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Sonoma County stakes stronger claim as endurance sports capital

Troy Tuscher rides along Dry Creek Road, near Lake Sonoma on Thursday, July 20, 2017. Tuscher will be competing in his third full Ironman triathlon. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD AND KEVIN MCCALLUM,

More than a 100 triathletes will barely have toweled off after Saturday’s Barb’s Tri race around Healdsburg and the western reaches of Windsor when Sonoma County will shift gears and launch into final preparations for its next big endurance event.

Ironman Santa Rosa, set for next Saturday with a field of about 2,200 racers, is a grueling full-distance triathlon that will take top competitors about 8.5 hours to complete and many of the rest nearly twice that amount of time. It includes a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Sonoma, a 112-mile ride around the county and a marathon that ends at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, where a tent village and expo will go up on Wednesday.

The race is the second brought to downtown this year by Ironman, the most recognized global name in endurance sports. Its presence in Sonoma County, after purchasing and rebranding the former Vineman triathlon series two years ago, reflects a new level of attention, participation and multimillion dollar commerce for endurance sports in the region.

The calendar bears it out. Races and rides are scheduled nearly every month now, with the drumbeat reaching a crescendo in the spring and summer months, when events occur almost every weekend.

They include the successful and popular Ironman triathlons, the Levi’s GranFondo and the Wine Country Century bike rides, and the Santa Rosa Marathon, plus a slew of smaller, lesser-known but deeply loved fixtures. Together, they have increased Sonoma County’s drawing power for visiting competitors and stamped the region with greater credibility, benefiting its endurance athletes and entrepreneurs alike.

“Sonoma County has become an endurance capital of the world,” said Skip Brand, the owner of Healdsburg Running Co.

The landscape alone makes it a veritable playground for these athletes, with hundreds of miles of winding roadways and trails that can take runners and cyclists from the top of Hood Mountain through vineyards and redwood forests to the Pacific Ocean.

“We’ve got outstanding, rugged and varied terrain — steep and relentless mountains for trail runners, long climbs for cyclists, and rough water and coast for open-water swimmers and surfers,” said Brand, a former Yahoo executive who opened his store in 2015.

Other, perhaps more famed endurance hubs — think Boulder or San Diego — can’t boast of such varied terrain, said Dave Latourette, a Santa Rosa resident and veteran coach to endurance athletes.

“Uphill, downhill, we can go flat, we have dirt, we have roads, we have gravel and 40 miles as the crow flies you have a completely different climate in the same county,” Latourette said.

The terrain and potential to train and host competitive events nearly year-round in the region’s mild climate supports an unusual variety of offerings, with runs ranging from standard 5K and 10K footraces to marathons and some of the most competitive ultra — or high mileage — trail runs in the country. For cyclists, a similarly lengthy menu beckons, including social and group rides, a regular series of shorter road and off-road races and punishing 200-mile tests of tenacity.

“It’s a blast from the past in a way. It’s untouched,” said Petaluma-based professional cyclist Alison Tetrick. “You can really go to remote places all in one day on a bike.”

Multi-million-dollar boon

The biggest events and spending they support — overnight stays, meals and other activity linked to thousands visitors — are a clear boon to the local economy, commerce officials say.

Ironman Santa Rosa race director Dave Reid estimates there are 30,000 or more participants in the various endurance athletic events in Sonoma County. The majority of those athletes are local, with a limited spending footprint.

But the two Ironman triathlons alone are expected to result in $14 million spent in the county, according to Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

A clearer picture of the dollar value of the region’s outdoor and recreation economy is anticipated in a study due out later this year, said Ben Stone, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Board.

But the activity is grounded in the county’s strong tourist economy, with celebrated wine and craft beer industries, a rising number of hotel rooms and direct flights out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, Stone said.

The profusion of athletic stores catering to such athletes also supports an ecosystem that makes the county fertile ground for such events, Stone said.

Kevin Buchholz bet his livelihood on the endurance-sports business sector.

Buchholz, 41, and an avid bike racer and triathlete, had been working as a human resources recruiter for PG&E in San Francisco before a stint at a local bike shop proved to him that Sonoma County’s endurance sports community was growing.

In 2008, he co-founded Echelon Cycle & Multisport in Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, a shop that caters to triathletes.

The gamble paid off.

“We grew seven straight years,” he said. After a flat 2016, sales are again on the rise, he said.

Community reception

At the same time, the wider community has been tested by the packed calendar of events, which use public roads, trails and parks, sometimes at the inconvenience of residents.

Some complained loudly in May when the redesigned Ironman course caused traffic jams in multiple spots. That outcry prompted organizers to commit to adjustments in the future.

Still, Sonoma County is “not as impacted as other (areas) like the San Francisco area and Marin Headlands, where there is lots of backlash from the community with too many races,” said Greg Lanctot, race director for the Salt Point 50K trail run and Armstrong Redwoods 50K, part of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs series. There are “tons of different runs in Marin. It’s kind of saturated.”

Race organizers of all sizes say working with government agencies and hearing local concerns go a long way to making an event run smoothly, even for those who will never think to take part but are affected nonetheless.

“We definitely realize how good it is to work with Sonoma County,” said Carlos Perez, founder of Bike Monkey, which owns the large Levi’s GranFondo cycling event as well as roughly a dozen other bike related races and events that take place in multiple counties.

Perez has made community outreach and donations to organizations in affected areas along the route a key part of his race planning. He’s also hired crews to fill in potholes along cycling routes.

Sonoma County is “definitely cycling-forward and supportive of this industry,” Perez said.

‘Environment is everything’

Windsor resident Bob Shebest exemplifies why so many endurance athletes call Sonoma County home and jump at the chance to visit and compete here.

