Ironman Santa Rosa triathletes race through thrilling, grueling day in Sonoma County

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Starting with a dawn swim at Lake Sonoma and finishing with a marathon that stretched into darkness Saturday, the first full Ironman to cover Sonoma County’s central core tested nearly 1,900 triathletes from around the world, as well as the patience of a community with a strong endurance sports following but perhaps less familiarity with such a day-long event.

Ironman Santa Rosa, now in its second year, but its first based in downtown Santa Rosa, was unlike any other endurance event the county has hosted — playing out in a reservoir, on roads and even along bike paths across a huge swath of the county.

It drew hundreds of spectators to Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, where festivities started on Wednesday and will wrap up Sunday morning with an awards ceremony.

Among those fans was Olivia Aina, 4, who joined her five brothers and sisters, and shook a small cowbell while looking down the closed road for signs of her father.

Sam Aina, a 38-year-old auditor from Valencia, California, trained for the Ironman mainly when his brood was asleep.

“I love my kids seeing him setting a goal,” Melissa Aina said of her husband. “It’s hard and takes a long time. But he accomplishes it.”

Elyn Amacker, 16, traveled a little farther to watch her father, Yves, participate in the Ironman. The family lives in Valais, Switzerland.

In halting English, Elyn said she found Santa Rosa to be a “great city.”

“And the weather is great,” she added.

Race Director Dave Reid characterized the day as a success.

“We feel like it’s gone really well,” he said about 6:30 p.m., more than five hours before the final athlete was set to cross the finish line. “It’s been a great venue, with a lot of good energy.”

Like its shorter predecessor held in May, the Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa, Saturday’s race generated frustration from some motorists and residents over delays stemming from road closures and detours necessary to move 1,891 competitors from Lake Sonoma to Rohnert Park, and back to Santa Rosa.

Several crashes, some causing injuries, were reported during the cycling segment.

Many of the competitors bring their families and friends for support, booking hotels or renting homes and spending days leading up to the race by dining out or touring the sites.

“I probably wouldn’t’ come to Santa Rosa if it wasn’t for her,” Mike So, a retired Chrysler engineer from Virginia, said of his daughter, Jamie So, an Ironman participant who celebrated her 40th birthday Saturday.

The family rented a house in Healdsburg along with Ironman athlete Jeff Gordon, 60, of Fairfax, Virginia, and his sister, Gail Gordon.

“I’m his Sherpa,” Gail Gordon said. “I go to all of his races. I cook all of his food. I carry all of his crap.”

Santa Rosa officials estimated the two Ironman races this year will together generate about $14 million in economic activity for the area.

For racers on Saturday, conditions along the course were ideal, with a high temperature of 82 degrees in Santa Rosa.

Nick Noone, 22, was the overall winner, finishing the event in an official time of 8 hours, 53 minutes and 44 seconds. Noone, who recently graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in computational mathematics, entered Saturday’s competition having won the Olympic-distance event in the Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships, held April 24 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Noone, who began his day with a bowl of oatmeal and a double-shot of espresso, said he felt strong until mile 13 of the marathon, when he said fatigue began settling in. He said he had also grown annoyed over not being able to shake the song he’d listened to on the radio prior to the race — Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar,” which followed him from the tail end of the cycling portion through the run. At one point he realized he was singing the pop hit out loud.

His advice for anyone wanting to try an Ironman?

“I wouldn’t do it if you aren’t prepared.”

Chelsea Tiner, a 29-year-old out of Dallas, was the first female finisher, wrapping up her 13th Ironman in 9 hours 58 minutes and 45 seconds.

“The last two miles I was about in tears,” said the graphic designer and triathlon coach. “I was like sub 10, sub 10, sub 10. ... The last four miles were rough for me. The wheels were coming off. I was eating ice chips, about the only thing I could get down.”

The wins for Noone and Tiner qualify them for the prestigious Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

The long day began in the dark for competitors, who boarded buses at the Santa Rosa Transit Mall well before dawn for the ride to Lake Sonoma, where a light mist covered the water. The water temperature was below 76 degrees, which under Ironman rules allowed competitors to don wet suits, an aid to buoyancy.

Following the 2.4-mile swim, racers transitioned to bikes for the 112-mile ride, which wound north toward Cloverdale and then south toward Santa Rosa. The cyclists made two laps around southern Santa Rosa and the northern edge of Rohnert Park, and along country roads near the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa officials mailed out 5,000 notifications to residents who live near the race course, along with inserts into monthly water bills, to alert residents to traffic impacts tied to the event. They also did extensive media notices and advertising. Still, some were caught unaware.

“Everybody wants to get to Costco,” Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger, who oversaw the department’s traffic response, said around mid-day Saturday.

He said motorists heading northbound on Petaluma Hill Road were prevented from turning left to get to Santa Rosa Avenue, site of the big box retailer. Instead, they had to take a detour into Santa Rosa and connect with Highway 101, which gave them access to the avenue.

Snetsinger said Fulton Road and Third Street was another hot-spot. But he said overall, traffic flowed about as well as possible given the circumstances. Santa Rosa police had 50 officers stationed at intersections helping to direct motorists.

“It’s frustrating to folks who are getting stuck in some of the delays, but they’re really pretty cyclical and some are not delays at all, and people can get through,” Snetsinger said.

Traffic also was snarled on Stony Point Road west of Santa Rosa because of cyclists turning left onto Todd Road and connecting with Llano Road to head north, CHP Sgt. Christine Jacobs said.

“We are doing the best we can for motorists. We’re explaining the situation,” said Jacobs, who was directing traffic at the intersection.

Santa Rosa officials reported that wineries in the north county opened to normal traffic by 10:30 a.m., which was a goal for race organizers after they fielded criticism in May over unanticipated delays reaching those destinations.

The city had about 20 non-public safety employees staffed for the event, including Adriane Mertens, who answered the Ironman information line. By mid-morning, she had fielded about a half-dozen calls from people seeking detours around road closures.

Staff Writer Christi Warren contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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