I don’t know if I’ll return to Chattanooga to race again but I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an M-Dot (there’s also a full in September) in that part of the country.