Ironman Santa Rosa triathletes brave warm, windy day in race through Sonoma County

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Standing near a gravel driveway east of Windsor, Jane Maliszewski of Alexandria, Virginia got a surprise Saturday when her husband stopped his bicycle beside her and kissed her in the middle of his 14-plus hour race.

Around the corner of Faught and Shiloh roads, 11 family members wearing “Team Yandell” T-shirts cheered and whooped as Visalia resident Steven Yandell took the turn and cycled downhill toward Old Redwood Highway.

And nearby, Hiroshi Otsuka of Nagoya, Japan joined a handful of friends who encouraged 14 uniformed team members spread out among the 1,600 competitors taking part Saturday in the Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon.

It was a grueling day for the athletes and a time for well-wishers to encourage loved ones and strangers to push on to the finish line at the end of a 140.6-mile course that required swimming, cycling and running across Sonoma County.

“They hear their name and they stand up a little bit taller,” Maliszewski said of the athletes.

Otsuka, who himself has finished triathlons in France and Canada, said the event seems impossible but “once you complete it, it’s such an extraordinary experience.”

The race began at 6:40 a.m. Saturday at Lake Sonoma, where athletes were released in rolling starts by age group. The first stage on what proved to be a warm and windy spring day involved a 2.4-mile swim.

Next came 112 miles of cycling that took the athletes twice on a loop through the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys. The bike course ended in downtown Santa Rosa near B and Third streets.

There the racers handed their bicycles to volunteers and then jogged, some barefoot, about a block to the south edge of Old Courthouse Square to pick up plastic bags containing their running shoes and other marathon gear. Volunteers in lime-green T-shirts relayed the athletes race numbers ahead — “1043” or “1858” — while other helpers quickly found the appropriately numbered bags and rushed them forward as each racer approached.

The athletes entered a white changing tent and emerged for the final leg of the race — a 26.2-mile run back and forth along the Santa Rosa Creek Trail. The course finish line was on the north side of Old Courthouse Square.

Derk De Korver looked comfortable, slapping spectators’ hands as he trotted over a red carpet to finish first in the field, more than 10 minutes ahead of the next runner and less than nine hours after hitting the water at Lake Sonoma.

De Korver, 34, a native of the Netherlands who lives in San Francisco, got a medal around his neck from Miss Sonoma County Tyler-Avery Lewis and huge kiss from his wife, Anais.

“Amazing, amazing,” he said. “I’ve never crossed the finish line first so it’s a wonderful feeling.”

It was De Korver’s ninth Ironman triathlon after taking up the demanding sport just five years ago. He placed second at the Florida Ironman in November.

“I had to dig deep,” he said. “There were some dark moments out there.”

About 6 miles from the end of the run he felt dizzy and stopped for a few minutes, to “eat, drink and walk a little bit.”

Anais De Korver, who is French and also a triathlete, eyed her husband — who is 5-foot-9 and started the day weighing 152 pounds — and estimated he had shed about 5 pounds amid the day’s exertion.

The couple met in Dublin, Ireland as Google co-workers in 2012, started dating after his first Ironman at Zurich in 2013 and got engaged at the Kona, Hawaii Ironman in 2016.

Today, Anais De Korver said, she wants to sample some Sonoma County pinot noir.

Amy Farrell, 40, a physical education teacher and coach from Tupper Lake, New York, was the first female finisher, coming in just under 10 hours.

“It feels awesome,” she said. “We had a really rough winter in New York,” forcing her to train mostly indoors.

“I didn’t know how it was going to go here,” she said.

To complete the event, competitors had to cross the finish line by midnight, 17 hours after the final racer entered the water.

Saturday’s athletes ranged in age from 18 to 74. They came from at least 47 states and 43 countries.

Forty of the competitors will qualify according to age groups to race again in October at the 2018 Ironman Word Championship in Kona.

As part of the race, law enforcement closed or limited traffic on a number of roads between Cloverdale and Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa officials say Saturday’s race and the related 70.3-mile Vineman competition in July are estimated to generate $13 million in economic activity for the region.

Maliszewski, the Virginia supporter, said this was the sixth triathlon since 1984 for her husband, Ben Herr, 61. Along with the full-length event in Santa Rosa, Herr intends to also compete in two half-triathlons within the next three months.

Part of the event’s challenge is the mental aspect of “pushing through the pain,” she said.

By the end of the race, she said, “He doesn’t see anything.”

For the extended Yandell family, the day was extra special because Steven Yandell, a Clovis Fire Department captain, was competing in his first triathlon in honor of his older brother, Mike Yandell, who died in September 2016.

For Steven Yandell’s 6-year-old son, Keaton, the best part of the day was “that we’re going to see my dad.”

“I think it helped your daddy a lot to see you,” responded Nancy Yandell, Steven Yandell’s mother. “I know it did.”

While most of the relatives went Saturday morning to stand beside a leafy green vineyard near Faught and Shiloh roads, Steven Yandell’s wife, Nicole, and two other family members went to Lake Sonoma to cheer him on as he started the triathlon. The couple had a closeup taken before the athlete went into the water.

Otsuka, visiting from Japan, called Sonoma County beautiful and named it “one of the best Ironman places.” An injury kept him from competing Saturday. But the result was that he, and not his race-regimented companions, got to try some “really nice wine.”

“I’ll be back,” he promised.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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