Spectating an Ironman race is an endurance event all its own. Like the event itself, it requires a lot of planning, patience, and perseverance. But when the day is over, not only will you have supported a loved one on their feat of endurance, you will have experienced Chattanooga in a way that few people have: Sun up to sundown, half tourist and half triathlete, exhausted and energized all at the same time.
Athletes want to see you as much as you want to see them. Here’s how to make the most of your day in Chattanooga.
Because of the swim’s unique point-to-point route, you can watch almost every stroke if you’re so inclined. We recommend renting a city bike for the day, because it will get you everywhere you need to go. There are docking stations all over downtown, and all it takes is a credit card and $6. Ride up the Riverwalk to the swim start and see the spectacle of 2,500 racers entering the Tennessee River. TVA is supposed to shut off the flow, but naturally, a little current will assist the athletes. And they’ll be checking the temperature religiously: If it’s 76 or below, wetsuits are allowed (which also helps with speed and confidence). From there, you can ride back toward town alongside the swimmers, stopping along the way at these select points:
5 Best Places to Spectate the Swim
1. The Boathouse Restaurant
Here, you get a long, unobstructed view of the river, from the start line all the way to the bridges. The thousands of athletes stretched out in a line will be a sight unlike any other. If you're more in the mood to eat breakfast and drink a mimosa than follow the swimmers down the river, then the Boathouse is the best place in town. Get there early to snag a seat on the porch. Get Directions .
2. The Rowing Center
The Rowing Center offers high ground to watch your athlete make his or her way downstream. You’ll be close enough to pick out individuals if you’re really talented. Get Directions .
3. The Sculpture Garden
Catch a spectacular view of swimmers that spans nearly all the way back to the start line. It’s a great perspective of just how long a 2.4-mile swim really is. From this high up, you can’t spot a particular athlete (but it’s OK, because they can’t see you, either). Get Directions .
4. The overlook at the Hunter Museum and The Walking Bridge
From these spots, you can see the river and also get a sprawling view of North Chattanooga. Walnut Street Bridge is a favorite vantage point for spectators of the annual Waterfront Triathlon. You can probably see the swim exit from here -- and the athletes can sense it getting close, too. Just one more slight kink in the river separates them from their bike. Later in the day, you’ll be able to see runners crossing both bridges. Get Directions .
5. Market Street Bridge
This is the perfect bird’s-eye view of swimmers as they finish the swim. You can see them exit the water and head into transition. Get Directions .
The bike portion of IRONMAN typically offers spectators a break. Once you see them leave transition, the ride takes 5 to 8 hours. This is a great chance to grab coffee and breakfast at one of the many local shops. During this time, you can also stop by the stores on Frazier Avenue, the public library, the aquarium, or the Creative Discovery Museum to keep testy children at bay. Keep your cell phones topped off throughout the day at Whole Foods or at one of the many local coffee shops (which are normally occupied by students using their outlets for marathon study sessions).
To help spectators safely and easily see their athletes, IRONMAN is offering a shuttle service into Chickamauga, through which cyclists pass twice. Trips will be running from 9am-3pm, and they’ll bring you back into downtown. This is the best way to catch the action. You’ll have a good photo opportunity—especially if your athlete is always complaining about the lack of side-view, aero position, full speed race photos!
Don’t forget to eat during this time. There are countless downtown and North Shore restaurants to visit while you track your athlete on IRONMAN Live . Located right next to the transition zone is a great local restaurant called The Blue Plate, which gives a modern spin to the old American diner. We're talking all day breakfast, milkshakes, and patty melts. Also, in an adjoining part of the Blue Plate's building is a cool bar called Local 191, where you can enjoy a mimosa or an Irish Coffee among other drinks. And don't forget to top it all off with a scoop of ice cream from nearby Cold Stone Creamery.
If you want more detailed recommendations for food, read this insider's guide to Chattanooga Cuisine. Chickamauga also has options for feeding you and your family, and the historic downtown area is an attraction of its own. In case you want to trek out a bit farther on your own, here are a few other places to safely and easily watch the bike ride:
3 Places to See Your Cyclists in Action
The transition area—specifically, just outside of transition—is a sure place to see athletes. Not only do the athletes come through here twice (at the beginning and end), they’ll also be moving a little bit slower. So you can shout some much-needed words of encouragement, and there’s a much greater chance that your athlete will actually recognize you. Get Directions .
