Thousands of athletes set for countywide Ironman Santa Rosa race

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They’ll race a triathlon Saturday. But first, yardwork.

Before competing in the 140.6-mile swim, bike and run, volunteer-minded Ironman Santa Rosa athletes on Thursday helped clean up riparian habitat along Mark West Creek — a stretch of Sonoma County that still bears scars from the deadly 2017 Tubbs fire.

Several dozen volunteers wielded weed-whackers, wheelbarrows, loppers, rakes and shovels under the supervision of Mark West Estates block captains, including Mike Holdner.

Early this week, Holdner was busy collecting landscaping tools for Thursday’s work party.

“When your house burns down, you don’t have lawn tools,” he said. “It’s really cool that Ironman is reaching out. They specifically wanted to work in a burned neighborhood. Everything else costs us money, because we don’t have insurance for all this stuff. So this is a pretty big step. Everyone is very thankful that we’ve got this opportunity.”

Beyond the volunteer outreach, Ironman organizers have been busy this week finalizing road closures that will extend Saturday from Lake Sonoma through Wine Country off Chalk Hill Road and into downtown Santa Rosa. They’ve also been checking in the nearly 2,500 athletes that will compete in the full-distance race.

“That’s an increase year over year,” said race director Dave Reid.

This year marks the third race under the Ironman Santa Rosa banner, and the fourth since the Florida-based World Triathlon Corp. — owned by a Chinese sports events conglomerate — took over the popular, homegrown Vineman triathlon series.

“More folks are hearing about it and wanting to participate in the event,” said Reid. “We’re excited about that.”

Activities began midweek in Old Courthouse Square with the Ironman Village of tents and shops and will continue through Sunday with 9:30 a.m. awards ceremonies.

The city of Santa Rosa has devoted extensive space on its website to detailing the event schedule and its effects throughout town, particularly road closures, traffic detours, parking availability and city bus schedule changes.

The city is working with the smartphone app Waze to offer real-time traffic updates that residents can consult before heading out on Saturday, when the race will be active all day.

The best place to watch the action will be the downtown finish line near Fourth Street and Mendocino Avenue. Traffic near Lake Sonoma will be busy and organizers warn drivers will face delays early in the morning as athletes arrive before dawn and as they depart on their bicycles later in the morning.

“The footprint of the event in terms of the streets and roads we’re traversing in the city and county are unchanged,” Reid said. “We’re maintaining the same footprint out in the community, so hopefully with that will keep people familiar with how to get around on race day.”

Residents received notices in their water bills this month and city officials have posted often about the race on social media, but if history is any indication, many residents will be caught off-guard with the road closures and detours Saturday.

“We always strive to partner with the local community and make it feel like we’re coming in and being respectful,” Reid said. The half-distance Ironman Santa Rosa 70.3 is scheduled for July 27.

“We’re trying to benefit the local economy,” said Reid. “Between these two events, it’s close to a $20 million economic impact into Sonoma County and Santa Rosa. That’s a pretty profound economic impact when you consider the total number of hours of impact on traffic is small.”

Reid was referencing a report commissioned by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber that found that the two sporting events attracted nearly 14,000 visitors to the county, resulting in 22,772 overnight stays.

Planning and economic development officials put the city’s cost of the full Ironman at $140,552, with the biggest expenses being $38,189 for police, fire and public works staff and $30,348 for advertising. The city also pays half of the $125,000 fee for the rights to host the full Ironman in Santa Rosa, while the chamber pays the other half.

The volunteer efforts are an additional benefit to having the race in town, and Holdner is grateful to have the athletes give their time to help repair some of the fire damage. He was among about 175 other homeowners in the Mark West area who lost their homes nearly a year and a half ago. Most of the homes are being rebuilt.

“We’re getting the keys in three weeks,” Holdner said of his new home.

Another 163 Larkfield Estates homes were destroyed by the fire. In all, the Tubbs fire — the most destructive of the 2017 blazes — took out 4,651 homes, 1,729 in the greater Mark West-Larkfield area.

Though much progress has been made, recovering will continue for years.

That’s where the Ironman Foundation stepped in.

The charity arm of the endurance sports giant asked Sonoma County Tourism manager Kim Link where its efforts could help fire survivors. Holdner and Brad Sherwood of Larkfield proposed a few ideas.

Ironman is donating $5,000 to the Larkfield Resilience Fund, which has organized native-tree replacement, emergency preparedness and neighborhood collaboration efforts to help renew their fire-ravaged community.

“The Ironman funds will definitely be put to good use for the Larkfield community,” Sherwood said. “We’re extremely grateful for their contribution.”

In a more hands-on effort, Ironman volunteers donned work gloves and boots Thursday and dug into the damaged and neglected Mark West Creek area off Pacific Heights Drive.

“There is still fire debris in there,” Holdner said. “We used to have picnic tables along the creek.”

Volunteer workers trudged through the areas surrounding the meandering creek, removing dead trees, limbs and other debris.

Workers planned to bring in wood chips to spread around their former picnic area.

“We chipped up a bunch of trees lost in the fire,” Holdner said. “We’ll use wheelbarrows and trucks to move the chips to the picnic areas. Then it will be all prepped and ready to put the picnic tables whenever we get all the houses done.”

Mark West Estates residents are eyeing the fire’s two-year anniversary with hope that it can be a new, more positive milestone.

Meanwhile, the athletes who have descended upon Sonoma County are turning their attention to Saturday’s race.

Danielle Dattilio, 24, of San Diego is one of the many athletes who traveled from outside the area for the event. This will be her first Ironman, though she got hooked on triathlons after college.

“I swam in college and was on the cycling team,” she said. “A friend asked me to do a tri last summer and I was hooked.”

She said she’s a little overwhelmed but excited about swimming, biking and running through Sonoma County, having heard the bike portion is beautiful.

”I’m anxious in every sense of the word — nervous and excited,” she said. “I hope to not get lost.”

Action on race day begins before sunrise, when waves of swimmers will enter Lake Sonoma beginning at 6:40 a.m. Following a 2.4-mile, two-lap swim, athletes will jump on their bikes and descend Skaggs Springs Road.

Bicyclists will follow a 112-mile path that takes them through vineyards along Highway 128 and Chalk Hill Road toward Windsor, back north on Westside and Dry Creek Roads, returning to Windsor and west Santa Rosa before heading into downtown Santa Rosa via West Ninth, stopping at B Street at Third.

Transition No. 2 sees bicyclists become runners at Old Courthouse Square and Third Street.

Cyclists are expected to begin arriving in downtown about 10 a.m.

A full marathon, 26.2 miles, comprises three loops of a Santa Rosa Creek Trail path that leads runners west to a turnaround near A Place to Play park at Fulton Road and back to downtown.

The first competitors are expected to arrive at the finish line around 3 p.m. Racers will continue arriving until midnight.

Forty qualifying age-group spots for the famed Ironman championship in Kona, Hawaii will be awarded after the race.

Ironman Santa Rosa isn’t the most difficult race on the circuit, but Reid said it has become known as a solid early season race, particularly for the welcoming and picturesque environs Wine Country offers.

“We’ve tried to design a course that showcases the beauty of Sonoma County,” he said. “There is certainly some climbing on the course, but it’s not the hardest course out there. I’d call it one of the most scenic, for sure. That makes it special.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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