Sonoma County stakes stronger claim as endurance sports capital
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.'
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.