Sonoma County’s Vineman triathlons mark first race under new Ironman ownership

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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.

The takeover has fueled an ongoing debate about consolidation of triathlon races in the hands of fewer owners and Ironman’s now dominant role in the sport’s future.

“They are the most recognized, biggest brand in the sport,” said Shaw. “Whether or not that is a good thing for the sport is a constant debate. … Athletes are generally conflicted about how they feel about Ironman.”

Host of the iconic Kona race familiar even to those who know little about triathlon, Ironman has such a strong stake in the sport’s field of events — it owns 42 half- and full-distance races in North America and licenses an additional five half-distance races — that some worry it will squeeze out both smaller, independent races as well as those who can’t afford to pay Ironman’s entry fees.

So far, those rates haven’t dampened participation at Ironman events, where total number finishers grew to roughly 200,000 in 2014, up from about 60,000 in 2009. At the same time, the company has been on a growth streak, launching, rebranding, purchasing or licensing nearly 20 events in the past five years.

“The trend in North America is for us to purchase existing events and add the Ironman brand,” said Keats McGonigal, senior regional director for Ironman Western North America.

At Vineman, Pugh, 51, is set to remain as race director.

A long-time race fan, Pugh first brought triathlon to Sonoma County in 1990 when his Vineman course started at Lake Sonoma and finished more than 60 miles away in Napa. After early financial troubles, Pugh bought out his partner and pushed on.

His timing was prescient.

Membership in USA Triathlon, required for participation in any sanctioned race, hovered below 130,000 from 1998 to 2000. By 2013, it ballooned to more than 550,000. The group sanctioned 1,541 events in 2004; in 2012 it sanctioned 4,310.

Vineman 70.3 has long been Pugh’s premier race, with a substantial prize purse and available slots for the 70.3 World Championship, this year happening in Australia. The race has carried the Ironman brand since 1994, the result of a license deal Pugh struck with the company. The branding has paid off, with online registration for the shorter of the two Vineman races routinely selling out in minutes.

But despite that race’s popularity, the event series has struggled. The full course was not a sell-out event, forcing Pugh to augment the race with extra competitions on the same day, including a swim and bike-only event — the AquaBike — and, beginning 16 years ago, a charitable women’s triathlon called Barb’s Race that has raised nearly $1 million for local cancer care services.

After years of purchase propositions from Ironman, last October Pugh decided to sell,

“Every time our contract renewed, they were like ‘Are you ready to sell?’” he said of his Ironman associates.

The decision wasn’t easy — Pugh compared the move to sending his children off into the world. But he said Ironman is better suited to take the race series to a new level.

“At the time and for the way the sport is now, it was just the right thing to do,” he said. “For the 70.3 event I think there are 40 (support) people coming — everything from four bike course guys, three run course guys, a couple of expo people, four athlete services people. … Before, it was pretty much all my friends. Some of them were paid, a lot were volunteers.”

Neither Pugh nor Ironman officials would disclose the terms of the purchase deal.

Already, the ownership change has left its mark. With the Ironman brand now attached to the full course this year, registration for the July 30 race spiked to approximately 2,200, up from 425 last year.

“Obviously, even though there might be some people who don’t want to be part of the Ironman thing, there are far more people who want to be part of the Ironman experience,” Pugh said.

And with the Ironman brand comes two significant bonuses: a $50,000 prize purse for the full-course winners, and for qualifying finishers, 40 age-group slots for the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

Ironman officials said that with the purchase, they hope to build on the success of the Vineman series.

“For us, the Vineman 70.3 event has been really, really well done over the years” McGonigal said. “Russ has done a fantastic job.”

Many fans of Vineman are proud their race was chosen by the biggest player in the game.

“Ironman is the king,” said Judy Gottlieb of Santa Rosa, a longtime volunteer with Vineman events. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I really don’t. I think we were lucky enough to have somebody in this community to build something so great that they wanted it.”

But some in the sport compared the change to putting in a Home Depot where an independent hardware store once stood, or a Starbucks replacing a local coffee shop.

It’s “the death knell to the spirit of long-distance triathlon in the Golden State, and, one could argue, in general,” Outside magazine columnist Erin Beresini wrote in November. “That spirit of communities coming together to celebrate the insanity and determination of people pushing the limits of their own endurance — and not just people who make over 160K per year — is wasting away as behemoth companies scoop up iconic, independent races.”

That sentiment rings true for some triathletes in Sonoma County, where Vineman events have been lauded as stunning, homegrown events for more than two decades. Pugh’s father once ran the registration and his mom helped sew flags for the finish line. An army of volunteers made the race tick but the experience came off with few hitches, athletes said.

“Russ and his crew did a fabulous job. It was like a top-notch, professionally run race,” said Whitney Garcia, winner of the full Vineman in 2008, 2009 and 2014.

Garcia, 35, who grew up in Ukiah and now lives in triathlon-mad Boulder, Colo., called the new entrance fee for the full race “kind of sickening,” and predicted it would prohibit some from signing up for future races.

