When I rolled into the Tennessee Riverpark boat ramp, boat in tow, at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, the parking lot was already jam-packed. I was one of several area fishermen recruited to carry lifeguards during the Ironman swimming event. Ironman personnel, lifeguards, scuba divers, rescue personnel, law enforcement boats and officials streamed into the Riverpark boat ramp like ants marching toward a family picnic.
It was the job of Clay Ingle, chief of Hamilton County's Special Tactics and Rescue Services, to manage the herd into some semblance of order: partners assigned, maps reviewed, river positions established and radios handed out. The massive aquatic motorcade started downriver not long after 6 a.m., nearly an hour and a half before the first Ironman swimmers were expected to enter the water.
Ironmans are hell. Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 116 miles and running more than 26—for most of us, completing the feat all in one day is beyond comprehension. But swimming is different from the other two.
If you falter while running, maybe you suffer some road rash. Go down while you're bike riding and it means a broken arm or leg or perhaps a concussion. Water, however, is very unforgiving. A triathlete who fails while swimming potentially dies—especially when there are more than 2,000 of you swimming in one huge mass of flailing arms and kicking feet.
That's why there were hundreds of kayakers, paddleboarders, lawmen, and volunteer boaters and fishermen like myself strung up and down the 2.4-mile course on the Tennessee River to keep a watchful eye on the thousands of swimmers who entered the 77 degree water. Wetsuits are allowed if water temperatures fall to 76 or below, so no wetsuits were allowed Sunday for competitive swimmers.
After a brief hint of a sunrise peeked through the clouds, the sky went gray. Upstream, my assigned lifeguard and I heard a cannon-like boom, and our radio crackled to life.
"The professional men are in the water."
Positioned about a mile downstream, it was many minutes before we saw the first faint splashes. The professional men seemed to rocket by in seconds, followed by the professional women, and the Tennessee River finally turned into what appeared to be a boiling cauldron. Thousands of powerful arms churned downstream. Some did so smoothly and with great confidence, dead on course. Others strayed off course and were herded back toward the centerline by kayakers. At one point, I was forced to scream at the top of my lungs, "Whoa, swimmer, whoa, whoa, whoa," as one man—never raising his head to glance forward—nearly swam at full-speed into the side of my boat.
Some swimmers struggled, doing sidestrokes, treading water or even grabbing hold of a buoy or a kayaker to rest midcourse. Rules allow swimmers to stop and rest, even grabbing hold of floating objects or kayaks, "provided no forward progress is made" while resting.
Midway through the swim, a voice crackled on the radio: "Water Ops, we have a body in the water on the north side of the river."
Misunderstanding the nature of the call, the dispatcher responded, "You mean a noncompetitive swimmer in the water?"
"Negative," the rescue vessel responded. "We have an actual body. It is not a competitor. We repeat, it is NOT a competitor. It is a DOA."
Everyone within earshot of a radio shook their heads in disbelief as the swimmers, unaware of what had been discovered across the river, swam on.
According to the Ironman announcer, every swimmer completed the course. I know it didn't come easy, however. Thinking every swimmer had passed, we were picking up a lifeguard from a floating foam "lily pad" on the river behind the Hunter Museum. We looked upstream, however, and could see a small covey of kayaks and boats surrounding one last lone swimmer coming beneath the Veterans Bridge. This swimmer was easily 20 to 30 minutes behind the last trailing racer in the pack. We hovered in place as she made her way downstream, swimming three strokes and then treading water. Occasionally, she reached out to grasp the bow of her following kayak.
Ten feet away, I looked into her eyes and saw desperation as she blew water, struggled to stay afloat, wishing and willing herself downstream. For a moment we locked eyes, and I gave her a thumbs-up. She smiled, let go of the kayak, returned my thumbs-up and turned to take a few more strokes downstream.
I told the lifeguards in my boat, "She's got two kayaks, two boats and two jet skis following. I don't think she needs us."
They agreed, and we started back toward the boat ramp.
On the way, I thought about that woman. I don't know her name. Apparently she finished the swim, but I have no idea about the bike or the run.
Regardless, in my mind, that woman, who clearly took her life in her hands to take on the Tennessee River, was the strongest person in the race.
That is an Ironman.
Updated @ 3:30 p.m. on 9/29/14 to correct a typographical error.