Ironman drops Barb’s Race, Vineman’s charitable women-only triathlon
Every July for the past 15 years, Barb’s Race has drawn first-timers and seasoned athletes looking for a low-key triathlon on a world-class course.
Tucked in with competitors in the full Vineman triathlon and the swim and bike-only AquaBike races, Barb’s Race offered something different: a women-only field that put a premium on camaraderie and charitable giving.
Since 2001, Barb’s Race generated approximately $960,000 for local cancer support services.
But there will be no Barb’s Race this summer. As part of Ironman’s purchase last year of the Vineman series of races, Barb’s Race and the AquaBike competition were dropped.
“When we acquired the series of events, we took a look at those things, those items. From our perspective, we wanted to focus on our core brand,” said Keats McGonigal, senior regional director for Ironman Western North America. “Those just didn’t fit into the model.”
That is cold comfort for Barbara Recchia, the Barb of Barb’s Race.
Recchia, 68, is a Healdsburg resident, two-time cancer survivor and veteran Vineman volunteer, including at the event she helped inspire.
Recchia’s dedication to helping out at Vineman events prompted Vineman founder Russ Pugh to name the popular women-only half-triathlon after her.
In 2010, Triathlete magazine named the race one of the “100 Best Triathlons on Earth” and one of the five best women-only races.
Recchia credited the event with offering a vital space for triathlon newbies and women with a personal connection to cancer.
“We have done so much,” she said.
Pugh launched the event to draw more competitors to the starting line on the same day as the Vineman full triathlon.
The women-only event attracted a peak of nearly 500 racers, but Pugh’s larger bid to buoy registration numbers for the end-of-July race date came up short in recent years. Since 2012, registration for the full Vineman, Barb’s Race and AquaBike fell from 2,220 to 850 in 2015.
“We realized we were going in the wrong direction,” Pugh said.
Under Ironman’s ownership, registration for the full Vineman alone has shot back up, to approximately 2,200 in advance of the July 30 event.
“That was another factor. Part of the reason we chose to sell is Ironman has more and more branded events around the world and that’s really what people want,” Pugh said.
The shorter Vineman 70.3 race, happening today, regularly sells out within minutes online.
But Barb’s Race was about more than entry numbers. Since its inception, it was built as a fundraiser for local cancer patient support services.
“It kind of breaks my heart not to be able to continue that,” Recchia said.
Recchia said she does not blame Pugh for selling the Vineman races to Ironman, but the end of her namesake event has led her to investigate a way to revive it in some form.
After Vineman’s sale was announced in October, Recchia reached out to Ironman about using the Barb’s Race name to host a triathlon and continue raising funds for cancer patient care. After initially giving her the green light, the company walked back its approval.
On March 8, an Ironman attorney sent an email to Recchia informing her that she could not use the name because she planned to hold a Barb’s Race triathlon in July. The email cited concerns over the proximity with Vineman’s event dates and Ironman’s ability to recruit a sufficient number of volunteers for its own races.
According to Recchia, the company also declined to give her the list of past Barb’s Race participants - a key component of race registration.
“I don’t want to badmouth anybody,” she said, recounting her haggling with Ironman officials. “We are not competing with you. We want to help people with a cancer diagnosis. And they still said, ‘Oh I’m sorry.’?”
Ironman’s final offer, according to Recchia, was to allow her to use “Barb’s Race” but only for shorter distance triathlons and not within the two-month window surrounding the Vineman events this month.
“Basically, that’s when there is no water in the river,” Recchia said.
The company also requested that Recchia not use roads that substantially overlap with Ironman race courses, she said.
“They want everything to be different,” she said.
Ironman officials did not close the door on an eventual deal.
“My understanding is that Ironman owns that particular brand and we at this time have not come to an agreement,” McGonigal said. “It’s not to say that we would never let this happen, but going in, year one, we wanted the focus to be on these two (Vineman) races.”
The decision was a blow not just to Recchia but to Sutter Health Institute for Health & Healing - the recipient of 75 percent of Barb’s Race funds since 2002.
“Through Barb’s Race we would, every year, have served between 200 and 220 individuals,” Susie Laurenson, regional manager for the institute.
She credited Pugh and Recchia with “tremendous” generosity over the years.
“We have served thousands of patients at this point,” she said.
With a Barb’s Race grant, a cancer patient would receive six visits to the institute that could include acupuncture, massage, therapy and other options for cancer patients who are also undergoing conventional treatment. The therapies are not covered under standard insurance policies, Laurenson said, and the institute offers care no matter their insurance carrier.
“Most insurance won’t pay for this type of service,” she said. “Only the people who could pay out of pocket could afford it. Barb wanted it to be accessible to everyone.”
How the partnership goes forward remains unclear.
Recchia is committed to continuing to support the institute, but understands she is now playing by a new set of rules.
“We don’t want to compete,” she said. “We can’t compete with Ironman.”