When Shebest was finishing up his studies at Sonoma State University 14 years ago and deciding where he wanted to live and train for triathlons, he considered some of the top endurance destinations in the nation — the rugged peaks of Colorado, the sunny skies of Florida, the arid mountains of northern Arizona.

“For me, environment is everything, and I just kept coming back to Northern California,” said Shebest, 43, a middle school math teacher who is now one of the best ultrarunners in the country.

Troy Tuscher, 56, of Windsor is training for the Ironman Santa Rosa after completing the 70.3 distance race in May. Sonoma County’s roads, though riddled with potholes and crumbling asphalt, offer some of the best rides around, he said.

“When you are cycling, particularly in Ironman training, you need to find places you can ride four, five, six hours at a time,” he said. “Sonoma County is definitely a great cycling destination.”

Tuscher said its clear to him his home base has become a global haven in triathlon.

“At the 70.3 there were so many people from out of the area,” he said.

Tetrick, the 32-year-old professional cyclist who in June smashed the course record at the Dirty Kanza, a grueling 200-mile gravel race in Kansas, chose to make Petaluma her home base about five years ago. The wide-open roads, climate, access to major airports and relative affordability all made Sonoma County a great fit, Tetrick said.

But she also pointed to the athletic community. The competition is good and the support even better.

“It’s so successful because of the community that supports it,” she said. “Cycling runs so deep for the people who live in this area.”

Bedrock events

The burgeoning endurance culture was built upon the back of decades-old events like the Vineman triathlon series, the Wine Country Century bike ride and its partner in pain, the Terrible Two double century.

Long before the Florida-based World Triathlon Corp. bought the Vineman races in 2015, founder Russ Pugh of Santa Rosa had built it into an internationally known series. The full-distance race is the longest-running triathlon of its length in the continental United States.

That established slate has grown with popular additions, including Levi’s GranFondo — started by former professional cyclist and Santa Rosa resident Levi Leipheimer — and the Santa Rosa Marathon, which both launched in 2009.

Come race time, Buchholz, the triathlon store owner, sees ample reason for the rush of out-of-towners.

“They are legendary endurance events that they have been putting on for years and years … they make a name for themselves. These events sell out,” Buchholz said. “The Vineman built up such a great reputation, we get customers coming in before the Ironman from 10, 15 different countries.”

The infusion of more high-profile races and rides has coincided with some drop-off in interest for others.

Bill Oetinger, the long-time co-chairman of Santa Rosa Cycling Club’s Terrible Two double century ride, said the expansion of endurance events statewide is outpacing the increase in competitors willing to do them.

“There are half again as many double centuries as there were 10 years ago,” he said. “You go down to Southern California and they are all over the place.”

Even the notorious Terrible Two, with its 18,500 feet of climbing — 1,800 feet shy of a sea-to-summit bid on Denali in Alaska — has seen ridership slide from a peak of more than 300 a decade ago.

The Wine Country Century still sells out at 2,500 riders, just not as fast.

“I think the record was 14 hours,” Oetinger said of rushed registration in years past. “There would be great weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for those who could not get in.”

The Santa Rosa Marathon has defied some of the sluggish national participation figures in foot races in recent years. It started with 600 participants in 2009 and has grown every year since then, said race director Orhan Sarabi. He expects 5,500 runners to compete next month, including those in the 5K and 10K races.

The marathon is a popular late-season option for those seeking to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But runners come for more than just a ticket to that historic race.

“Sonoma County itself is actually a huge selling point and a draw for many runners,” Sarabi said. “Once they experience it, they want to return year after year.”

Grass-roots races grow

But anymore, it’s not just the big-ticket events that point to Sonoma County’s place among endurance capitals. It’s the success of more grass-roots offerings, including hardcore rides and runs known to smaller, devout circles, many now with their own social media platforms.

Miguel Crawford, a Spanish teacher at Forestville’s El Molino High School, will next year celebrate 20 years of organizing adventure bike racing in the area. What began as loose group rides for 30 to 50 of his friends over all manner of terrain, is now the “Grasshopper Adventure Series,” a beloved schedule of North Coast suffer-fests on two wheels.

“Old Caz is selling out around 500 people,” he said of one of the most popular events. “I think I had 200 people on the waiting list.”

The 2017 race drew Geoff Kabush, a Canadian Olympian, and retired American pro Ted King, who finished first and second respectively. The course took riders down gnarly gravel descents, through a significant creek crossing and up no shortage of climbs.

Grasshopper devotees are drawn to the test.

“I like to create challenges that are within the realms of the feasible but very challenging,” Crawford said. “It’s important that if they did the ‘Grasshopper’ that someone knows it was an epic day. You were out of your comfort zone.”

‘Untapped’ potential

A surfeit of events might have dispersed the endurance sports crowd, but some in the scene see plenty of room for growth.

Both the Salt Point 50K trail run and Armstrong Redwoods 50K this summer featured two days of events and many of the athletes and their families chose to camp on site.

“We want to put on amazing races in amazing places,” said Lanctot, the race director. “They are destination races for us.”

Sonoma County’s extensive park system offers a network of trails that make attractive and adventurous high-mileage events possible, said Brian Wyatt, race director for Emeryville-based Scena Performance.

Scena has for two years put on a 50K trail run through Hood Mountain Regional Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park that takes runners through 9,600 feet of climbing. Registration has gone from 50 athletes in the inaugural year to 80 this year.

It’s clear that organizers are not pulling back from a crowded calendar, but looking for more in Sonoma County.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s still kind of untapped,” Wyatt said. “These are amazing parks to run in.”