Russ Pugh had a revelation recently.
Pugh was talking about one of his races — the Ironman 70.3 Vineman — with Andrew Messick, CEO of the World Triathlon Corporation. Messick's line of questioning, combined with some recent registration results, made it clear. In a sport that is skyrocketing in popularity, Vineman might be the most highly esteemed 70.3-mile triathlon in the world.
Oh, those registration results: The company opened online sign-ups last Nov. 1. The race sold out in less than seven minutes.
"He was picking my brain on what we do that makes it what it is," Pugh said of his conversation with Messick, who was in town for the Amgen Tour of California (a cycling race he used to oversee as president of sports promoter AEG). "And really the key is that we have a team of people who have been together for a long time. We're kind of like a family-owned hardware store that's been there forever. Where Ironman is usually kind of the same, and though it's beautiful, flashy stuff, it's more like Home Depot."
It's easy to understand Pugh's mom-and-pop mentality on the eve of his newest event, the Vineman Monte Rio, which starts with a Russian River swim today at 7 a.m.
When Pugh started the Vineman Triathlon in 1990, it was just the second ironman-length event — 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run — in the continental United States. He had worked for the other one, on Cape Cod, for three years before branching out on his own.
Pugh produced the first Vineman event — which started at Lake Sonoma and finished more than 60 miles away at the Napa Valley Expo in Napa — with triathlete Harold Robinson, and they went broke. Pugh bought out Robinson for the amount of money it took to pay off their vendors. In those days, Pugh worked at Montecito Heights Health Club to help pay the bills. He started out folding towels for $5.50 an hour.
Flash forward 23 years, and Pugh runs a thriving race series. The original triathlon, now generally called the Full Vineman, long ago spawned the ultra-competitive 70.3 version. The company started Barb's Race, a women-only triathlon that raises money for cancer treatment and research, in 2001, and the Vineman AquaBike (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride, no run) in 2005. Last year the team welcomed the 3.5-mile MudMan mud run, and this year it's Vineman Monte Rio, an Olympic-distance race of 1.5 kilometers in the water, 40 kilometers on the bike and 10 kilometers on foot.
Vineman Inc. has four full-time, year-round employees, and this year close to 6,000 total athletes will splash, spin, stride and sweat through the six events. It could be a lot more than that, according to Pugh.
"The 70.3 event, we could easily have 7,000 entrants in that race," he said. "We limit it to about 2,500 entrants, and we know we'll have a certain number of no-shows and we'll start about 2,200 racers. Over the years that has kind of come to feel like a comfortable number for our venue. It's a number on the roads that doesn't overwhelm everything."
While some races fight to survive, Vineman struggles with the questions of whether to further expand, and exactly how big is too big in rural Sonoma County?