2. Chattanooga Market and Chew Chew Dog Park
The pavilion comes alive on Sundays, with local merchants selling items like handmade popsicles, pottery, and everything in between. You’ll get to see athletes finishing the ride by the time the market is open, and it’s easy to get back to transition from here. Get Directions .
3. Mountain Cove Farms
This is the farthest point on the bike course, and for good reason: Mountain Cove Farms is some of the most beautiful, secluded countryside in the whole area. You can see athletes make the turn to head back north on both loops. The country store here is a favorite of local cyclists, too. However, you have only two good options for viewing here: Come early, bring a picnic lunch and wait for the last cyclists, or drive farther south and take Highway 157 over Lookout Mountain back to Chattanooga. Get Directions .
“Bike for show, run for dough.” Here’s where the IRONMAN really comes alive; the toughest part of an already-grueling day. Not to minimize the challenge of cycling 112 miles, but running through the finishing tape is what every triathlete dreams about. The more iconic, the better—and Chattanooga’s course is one that the athletes won’t soon forget.
You’ll have anywhere from 3.5 to 7 hours to watch your runner, so there’s no need to stake out the finish line just yet. Have dinner and drinks at a Frazier Avenue eatery, like Brewhaus, where you can sit on the back porch and watch athletes crossing Walnut Street Bridge.
As athletes start the run, they begin a fairly tranquil section of the Riverwalk—the same section from which you watched them swim. It’ll be a reminder of how far they’ve come, and how far they have left to run. Ride your city bike to the first turnaround (about four miles in) at the corner of Riverport Road and Amnicola. Athletes will face some small rises back into town before crossing Veteran’s Bridge. Then the fun starts.
When folks say they used to walk to school, uphill, both ways, they were talking about Barton Avenue. It’s a great place to spectate—and not coincidentally, the runners will need your enthusiasm here. However, they get a long downhill to recover. And you can strategically place yourself at Tremont Tavern—right at the bottom of that hill—for a burger, while they run through the beautiful Riverview neighborhood. Then it’s back up Barton from the other side, across the walking bridge, and on to lap 2.
3 Great Places to Watch your IRONMAN Run
1. Riverview Park
Great for keeping young kids entertained during a day that’s long and tiring for everybody! This park is just a block from the run course, where you could see an athlete up to four times. Get Directions .
2. Walnut Street Bridge
Get up close and personal with the athletes! As they run toward the city’s skyline, there’s nothing better than the support of onlookers—friends and family, or total strangers. If it’s their first loop, they’ll be excited to hit the halfway point. And if it’s their second loop, watch out—because they might give you a massive, sweaty bear hug, with the finish line less than a mile away.
3. The Finish Line
An Ironman finish line is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced. The pros who finish in 8 or 9 hours are ecstatic. The competitive age group athletes who finish in 10 to 14 hours are (generally) happy to taste the fruits of their labor. But the dedicated troopers who finish from closer to midnight really electrify the finish line.
It’s so thrilling, in fact, that many of the athletes who finish by dinner time will come back and ring in the last finishers. A hundred street lamps can’t hold a candle to the aura of an athlete who crosses with minutes to spare and hears legendary announcer Mike Reilly shout “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” loud enough for all of Chattanooga to take note. The jagged peaks of the Aquarium overhead reflect the highs and lows of an undertaking that treats a select few very well -- but many others much, much more harshly.
This is where grown men cry; where tiny women roar like lions. You may know them; you may not. But you’ve taken a 17-hour journey with them, and your cheers will forever echo in their memory of that moment -- the moment they became an Ironman.
When the fire has died down, hungry athletes and families will be searching for late-night sustenance. Check out Clyde's, the Flying Squirrel, or the City Cafe for midnight munchies and a mountainous slice of cake -- your reward for a job well done!
Written by Drew Streip for RootsRated.