Benefield: Longtime Santa Rosa announcer gives triathletes their moment in sun

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When the Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa triathlon rolls into Sonoma County this week, there will be a guy who will be up and going at the start line Saturday well before athletes arrive and who will be still grinding at the finish line when many of them have long ago gone home.

He’s longtime race announcer Dave Latourette, a Santa Rosa guy who has raced triathlons, is still coaching athletes locally and whose voice is likely familiar to anyone who competed in these parts in the past 20 years.

Latourette might be the first official voice athletes hear at pre-race course briefings in the days leading up to the event, and the last voice they hear as they are red-lining at the finish. But he’s also the voice the spectators listen to in order to hear when and where their loved ones are or what is happening as the professionals battle on the course.

“It’s everybody. It’s the athlete, the spectators, the husband or wife or kids,” he said. “You try to engage them as much as possible, too.”

Latourette, who will again be working with Eric Gilsenan on the mic at Courthouse Square on Saturday, has to serve many masters during the unfolding of a race. And it’s not just on race day. There are athlete information sessions and course briefings, all of which almost invariably bring questions about the course, transition area, weather, gear shuttles, support stations, water temperatures — the list goes on.

But Latourette, who has a long history of racing here himself, said he’s not only in tune with the information athletes need — as a guy who rides and swims and runs in Sonoma County, he knows what information is the best information.

“I think it is really important that you have raced,” he said. “Not only do I know the course and the route, here I know the roads.”

And, as an official point person on race day, he has to be ready for the unexpected.

Take, for instance, last year, when Ironman officials canceled the swim start of the 70.3 race after thick fog over Lake Sonoma refused to burn off and severely limited visibility for both swimmers and those monitoring their safety. As a safety measure, approximately 2,600 athletes were told they’d be starting the race on their bikes, not in their wetsuits.

Latourette had to help redirect traffic, literally, and help start a race from an altogether unfamiliar position.

But that is an admittedly extraordinary circumstance. A lot of what Latourette has to communicate the morning of the race to amped-up, anxiety-ridden athletes is the mundane, albeit crucial, Xs and Os. He’s done it countless times at countless races over the years.

He’s done Ironman Santa Cruz, the Windsor Half Marathon, Lake Sonoma 50, Escape from Alcatraz, San Francisco Marathon, the Monte Rio Triathlon and the Ukiah Triathlon. He’s headed to do Ironman Chattanooga in September and Ironman Louisville in October.

After tinkering with some public address work at East Connecticut State University, Latourette got his first real taste of triathlon announcing when he was asked to a do a post-race interview in a race he had just finished.

“They were interviewing me on stage and the guy said, ‘Hey, I have to go to the bathroom, do you want to stay on the mic?’ ” Latourette said.

So he stayed up there and kept talking about the race. In some form or another, it seems that Latourette has been on the mic ever since.

“My major goal in the morning for athletes is keeping them informed in terms of the moving pieces, where things are, what time, where are the porta-potties, where is the bike tech, where can you find a pump?” he said.

Once he and Gilsenan have sent off the last of the swimmers in Lake Sonoma on Saturday, they will drive to downtown Santa Rosa, where for the next many hours they will offer race updates and finishers’ names. The goal is to give each of the thousands of participants their brief moment in the sun.

“I would say for 90%, maybe more, even if they are faster, some people — when they go out and train and they are in a hard training session, that’s what they are thinking about — hearing their name at the finish line,” he said.

Ever wonder how announcers manage that piece — getting each name of each finisher out in time to mark the moment? I have.

Turns out they have a secret. Just short of the finish line, each athlete’s timing chip will activate and send an alert to the announcers.

“They will cross what we call a ‘read mat’ and (the name) will come across our computer screen,” he said.

So he and Gilsenan will toss out each name, likely the hometown, maybe the profession of each of the finishers. And when Latourette does a race like, say, the Monte Rio Triathlon with longtime local race director Russ Pugh, he’ll see loads of familiar names showing up on his screen so he is able to sprinkle a quick anecdote or bits of humor into the moment.

“It’s sort of fun,” he said. “It’s about having a sense of humor.”

Latourette said an event like Saturday’s race, where participants will swim 1.2 miles in Lake Sonoma, ride 56 miles across Sonoma County and run 13.1 miles on an out-and-back loop from downtown Santa Rosa, has stages of energy.

When the top pros — the ones looking to qualify for a berth to the 2020 world championship — cross the finish line, some are feted with champagne and stops on the podium. For thousands of others, there is no champagne and no podium.

But the sight of people crossing the finish line, no matter how many times he sees it from the best seat in the house, can still move Latourette.

“It’s a different energy than the pros have,” he said. “Some of these people, it’s a big deal at the finish line. It might be the biggest thing they do, maybe some of them, in their lifetime.”

He’ll see one person, or an entire family, waiting to embrace an athlete.

“You are used to seeing people struggle, seeing people suffer,” he said. “It doesn’t hit you until they cross. They begin to cry. There is something there that was more than the seven hours of the race or the six hours of the race.”

As Latourette has seen thousands of times, there is an individual athlete with an individual background each time someone crosses that finish line.

“There is no stereotypical person who finishes,” he said. “There is always a story. The reality is, we are trying to make that person feel as good about their race at 4:20 p.m. as the fastest age grouper who came in at noon.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 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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