IT IS 4:30 A.M. ON A WEEKDAY WHEN A MOTHER OF FIVE WAKES UP, slips on her running shoes and leaves her house in darkness to join a small group on a seven-mile run. This is her routine four mornings a week. She will swim a few miles in a pool or cycle 20 miles through the city later the same day, after she puts in a full day as a manager for a medical technology company. Hundreds of thousands of triathletes like her around the world fit their training everyday into lives brimming with busy agendas. They rise from soft, warm beds to face thick, inglorious skies. They cycle on cold, wet days and run on hot, sun-baked roads. They dream bolder, wilder things from the moment the first elite race medal hangs about their necks. They live in a land between races. They run, they work, they plan, they live and they wait for the next Ironman.

caaaCall it addiction, competitiveness or even crazy. This tribe of triathletes describes this relentless pursuit with  ter where they are in the world. It is the native language of the Ironman. Last September, more than 2,000 wet-suited competitors dove into the Savannah River in timed intervals to begin the seventh annual Ironman 70.3 Augusta. It was the third time for Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Sam Anderson. It was the third time for the indomitable Banker. It was the fifth for well-known former Mayor Deke Copenhaver. 

The Ironman 70.3 Augusta race today is the largest 70.3event in the nation and the second largest worldwide with an average at-capacity registration of 3,600.

Something tugged at Copenhaver as he looked out from the stage as the first Ironman 70.3 Augusta participants sprinted across the finish line under the Ironman arch in September 2009. A wave of racing hunger stirred in the marathon-running mayor. 

He addressed the crowd of spectators and athletes from the stage, offering official mayoral congratulations. Then he made a vow. He would have skin in the game the next time the Ironman came to town.  “I knew if I said it from the stage, I couldn’t back down from it,” he says, as if there was any intent of the latter.

The campaign to bring the renowned international race to Augusta began several years before Copenhaver watched those first runners cross the finish line. It started when Paul Butler, an Ironman enthusiast, former military officer and then chief financial officer at ESi, petitioned city leaders and the World Triathlon Corporation to make Augusta a star on the triathlon event map.

The entrepreneur and military strategist himself may not have foreseen how fast that Southern city star would rise.

The Ironman 70.3 Augusta race today is the largest 70.3 event in the nation and the second largest worldwide with an average at-capacity registration of 3,600, according to Ironman statistics. The proof is in the numbers. Copenhaver attributes it, in part, to outstanding community support including volunteers, law enforcement and residents themselves who warmly welcome participants. Athletes also love the cheering crowds that line the double-loop, 13.1-mile run along Green and Broad streets in the final push of the race, he says. Ironman visitors have shared many compliments with him through the years about Augusta and the exceptional way the city hosts the event.

Augusta Sports Council CEO Stacie Adkins says the council has received similar positive feedback. “The athletes enjoy the Southern hospitality, the natural downstream flow of the Savannah River and a flat run [along Broad and Green streets.]” Visitors also appreciate the overall race organization and enjoy the downtown atmosphere and restaurants, she says.

Ironman spokesman Dan Berglund agrees that the down current swim appeals to racers. He cites Augusta’s location within driving distance of multiple large population centers as another key factor. But, perhaps, it is the thriving seven-year history between Ironman and Augusta that is the foundation for every other positive race element.

Officials estimate the annual economic impact of the Ironman weekend to be more than $4 million, about $30 million to date, in generated revenue to businesses…

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“Since Ironman came to the city of Augusta, we’ve been welcomed with open arms from all areas of the community,” Berglund adds. “As this race has grown and evolved, so have our relationships. The athletes and their families who visit Augusta for this race each year are introduced to a terrific array of local restaurants downtown. The leaders of Augusta have continued to strive to enhance the experience for visitors and our athletes and their families.

“Ironman staff looks forward to what new and exciting changes are added each year we visit.”

Officials estimate the annual economic impact of the Ironman weekend to be more than $4 million, about $30 million to date, in generated revenue for businesses like hotels, restaurants and other various merchants, according to Adkins. Worldwide exposure and demonstrated successful management of a large-scale event are less measurable yet offer valuable bonuses as well. The event “showcases our town and amenities while boosting our local economy,” Adkins says. “Typically, triathletes have a higher disposable income and are willing to spend more money at these events.” 

