An avid outdoorsman, Carl Sheffield moved to Chattanooga from Jackson, Miss., in 1997 to embrace the kayaking, mountain biking and trail running opportunities available here.
"It's the only place I've been that I've ever wanted to live," he said of his adopted hometown.
Last summer, Sheffield took up road bike racing. And last Sunday, he accomplished another goal: his first marathon.
Sheffield's first was a first for the city as well. The Seven Bridges Marathon is the first to be held within the Chattanooga city limits. Denny Marshall, president of Scenic City Multisport, said it was something he and other runners in the area have been wanting for a long time.
More than 1,400 people, about 400 from out of state, came together at 7 a.m. Sunday morning to traverse the streets and bridges of Chattanooga, ultimately ending up by the Coolidge Park carousel.
"I felt an extreme sense of accomplishment," Sheffield said. "It was a lot of fun."
Since 2009, Sheffield has lost more than 70 pounds, thanks to an increase of exercise, running in particular. He said he found that running in races is an excellent motivator.
His first race was the Riverbend 5K, then the Greenway Five Mile trail race, then the Atlanta 10K classic. He moved on to the Scenic City Half Marathon in February. He cannot remember his time in the half but recalls feeling like he did "pretty well" at about an 8-minute mile pace.
Sheffield, 40, will celebrate a birthday Friday with the accomplishment checked off his list of things to do.
"I wanted to run a marathon before I turned 41," he said.
He plans to run the Chickamauga marathon in November, but that date is past his birthday.
"When Denny told me about the Seven Bridges Marathon, I was so excited," he said. "I could meet my goal and actually do it here in Chattanooga."
He trained with two friends, both of whom have run previous marathons, he said. He gradually increased his distance over time until a week before the race, when he tapered off. He followed his friends' lead, trusting their experience.
"All I did was listen to the experts, Laura [Peterson] and Mindy [Williford]," he said.
Peterson, a third-time marathoner, joked that Sheffield "had no idea what he was getting into."
A former college basketball and volleyball player, she ran her first marathon in 2010 and finished the Boston Marathon in April. This time around, she volunteered to be a pace runner, setting a three-hour, 30-minute time frame. Anyone who wanted to run at that clip made sure to keep her in their sights.
"It's very fun," she said of race running, advising novices to simply stick with it. "You feel very accomplished when you're done. The running community is great."
Sheffield said he found the race path to be very supportive, filled with volunteers who directed runners where to go and who handed out water at nearly every mile.
He started fast, then slowed down. The biggest challenge came around mile 16 or 17, just before the Thrasher Bridge on Highway 153.
"That was a really tough hill to run up," he said.
Sheffield fought a thigh injury with a leg brace. IIliotibial band syndrome, or ITBS, is a common runner's injury.
"There are minor aches and pains as you're running," he said, "but when I run, the little pains move around."
He broke the run down into incremental challenges, based on goals he'd had during training. Miles 15, 18 and 20 were marked for him, he said. "Each time I hit another milestone, it felt like achieving another goal," he said.
Race winner Alan Outlaw, 33, crossed the finish line two hours and 45 minutes after start time.
Before the race, Sheffield said his goal was to finish but hoped to do so in four hours and 30 minutes.
Crossing the finish line, he said, "felt great."
"I've seen pictures of people finishing races, and they look terrible and they feel terrible, they can barely walk. But when I finished, I was tired, but I was excited. Some friends were there to cheer me on, and I was kind of geeking out for them a little bit."
His girlfriend, Jennifer Miller, met him four times along the route to show her support.
"As I was approaching the Walnut Street Bridge (for the last leg of the race), I realized it was possible for me to finish in under four hours," he said.
So he ran a little harder. And crossed the finish line.
In three hours and 53 minutes, 37 minutes earlier than he'd hoped.
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...