Rhea County’s Dennis Tumlin claims first Ironman finish

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With over 144 miles behind him, Dayton native Dennis Tumlin crosses the finish line. (Ironman Chattanooga)

Ironman finisher, Dennis Tumlin reflects on experience

September in Tennessee can be very unpredictable weather.  Such was this case this past Sunday when record breaking 97 degree heat broke an 85 year old record in Chattanooga.  That unpredicted heatwave wreaked havoc among the 2,716 registered participants in the Chattanooga 144.6 mile Ironman triathlon event.

According to race officials, 611 Ironman participants required medical attention during Sunday’s event.  Only 1,651 participants managed to cross the finish line before the 16 hour 15 minute cutoff.   However, the record breaking heat and brutal conditions didn’t stop my friend and Dayton native, Dennis Tumlin, from claiming his first Ironman finish in Sunday’s event.

For many that may not be familiar with the world of triathlon, an Ironman event is at the apex of the sports progression.  The original idea of creating the “Ironman” title was in 1977 in Oahu, Hawaii.  There was a conversation happening between military ranks of which were the fittest athletes.

Was it swimmers, or runners, or possibly cyclists?

A challenge was issued that contained a 2.4 mile open water swim, a 112 mile cycling leg, followed by a 26.2 mile marathon.  Anyone who completed the task less than 17 hours in the inaugural event would be titled “Ironman.”

In 1982, worldwide TV coverage of an Ironman athlete crawling to the finish line created a frenzy over the sport causing event organizers to turn away thousands of challengers the next year who wanted to try their fitness against the world’s toughest triathlon event.  Thousands wanted to try and earn the title of Ironman.

In 2016, the World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman events, will host 41 Ironman triathlons worldwide.

The City of Chattanooga is in year three of a five-year contract with the World Triathlon Corporation to host a full length Ironman event here in the Scenic City.   It takes thousands of volunteers to properly host such an event, and that’s where Dayton’s Dennis Tumlin was first exposed to the world of Ironman.

“I had a friend call me to ask if I’d volunteer to work a shift near the finish line area back in 2014” says Tumlin.

“That’s when I got bite by the bug,” he laughs.   “I saw every age and body type finding their way across the finish line near the deadline and I began to quiz some of them.  Each had a story.

Tumlin dedicates race in memory of his mother and Papaw Virgil a WWII vet. (Ironman Chattanooga)
Tumlin dedicates finish to his mother and Papaw Virgil a WWII vet. (Ironman Chattanooga)

“I met a veteran that was doing this for his friends that didn’t make it back from the war.   Their stories were so impactful on me.  I had to look in the mirror and ask myself ‘what’s my excuse.’   I could sit back and make every excuse under the sun, but at the end of the day, it’s still just an excuse.”

It took Tumlin another year of volunteering again in 2015 before he was ready to finally make the commitment to actually attempt this event.

“I took this commitment very seriously.  If you’re not prepared, this event can actually kill you,” he added.  “I knew that something this big would need a strong reason to continue or it would be too easy to make another excuse when training got hard or when life got real busy.”

Tumlin family surrounds dad with support just before the swim event. (L-R) Bailey Rae, Chloe, Dennis, Angela, and Sadie Bell.
Tumlin family surrounds dad with support just before the swim event. (L-R) Bailey Rae, Chloe, Dennis, Angela, and Sadie Bell.

“So, I dedicated this race to my kids and my wife.  I wanted to model some life qualities that I know that the girls will need to succeed later in life.  I wanted to display commitment, dedication, perseverance and endurance.  I wanted to teach them about choices, goal setting and reaching for something so large that it’s almost unachievable in our own thinking.”

“If I can teach them these thought processes, they will succeed in anything that they commit to doing in life.”

Tumlin knew that he would need the support of his family in order to spend a full year preparing for the event.

The family often joined in the training by serving as safety watch during open water training sessions in the Tennessee River and by making sure the nutrition plan was dialed in for endurance.

“We trained while on vacation in Florida, this summer too.  I’ve trained every Saturday morning and Sunday evening for the last 30 weeks, I believe.”

To further strengthen his commitment to this journey, Tumlin added, “I also dedicated this race in memory of my mother whom we lost in 1991 to cancer at only 46 years old and to our Papaw Virgil Crane whom we lost earlier this year at the age of 91. He was a WW2 veteran and served as further inspiration to keep me going during the tough times.”

Tumlin admits that in addition to the 15 hours per week of physical training, one of the toughest parts was actually the nutrition and hydration plan.  “

An Ironman athlete will burn close to 10,000 calories during the event and then you add in the heat factor.  That creates a recipe for disaster if everything doesn’t go to plan.”

“I hired an Ironman certified coach very early in my training and I believe that was one of the key difference makers in my preparation.”

Tumlin beat the Chattanooga event’s mandatory cutoff of 16 hours 15 minutes by crossing the finish line just after 11 pm with an official time of 15 hours 10 minutes.

“I felt great during the swim and finished the bike strong, but the heat on the run was brutal.” Tumlin added.

“I managed to run till about mile 20 when I started feeling dizzy and decided to back off of my pace once I realized that I was running well ahead of schedule and the finish line was in sight.”

“For me, the best part was seeing my kids and amazing wife standing there at the finish line after a long brutal day.  They’re the reason I did this to begin with.  I just wanted to be a good example.”

Ironman returns to Chattanooga next September for their 4th year in a row to visit the Scenic City.

Are you ready for a challenge?

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