For its part, Augusta recruits a 1,600 member volunteer force, coordinated by the Augusta Sports Council and including assistance from Fort Gordon personnel and family members. The council coordinates with the sheriff’s department to close roads, maintain traffic flow and keep triathletes and spectators safe. The council employed 64 deputies at a cost of nearly $13,000 this past year, producing a significant return on investment.

In the air hangs the question about a full Ironman event in Augusta. The city has two more years as an Ironman 70.3 host per its contract with WTC, Adkins says, but “we are working to [host a full Ironman].” A full Ironman event is 140.6 miles. Adkins estimates doubled race mileage would most likely mean a doubled volunteer team and possibly an additional full-time staff member. 

“Generally speaking, determining when and where to add new races and race locations is a complex process,” Berglund says. He notes that Ironman officials do not comment on races that are only in the discussion stage.

As the Ironman 70.3 grows and possibly transforms into something even larger, so the city is recognized for more than its singular most prestigious event, the Masters Tournament. 

“Seven years ago if someone asked you where you were from and you said, ‘Augusta,’ they would say, ‘Ah, home of the Masters,’ Adkins explains. “Now, more and more, when you tell someone you are from Augusta, the response is, ‘I heard you guys have an Ironman event.’

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Beyond the economics, publicity and good will that go with hosting such a prestigious event there are the stories. Inspiring stories of individuals and groups of individuals who meet the challenge of the Ironman and conquer the course. And for some it’s an analogy of their life’s journey.

That first year of Ironman 70.3 Augusta, when Copenhaver watched from the stage, there were 3,235 athletes who completed the race. Britttany Banker was one of them.

Then there are the inspiring stories of individuals…who meet the challenges of ironman and conquer the course.

It was not the craziest thing she has done. She seems to have more crazy ahead of her. And, as anyone who knows Banker would say, that is a very good thing.

Banker was pregnant with her first child when doctors saw what they thought was a benign cyst on her ovary. She was 19 years old. She had no family history of cancer, no markers, no other indicators to alarm them. Her doctors were wrong.

They watched the growth through and after her pregnancy, still unconcerned. When her daughter was 10 months old and further testing was done, Banker was told on October 22, 2004, she had ovarian cancer.

She recounts it all now in a staccato-like rhythm, her history. It happened. She is somewhere else today. Today she is an elite, competitive, addicted triathlete, having completed four full Ironmans, among many, many other tri-events. She is the blogger fellow triathletes know as the Georgia Hornet. She is also a cancer conqueror, not just a mere survivor.

She admits she was depressed when she was first diagnosed with cancer. “I know that I pushed a lot of people, a lot of friends, away,” she recalls.

It is because of what Banker learned in those dark places that she preaches a message with the fervency of a tent revivalist. It resonates because it’s true. It resonates because it encourages in a been-in-the-dirt way. It resonates because everyone wants a friend like Banker.

Banker prepared to race in the first ever Ironman 70.3 Augusta in 2009, in part, to celebrate five years being cancer free. Six weeks before the race at a routine check up she was told by her oncologist that her cancer had returned.  “All the work had been put in,” she says, referring to her training. “A piece of my body was not going to define me.”

She completed the first Augusta half Ironman in six and a half hours while on oral chemotherapy treatments. Pastor Hornet steps in here with a message from the pulpit: “Don’t let your adversity define who you are.”

There is no one thing that can define Banker. She is a single mother with a new full-time business in fitness apparel, a mega-triathlete, a fitness/inspiration blogger and a cancer conqueror. Will she stop there? Don’t bet on it.

“What else can I do?” she asks.  “Mentally, I am going to challenge myself. We’re a lot stronger than we think we are.” She pauses to give a final word of encouragement. “Don’t let a bad day consume you. Overcome the bad things by setting goals. Your crazy is your crazy. Don’t be afraid to feed your crazy.”

You go, Banker. Feed your crazy. Take us to church.

It matters less how ironman Athletes get to the finish line than how they get to the elite ground on a riverbank, ready to leap at the sound of a gun. 

