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Two years after wresting her name back from the biggest name in the triathlon business, Barb Recchia is again separating from Barb’s Race. But this time it’s on her terms.

Recchia, 70, is the Barb behind Barb’s Race and, later, Barb’s Tri. Launched in 2001, Barb’s Race was run by the folks that put on the Vineman series of triathlons and duathlons. Vineman founder Russ Pugh named the women-only half triathlon after Recchia, a two-time cancer survivor, and built the event not only around athletics but philanthropy.

Pugh’s race and Recchia’s story cultivated a devoted following.

In its first 15 years, Barb’s Race raised approximately $960,000 for local cancer support services, about 75 percent of which went to the Sutter Institute for Health and Healing.

In 2010, Triathlete magazine named the race one of the “100 Best Triathlons on Earth” and one of the five best women-only races. At its peak, it drew 500 competitors.

But in 2015, when Ironman bought the Vineman series of races from Pugh, it got the rights to Barb’s Race too. Ironman officials had no interest in continuing to hold Barb’s Race and they were equally uninterested in allowing anyone to carry on the effort. Something about diluting the brand.

A fight ensued.

“It was the big machine telling the little person, ‘No you can’t do this anymore,’” Recchia said.

But she pushed back. She won concessions. Adam Ray and Piedmont-based Scena Performance stepped in to run the thing. They took a year off to re-organize. They retooled the route, they changed the date and they put Barb’s name back on it. Barb’s Race became Barb’s Tri.

But one thing did not change. The women-only race, which in 2017 had 90 finishers, still raised money for the Sutter Institute of Health and Healing. As long as Recchia’s name was affixed to the race, that was non-negotiable. The event raised about $33,000.

“I have nothing but respect for Barb or I wouldn’t do it,” Ray said. “I think Barb felt she was handing it off to someone who believes in her vision.”

And this year, the handoff is complete. After fighting for her name and her race, Recchia, 70, is stepping away. Barb’s Race, then Barb’s Tri, is now Sonoma Women’s Triathlon. Recchia has retired for real. When the race is held July 21 in Healdsburg, it will mark the first time in nearly two decades that Recchia’s name won’t be attached.

“I just felt it was time to step down and someone else could be the inspiration,” she said.

And stepping down meant taking “Barb” with her.

“I asked (that) the name be changed since I wouldn’t be involved,” she said. “It’s kind of a lot of pressure to have your name on something. You want it to be perfect. I’m kind of OCD. I want everything to be perfect. I stressed myself out.”

The stress came not only from race day but making sure the Institute for Health and Healing was supported. Recchia used the services in both of her fights with cancer and continues to use them to maintain health. She’s a devotee.

“The services relieve the symptoms and nurtures patients and helps them get through the treatments,” she said.

A Barb’s Race grant gave patients six free visits that could include acupuncture, massage, therapy and other services for cancer patients who are also undergoing conventional treatment. The program was not limited to Sutter members. The number of patients served annually by Barb’s Race grants were between 200 and 220 people, according to the institute.

“Barb is fabulous,” said Leanne Gallup, program manager at the institute. “We love her.”

The institute will again be the recipient of funds raised this year, Ray said. And regardless of who they partner with in the future, philanthropy will always be a crucial piece of the race, he said.

For his part, Ray is confident that the effort to bring the race back last year after a one-year hiatus was not for nothing. The race has a following, albeit a smaller one than in years past.

“Maybe half of our registrants were people who had done Barb’s before,” he said.

And that was despite the year break — something that can be the death knell for an event like this.

“You end up having to rebuild your grassroots support,” Ray said. “It was a lot of work to keep the race alive.”

And thank goodness Scena Performance came along. If anyone is chagrined that Ironman dropped Barb’s Race or jumped the full Ironman Santa Rosa entry fee 70 percent to $725 in its first year of ownership can fight back by supporting smaller races — the ones run by area companies. It’s the only way. Either race them or run the risk of losing them.

While Ray said that he is considering expanding the company’s race offerings in the area, he wants to keep this event single-sex.

“This is a women-centered event,” he said. “This race is an event that is totally theirs.”

Which is one of the reasons Recchia’s departure hurts a little. She was the female face of this women-only event. No one can begrudge Recchia for stepping away, she put in her time. But that’s not to say she won’t be missed.

And she certainly championed the Institute for Health and Healing.

“I know how difficult it is to be diagnosed with an illness and not know where to turn,” she said. “The words I got back from participants, people with cancer doing the event, people doing it in honor of people with cancer … I cried a lot before the race. It was beautiful. I really think we helped a lot of women.”

No doubt, Gallup said.

“This was her purpose. That’s how I see it,” she said. “There are millions of people who get cancer, but they don’t do this because of it. She found it, she went with it. She did tremendous work.”

Recchia said she’ll continue to support the institute but will have to find a new way. And she wished Ray and the new Sonoma Women’s Triathlon success.

“I think people understood,” she said. “All good things come to an end. Sometimes we just need to move on.”

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

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