Sonoma County’s Vineman triathlons mark first race under new Ironman ownership
When the starter pistol goes off and more than 2,000 athletes dive into the Russian River at Johnson’s Beach Sunday morning for the first leg of the Ironman 70.3 Vineman, it will mark the dawning of a new era for triathlon in Sonoma County.
For a quarter of a century, the series of Vineman endurance races, most of them triathlons, has garnered wide acclaim not only for the beauty of the courses but the family feel of the events cultivated under their founder, Santa Rosa resident Russ Pugh.
The courses — consistently rated among the world’s best — test competitors, some who have trained for months, even years, in back-to-back-to-back disciplines. The racers start with a swim launched from Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, then bike along a route that rolls through vineyards and hills in Windsor and Healdsburg, and finish by running a course that winds around the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and ends at Windsor High School.
The full triathlon is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. Sunday’s half-triathlon, or 70.3, is half that distance but is still a grueling contest, one that will take the even fastest competitors about three hours and 45 minutes to finish.
The key change to Sunday’s event, and the full-distance race July 30 — the longest-running triathlon of its length in the continental United States — is they are now owned and operated by the company behind the biggest name in the sport: Ironman.
For some, that change marks Sonoma County’s ascension to the top tier of endurance racing, with the potential to lure the world’s top triathletes and attract media coverage that puts the region clearly on the radar for travel and competition. For the first time, the Vineman full-distance triathlon has a clear link to the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii — the biggest, most recognized triathlon in the world.
For Sonoma County, that means new membership among Ironman’s coveted races and entries from athletes spanning the world. Many will likely spend upwards of a week in the area, scouting the course, prepping their strategy, and recovering post-race. The economic payoff comes with extended hotel stays, restaurant meals, bike shop visits and retail purchases.
Ironman has “the power to get bigger numbers,” said Jené Shaw, senior editor with Triathlete magazine. Its purchase last year of Vineman “only boosts everything — from media coverage, from tourism, all of that.”
But for some in the county and in the sport, Ironman’s takeover denotes the end of an era, when the family-run, volunteer-driven Vineman series drew both professional racers and novice athletes to local roads and waters. Ironman, in contrast, is owned by the Florida-base World Triathlon Corporation, whose Chinese parent company claims to be the largest sports operating outfit in the world.
The new ownership resulted in several immediate changes for racers, including the end of a popular women-only triathlon and a 70 percent price hike for the full Vineman, to $725.
That change alone has stirred unease if not outrage among racers.
“The first thing you think about when I hear it’s going to be in the Ironman organization, it’s the price. It’s going to be double,” said Juan Carlos Zuniga, a Santa Rosa triathlete who is slated to compete in the race Sunday.