Ironman Santa Rosa featured 1,800 triathletes racing across Sonoma County

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Jan Stepinski, 27, sat on the asphalt in the middle of Fourth Street after traversing 140.6 miles through Sonoma County in a little more than 8 hours and 52 minutes at Saturday’s Ironman Santa Rosa race.

Stepinksi, a New York City native who now lives in Palo Alto, finished first overall in the full-distance triathlon. It was an amazing feat for only his third Ironman. Last year, at the same race — his first full-distance triathlon — he finished 26th, his time nearly 42 minutes slower.

Stepinski, who said he considers the Santa Rosa course home turf, had no illusions coming in about winning.

“No expectations, that’s the key. Gotta keep calm,” he said.

He was among more than 1,800 athletes from 44 U.S. states and 49 countries, territories and regions who participated Saturday in the third annual Ironman Santa Rosa. The grueling test of endurance is one of more than 40 events in the worldwide Ironman series.

Beginning with a morning plunge in Lake Sonoma, the race took competitors through vineyard country and into downtown Santa Rosa. For most of the day, streets along or near the course were closed or partially shuttered.

For some of the athletes, Saturday mild temperatures made for a great race.

“I couldn’t have asked for better weather. I’ve never done an Ironman in such perfect weather conditions,” said Ailsa MacDonald of Canada, the first woman to cross the line, with a time of 10:16:43.

Athletes entered the lake in staggered times beginning at 6:40 a.m. for the 2.4-mile swim around a rectangular course bordered by sighting buoys. The last swimmers were out of the water by 9:30 a.m.

“The conditions for the swim were great. We had beautiful flat water and clear visibility,” said race director Dave Reid. The first athletes started crossing the finish line shortly after 3:30 p.m. The last finishers would cross before midnight.

After the swim, the 112-mile bike ride led competitors through vineyards of Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, down Highway 128 and Chalk Hill Road, west through Windsor and north on Westside and Dry Creek roads before heading to downtown Santa Rosa.

Stepinski, a software engineer originally from Brooklyn, was the first one out of water at 48 minutes and 59 seconds. He extended the lead during the bike leg, as he averaged 24.84 mph during the ride, arriving right near Old Courthouse Square at 12:15 p.m. to quickly don his running shoes.

As he began the marathon, Stepinksi held an 11 minute and 44 seconds advantage over Jack Toland, a University of Colorado student. Robin Schneider of Germany was 12 minutes and 15 seconds behind Stepinski.

At the finish line was Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who cheered the athletes and praised the event for its economic impact, even as he acknowledged its effect on traffic and parking.

“This is a great event for Santa Rosa, all the people that are coming downtown and visitors from out of town,” he said. “It really pays off well for everyone in the community. Yes, it’s an inconvenience for some people ... but for two days a year, this is well worth our effort.”

Supporters and spectators started coming out to Old Courthouse Square in droves around noon to catch the leaders. Some wore T-shirts in support of their athlete while others carried signs.

Angelina Ardito of Simi Valley said she was following her husband, Matt, on the Ironman app as he was at mile 87 of the bike race. The race was the first triathlon for Ardito, a personal trainer who has been preparing for the event since November.

“He was definitely following his predictions,” Ardito said as she rattled off her husband’s time in the swim — 1 hour and 23 minutes, 7 minutes better than the pace he set before the race. “The weakest point for him is the swim.”

Matt Ardito was trying to finish the bike portion in under five hours.

She viewed the app as a lifesaver to keep up as she waited with her son and dog. “I can kind of just chill,” Ardito said.

The marathon route consisted of three loops along the Santa Rosa Creek Trail path with a turnaround near A Place to Play park at Fulton Road and back to downtown to the finish line right in front of the Exchange Bank headquarters.

City officials took steps to alert local residents of road closures through online posts, direct mail and radio advertisements, learning from the first downtown-based event a few years ago that elicited complaints for those who were unknowingly stuck in traffic.

The Santa Rosa Police Department put out a Nixle alert at 11:32 a.m. warning residents about road closures. The city also had a dedicated phone number for residents who had questions about the event.

They urged locals to follow the traffic patterns in real time through the Waze app, which would give drivers an option for a detour as opposed to running into roadblocks.

“We learned the hard way from that first year on telling people this is how you get out of your neighborhood,” said Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa.

A report commissioned by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber found that the two Ironman events contributed $20 million in economic activity to the area in 2018.

Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg reported a smaller amount of visitors on Saturday, but it was difficult to determine if the drop was the result of the traffic or if people avoided the area altogether because of the race, said Sara Rathburn, director of marketing and communication for the winery, in an email.

“All of the guests that had made appointments were delayed by about 10 minutes due to traffic related issues, but we were still able to accommodate them and share the wines and history of our family winery,” Rathburn said.

She added that some Ironman participants visited Dry Creek’s tasting room on Friday.

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