Behind the IRONMAN Curtain

This September hundreds of Ironman athletes became heroes as they crossed the finish line in downtown Chattanooga. But there were other heroes on the scene – a 200+ crew of volunteer health care workers.

By Laura Childers
(Above) Photo Courtesy of Nils nilsen/Ironman

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! The toll the Ironman puts on the human body is unbelievable. The average athlete burns more than 6,000 calories during the  course and sweats up to 20 pounds of fluid, which is why 20% of competitors on average require an IV at the finish or before. Combine this with the possibility of injuries, and you suddenly see why having an A+ medical team on the scene is a No.1 priority for any city hosting the event.

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Just ask Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) President Bob Doak, who headed up the initial negotiations with Ironman. “When we were reviewing the contract, the decisive importance of the medical component really hit me,” he says. “Because when you’ve got 2,500 athletes competing at those high stakes, it’s your duty to be prepared at the highest level.”

WITC.Ironman1Calling on One to One  Spurred to action by the magnitude of the task, Doak called Dr. Keith Helton, a long-time physician in our community and founder of Chattanooga-based One to One physician network. He knew One to One’s mission was about promoting direct engagement between doctors and patients – and that’s just what the Ironman needed. “It could not have been a better fit,” Doak says. “Within a couple hours after we talked, I had a text back that we had a medical director.”

That director was Dr. David Bruce, One to One’s principle physician recruiter. A sports medicine physician, he is perhaps best known for his sideline work at Baylor, McCallie, Boyd-Buchanan, and Notre Dame.

Dr. Bruce was charged with recruiting 25 doctors, 100 nurses, and orchestrating EMS personnel for the 144-mile race crossing two
counties in two states. It was a daunting task. But fortunately, his outreach efforts met with explosive volunteerism. In as little as three months, Dr. Bruce had successfully recruited 35 doctors (10 more than required) and 150 nurses (50 more than required). “From the response I was getting, though, I could have had 75 and 1,000,” he says.

WITC.Ironman1WITC.Ironman1WITC.Ironman2The EMS component fell into place with the help of Erlanger’s event medicine group, which provides services at about 200 events per year including the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge and USA Pro Cycling. “The event medicine team took on so much coordinating the ambulance, fire, and police protection. I doubt many communities have anything like them.”

WITC.Ironman1When it came to the day of the event, Dr. Bruce and team had the 144-mile course covered. “We had four different EMS groups involved, and they provided nine ambulances for just Walker county. Lifeforce was stationed mid-way on the bike course and multiple EMS crews and extraction points wWITC.Ironman1ere set up throughout the race course. There were three ambulances downtown at all times and medical crews at each of the race stage’s ending points.”

They had prepared for everything – except, perhaps, the electricity of the scene.  “I used to think ‘There is no reason anybody should put their body through that,’” says Dr. Bruce. “But to be at the finish and feel the incredible synergy between the fans, the volunteers, and the athletes…all of a sudden I got it.”

He wasn’t the only one. “It was just phenomenal to see doctors interacting with large volumes of patients as both physicians and community members,” says Dr. Helton, who spent the day working in the medical tent. “As physicians we rarely find ourselves in this kind of welcoming role.”

Gearing Up for Round Two  Doak says the leaders of the CVB and other city representatives couldn’t be more grateful. “The medical component was absolutely essential for demonstrating Chattanooga was equipped to do a top-notch job and the leaders of the Ironman event told us that they felt  Chattanooga presented itself as if it was in its 10th year hosting the event rather than the first,” he says. “Dr. Bruce and Dr. Helton and all of the volunteers really hit a home run.”

Dr. Bruce is now working on improving next year’s event, driven by his passion for everything Ironman is doing for our city economically, socially, and beyond. “When I first moved here in the early ‘90s, I thought I would just be here for a couple years. But now Chattanooga is in me. I love it. And I know that the other doctors and nurses and volunteers feel the same way.

“The Ironman event is a place where Chattanooga can shine, from the beauty of our city to the enthusiasm of our community to the medical volunteers who cared for these incredible athletes. And you just can’t overlook the economic impact of this event.”