s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

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?

Asked about the popularity of his races, Pugh admits that timing is a big factor. A fringe sport when he started the Vineman in 1990, triathlon has increased in popularity since — first gradually, and more recently in a great burst.

USA Triathlon says its membership hovered between 100,000 and 130,000 from 1998 to 2000. It's now at more than 550,000. The group sanctioned 1,541 events in 2004; last year it sanctioned 4,310.

Certainly, the Vineman series' popularity also has something to do with the local terrain. If you hadn't noticed, it's kind of pretty around here. The Vineman racers cycle and run past gently rolling field and vineyard, and the water portion is in the Russian River, highly atypical in a sport where most swims are either in the ocean or in big lakes.

"It's a unique aspect of the race that I have not seen at any other races I've done," said Dave Latourette, who has competed in triathlons numbering "in the hundreds" over the past 22 years. "The only thing that rivals it are some small lake swims in Vermont. On a foggy morning, there's just something about the backdrop of it."

Latourette, a former Vineman Inc. employee, now serves as race announcer and produces training videos for vineman.com.

The longer races all start at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville and finish at Windsor High School. With access to Johnson's Beach highly limited, all three segments of this weekend's triathlon will begin and end at Monte Rio Beach, just east of the bridge.

In fact, it was the shortage of usable water that convinced Vineman Inc. to initiate the MudMan last year.

"It seems like every few years, the issue comes up of releasing less water (on the Russian River)," said Amy Latourette, Dave's sister and Vineman Inc.'s registration coordinator. "If they ever do that, we're all out of jobs. We asked our registration platform (Active Network), what's the next big thing? They said mud runs."

The MudMan is staged entirely on the grounds of the United States Coast Guard Training Center between Petaluma and Tomales.

But the insiders insist that Vineman's true strength is in its community ties. Barb's Race — named after Barbara Recchia, longtime race volunteer, committee member and two-time cancer survivor — has raised more than $600,000 for local nonprofits like the Sutter Health's Institute for Health and Healing and the Cancer Library and Health Resource Center. Organizers expect another $180,000 this year.

A network of volunteers, upwards of 1,000 for the bigger races, helps with the events. Many of them have been doing it for years. Reader comments after previous Press Democrat stories make it clear that not all local residents are enamored of the race-day crowds, but the efficiency of the volunteers smooths over some of the rough spots.

"It's very well put on and organized," said Windsor's Naomi Williams, 33, who is doing the Monte Rio Vineman today and will participate in her third Vineman 70.3 in July. "The volunteers are good. I've never had any problems with registration. I was just dealing with (the Ironman 70.3 California in ) Oceanside, and I was like, 'oh, man.' In Oceanside, they lost my chip."

That good will can come in handy. Four years ago, an oak tree spontaneously fell across Westside Road and injured three cyclists about 7 miles into the bike portion of the Vineman 70.3; all three broke bones. Last year, a 50-year-old woman had a heart attack and drowned during the 70.3 swim leg.

Pugh recognizes the gravity of those events, but the Vineman hasn't skipped a beat. On the contrary, it's bigger than ever. As to whether the brand is in danger of being overextended, Amy Latourette said that won't be clear until after the company's last event of the year, the Sept. 7 MudMan.

"Let's see how we feel then," she said. "Check with us on Sept. 8."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.