Triathletes stand on the river’s edge at the start of an Ironman race. They have already won hundreds of infinitesimally smaller battles every day in the weeks and months before that early morning. They have conquered doubts, fought discouragement, struggled to hope, ignored pain and relinquished sleep. It matters less how Ironman athletes get to the finish line than how they get to that elite ground on a riverbank, ready to leap at the sound of a gun.

U.S. Army Colonel Samuel Anderson, a three-time competitor in the Augusta 70.3 Ironman, faced a battle of nerves in June 2013, the day before his first full Ironman in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. That year, Anderson made final preparations and stood looking into river where the race would begin the next morning.

“The water temperature was 54 degrees,” he recalls. “I really was fairly petrified. I’ve jumped out of airplanes over 600 times in my life and that was nothing compared to the fear of what I was going to do.”

Why did the Fort Gordon Garrison Commander, with a rigorous and distinguished military career, want to hurl himself into a 140.6-mile race? “Just finding another mountain to climb,” he says. 

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He scaled the mountain, with help from a world class para-athlete friend, using a schedule he found online. His strategy was basic, but effective. “I’ll force myself to do exactly what this [schedule] says and hope for the best.”

The best was a finish that Anderson calls “the highlight of my life,” aside from his marriage and the birth of his children.

All Ironman events are a family commitment, but 70.3 events like Augusta fit the Anderson family calendar well because, as Anderson reasons, he can train early and have plenty of time with his wife and daughters.

He views the Augusta race as one of the best because of the collaborative efforts of community groups like the Augusta Sports Council. “We have a lot of conditions here that make this race successful and…a lot of people from the military participate,” he says.

“I like the opportunity the race gives military guys like me to show that physical fitness is a lifelong endeavor…The same discipline that it takes to be successful in the army [is the same discipline] it takes to be successful in this type of sport.”

Copenhaver crosses the finish line in 2010…the first mayor in the nation to complete all three segments of an Ironman 70.3.

Deke Copenhaver sees more than a singular purpose to the Southern road and river where he and thousands from around the world compete in the annual Ironman in Augusta. He sees individuals who rise as a unified band, local citizens and distant visitors alike, both spectators and athletes, who come together to call out, in whistles, soft words and shouts, the mellifluous sounds of encouragement, fellowship and hope. The man who has spent far more of the last decade in heated city commission meetings than in multi-mile triathlons knows a thing or two about the power of encouragement.

So it happened that in 2010, the second year of the Ironman 70.3 Augusta, the youthful mayor of the Garden City ran to win two races the following year: one physical, one political; one to be measured in miles, one to be measured in votes. When the challenges are double-fold, the victories are that much sweeter.

Copenhaver crossed the finish line of his first Ironman 70.3 in 2010 to an announcer trumpeting, “It’s the mayor of Augusta. He doesn’t just run for office. He runs, bikes and swims for office!”

It worked, whatever the formula.

He was reelected that year, remained in office until 2014 and became the first mayor in the nation to complete all three segments of an Ironman 70.3. He has finished four more Ironman 70.3 events since that first competition, sitting out only once due to tendonitis. Other would-be politicos may want to take a training page from the book of Augusta’s Ironman mayor.

“The first year I received so much crowd love and it’s been the same every year,” he says. “The encouragement really helps get you through.”

It is the camaraderie among the athletes themselves that also drew him into the field. “The inspirational thing to me is the ultra athletes who finish first are fun to watch, but it’s the people that are out there that are finishing last who are just gutting it out and the spiritual aspect of it that you’re out there with 3,000 people and everybody is encouraging everybody else. The positive energy that comes through that is amazing.”

Copenhaver stepped out from his place among those fellow athletes in his first Ironman to offer an official greeting to the crowd. A nearby racer asked incredulously if he was really the mayor. He said he was.

“Usually the mayor is in the hospitality tent,” the observer replied.

Anyone who knows Copenhaver can picture the subtle laugh tossed casually over his shoulder as he moves from his spot in the crowd to his duties as mayor and then back into the anonymity of the athletic mass.

“I’m not that kind of mayor.”

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.