I travel quite a bit and whenever people find out where I’m from, for the most part, I get the same reply. “Oh, Augusta. Home of The Masters.” And while they are quite right about that, I always want to sit them down and tell them exactly what else we are the home of—like the Augusta 70.3 Ironman for example.
Back in 1978 the original Ironman triathlon was born. It was held in Kona, Hawaii and was a race conceived to be the ultimate test of physical stamina that combined three athletic disciplines—swimming, cycling, and running—in that order. The winner of the race would be forever known as “The Ironman.” In 2008, a shortened and extremely popular version of the famous race, known as the Half Ironman, was coaxed, largely in part to the Augusta Sports Council, to be held here in Augusta. And over the past decade, not only has the race continued to be held here annually but it has also thrived and grown in our city, thanks to the thousands of volunteers and competitors who turn out for it over and over again. The race is now hailed as one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the nation. The registration for this event is the largest in the United States.
People from all over the country come to our little piece of Georgia to attend the Augusta Ironman. That in itself is something our hometown can be proud of, but to put a more personal spin on this achievement is something else that has endured the test of time over the past 10 years. That something else is the relay team known as Beauty and the Beasts.
Every year, without fail, this team made up of native Augustans, Yvonne Davis (The Beauty) and Cobbs Nixon and Billy Badger (The Beasts), has put in the work, trained themselves and showed up at the starting line, ready to conquer what a lot of us wouldn’t even dream of doing. And considering that cyclist Cobbs is celebrating his 78th birthday this year—that is no small feat. In fact, he is the second oldest person to participate in the race, with his endgame being the hope of becoming the first.
This magazine published an article on these amazing individuals during their forth year of competing in the race and we thought it would be a great idea to check in on them as they approach their Decennial event.
To understand what drives Mr. Nixon and his cohorts is to understand the friendship his team shares with one another may be even stronger than the metal the race is named after. Sitting down and talking with Cobbs and his crew on the 10th anniversary of the upcoming event was an electric experience to say the least. The vitality and enthusiasm that simply gushed from the three of them as they spoke of the past nine races and the experiences they’ve shared together had me thinking of signing up this year for the camaraderie alone. Of course, that would mean training on my part, so I led my interview with the three athletes with a question I thought would be the most interesting place to start. “So how do you train for the race? What is your regimen?” The three of them shot knowing glances at one another and laughed as if they were on the inside of a joke that I had missed somehow. It was Billy Badger, the team’s swimmer (who had also retired from the position of President of Howard Lumber Company as early as 11 days before we met to talk) that had to set me straight. He smiled warmly and said, “We don’t train. In fact, we have no strategy whatsoever.” Cobbs and Yvonne nodded in agreement. Billy continued, “We used to train when we first started, but over the years, the training just became part of our everyday lives. We know when the race is going to be held and every year as the gears of the machine start to turn, we naturally begin to migrate toward each other. The closer the event date begins to loom—we’re ready—and by this point in the game, we all know what to expect from each other.” Billy went on to say, “I swim at least three to four times a week. Yvonne runs every day, and Cobbs practically lives on his bike. Not because we need to train for the race, but because we love it and because of the sense of community that we all get from it. It’s exhilarating to be a part of a community that embraces all these disciplines and provides for them. It’s also inspiring to see all the other triathletes side by side in my hometown training with each other for something this big with such a great sense of pride. The Ironman is just a way to celebrate all the hard work we do all year round anyway.”
Yvonne Davis, the runner in the group, the youngest, and definitely the most soft-spoken, told me about how since the inaugural race back in 2008, she travels all over the world to run marathons now. Everywhere from San Francisco to Alaska—sometimes with her husband, Jeff, in tow. “He’s quite the runner himself,” she tells me. “But again,” Yvonne says, “not because I need to train for the Ironman here in Augusta, although it helps, but for the sheer love of what running across a new finish line, in a new part of the world, for the first time, and the rush that accompanies that. It’s not training, it’s a lifestyle.” And as Cobbs is eager to add, “It’s a lifestyle that anyone can lead. Anyone who is interested in biking like him, running like Yvonne, or swimming like Billy will find groups all over Augusta with inviting members who love to see and meet new people. Groups like Tri-Augusta, with whom all three members of Beauty and the Beasts are affiliated, exist to help athletes of every level find like-minded others to interact with and help our city flourish. And the level of excellence that the Augusta 70.3 Ironman has achieved is proof positive of exactly that.
Cobbs explained to me also how it isn’t just the physical test of his strength and endurance that brings him back to the event year after year, but the people—and not just the other competitors. He told me about something called the bottle exchange that all of the cyclists pass through during the race at mile markers 20, 36, and 47. The cyclist will grab his empty bottle from its holder and toss it to one of the volunteers and in turn, one of the volunteers will toss back a fresh one. It’s a physical and, mental refueling station with about 20 to 30 volunteers along the roadside waving, yelling, and filling the riders with encouragement. No competitor passes through one of these sites without leaving with a smile from ear to ear. For Cobbs, that what this event is all about. “It’s not about beating the guy next to me, or even about beating my own time from the year before. It’s about the smiles on those faces when I catch that bottle, and knowing I’m going to make it to Yvonne, who is waiting to take over, one more time. It’s pure magic.”
That brings me to the volunteers. This event takes nearly 1,500 people to organize, maintain, and uphold. Every year this massive amount of people who work for free come out to mark the route, assist with the transition areas, act as traffic guards on busy intersections, handle the bottle exchanges and bag drops and clean-up duty afterward. Dozens of them line the river in kayaks parallel to the swimmers in case of emergencies and some ride motorcycles to assist with the bike riders. The sheer amount of good will that goes into putting on this event is astounding, and once again, it’s something our city can be proud of. As Cobbs put it, “Without them, there would be no Ironman.”
I asked the team if there had been any harrowing experiences during the ten years, that would prompt them to sit out a year — they all said no. The idea of swimming for 1.2 miles in the Savannah River sounds pretty daunting to me, but Billy told me that he himself has never had any problems, and if anyone else around him did, he and the other competitors would stop focusing on the race and shift their attention to their comrade in need. The spirit of finishing together is way more important than finishing first. Yvonne, who 10 years later now sits on the Augusta Sports Council Board of Directors, told me that during year seven, it had been incredibly hot—a typical Georgia heat wave—and she was on the ninth mile of her 13-mile run. She could feel herself blacking out—most likely from dehydration—and it scared her. Luckily she was surrounded by a swarm of other runners and volunteers who would’ve put her safety first and foremost above their own personal time or goals. She slowed her pace and let the thought of that push her through that moment of weakness and she finished stronger than ever.
Beauty and the Beasts are a relay team, and although they are amazing athletes in their own right, they are also quick to give praise to the people who do all three sections of the Ironman on their own. “These Triathletes are the real heroes in this story,” Cobbs said. I too believe all the participants are heroes, including volunteers that make the race happen every year; however, I did decide to reach out to someone who had completed the Augusta 70.3 Ironman solo. Her name is Carrie Brooks, a painter and art teacher at Lakeside High School, and she had this to say about our Augusta-based event. “Even after 10 years of participating in the Ironman, I still don’t consider myself an athlete as much as I do just an ordinary person who happens to be very, very suborn. Life is hard,” she said. “And you never know what it will throw at you, but this race, if anything, is a metaphor for that. And finishing this race is only further proof that nothing is impossible to conquer. You can get through anything if you just don’t give up.” I personally couldn’t agree with her more.
Article appears in the August/September 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.