“What does that do to a normal person? Who has $725 extra?” she said. “It starts to narrow the field.”

Shaw, the Triathlete magazine editor, called the registration costs “obnoxious,” but like many other athletes, she is willing to pony up.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow if you are a local person who has done that race for years and years and now you have to pay hundreds more dollars,” she said. “I know people will pay it, for that race especially because of the area and the course has a lot of appeal.”

For athletes — both first-timers and experienced racers — knowing exactly how an event will unfold can be reassuring, especially when months, sometimes years have gone into training.

Garcia, who won her first two Vinemans as an amateur before turning pro, says Ironman offers predictability and premier competition.

“You race along with the pros,” she said. “You are in the same race, on the same course — there is some glory in that. In small, local races, there usually isn’t a pro field.”

Ironman officials acknowledged the criticism their unrelenting growth and high entrance fees have drawn.

“We are very aware that we are high on the price tag,” McGonigal said. “At the same time, the level of experience that we are delivering is a premium experience.”

Last year, the Dalian Wanda Group, parent of China’s biggest commercial real estate developer, bought the World Triathlon Corporation and its Ironman brand for $900 million including debt, according to Reuters. Wanda also owns a stake in soccer powerhouse Atletico Madrid and owns Swiss marketer Infront Sports & Media.

For Vineman, that means a new family of affiliated Ironman races that stretch from Santa Cruz to Sweden. And while local flair and independence might be lost amid the sport’s ongoing consolidation of ownership, competitors can rely on the uniformity of those races, from the pre-race schedule to the gear pickup and signs. There is an Ironman formula.

“There is a standard and it’s very high,” Shaw said. “You know how things are run.”

The exposure and economic boon that can come with such an well-known outfit setting up shop every summer is something Sonoma County officials are trying to harness.

“I think it’s a vote of confidence that they (Ironman) want to buy (Vineman) — it’s a good program that has potential,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Board. It is forming an outdoor recreation and hospitality business council to promote the area as a destination for activity-seekers, a move fueled by the growing pull of endurance sports in the county, as seen in the thousands of participants and spectators drawn to group rides such as Levi’s GranFondo and races including the Amgen Tour of California.

Stone said the purchase of Vineman by Ironman mirrors consolidation in the region’s wine industry.

“It’s the same principal. It brings new money into the area, as it does for the wineries; more money, more horsepower, but you lose some of the local control often.”

“It’s kind of the life cycle of things,” he said.

Zuniga, the Santa Rosa triathlete who will be racing the Ironman 70.3 Vineman Sunday, has done the same event four times. He competed in the full Ironman Cozumel last November in Mexico. For him, signing up for races hosted by the biggest name in the business has its benefits.

“You know it’s going to be good, it’s going to be a nice experience,” he said.

The Ironman brand is unique. Among the brand’s nearly four dozen reported trademarks is the phrase “Anything Is Possible.”

Some call the allure the “M-Dot effect,” a play on the trademarked logo within the name Ironman.

It’s not unusual for racers who’ve completed one or more of the full triathlons to get that logo tattooed on their body. It is as well-known within endurance sports as the Mac Apple or the Nike swoosh is in the mainstream.

“The name is carrying lots of weight,” said Bertrand Morelle, a veteran triathlete from Santa Rosa who has completed the full-course Vineman three times and has raced four other full Ironman-branded events.

“Ironman is very good at marketing,” he said. “First it’s all of these people who push their limits and it’s televised. Then professionals are doing it and you want to be part of it.”

Morelle said he’s just as happy to compete on a non-Ironman course approved by USA Triathlon and forgo the logo.

But for many, if it doesn’t have the name Ironman attached, it’s not the real deal.

“I think people want to say, ‘I am an Ironman,’” said Shaw. “It’s this proprietary thing. It’s crazy. They own it and they are very protective of it.”

Garcia, the Boulder triathlete and three-time Vineman champion, said Ironman has capitalized on triathletes’ fancy for a stamp that symbolizes the sufferfest of miles they have put in for their sport.

“Whatever level of competition you are in, it seems to me if you are racing a triathlon, you want this special label to say, ‘I can do this. I have done this,’” Garcia said. “For them, (they’ve done) a really good job of saying ‘If you haven’t done an Ironman, you haven’t done the real deal.’”

The real deal started rolling into Sonoma County two weeks ago and will be in full effect Sunday. The starting line at Johnson’s Beach is ready for thousands of wetsuit-clad racers. Their bikes will be parked in neat rows nearby, ready for the next leg. And after that 56 miles is completed, their running shoes will await them at Windsor High School for the 13-mile slog to the finish line.

Pugh said the gear Ironman brought in for the race is noticeably top notch.

“This is what they do, week after week,” he said.

This year will be the first test of whether or not competitors notice.

“It’s a little bit more impersonal but at the same time it’s like all of your bases are completely covered,” Pugh said. “Time will tell if it’s better or not. It’s still the same beautiful course, it’s the same volunteers.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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