Ironman Santa Rosa 140.6 Race Report
I quit competitive horseback riding when I was 17 years old. At the time, it was easy to miss training and pass it off on being “too busy with college applications and having a teenage boyfriend”. It was easy to be a flake. Eventually, when I missed enough of my weekly training with my horse and my coach, my parents sat me down and asked if I still wanted to compete. To have a horse at all. What I couldn’t tell them was that I was afraid. I was afraid of losing all the heats in my travel competitions, afraid of falling off and spearing my leg on the wooden jumps (something I saw happen to someone actually….), and afraid of my trainer (that woman was PURE fire and took no BS).
So instead of pushing through my fears, I quit. And I blamed it on other things. My horse was sold to someone in central California and I stopped driving the winding mountain road up to the stables every day after school. It just…faded out of my life. So why am I bringing this up now? You clicked on this article hoping to find out the inside scoop on the “rough roads” in Santa Rosa and what supplies are available at the aid stations on the marathon course, right? Don’t worry, I am going to share that with you as well. But I was about one bad decision away from making Ironman Santa Rosa just another excuse on my list of things I quit. I almost didn’t even get in the lake.
ATHLETE CHECK IN
It is pretty typical for Ironman branded races to require you to check in at least two full days before race day. In 2018, Santa Rosa and Ironman brand allowed athletes to check in up until Friday (this was a tradition they carried over from the days when the race was called Vineman). However, beginning in 2019 they did away with that luxury. So for me, that meant driving up early from Los Angeles on Thursday of race week to make it to Courthouse Square in Downtown Santa Rosa to pick up my packet, bib, and get my wristband for the weekend. The Ironman Village is pretty straightforward for this race and has plenty of shops to browse around. Because the village is located right in the middle of DT Santa Rosa, you are also walking to distance to a ton of restaurants and the famous Russian River Brewery. As someone who grew up in Santa Rosa, I highly recommend visiting Mary’s Pizza Shack and Acre Coffee (both are on 4th Street, which is the main drag adjacent to the Ironman Village). Athlete check-in was open from 9am-5pm.
BIKE CHECK IN
Ironman Santa Rosa is a point-to-point race. If you aren’t familiar with this style of event, it means that the transition area between swim/bike (T1) is in a different location than the transition area between bike/run (T2).
If you read my race report for Ironman Canada 70.3 (Whistler), you can see the logistics for that point-to-point race as well.
The swim venue is called Lake Sonoma, and it is located approximately 40min north of Santa Rosa via Hwy 101. On Friday, we opted to drive out early to drop off our bikes at T1. They opened bike drop offs at 10am and continued to take bikes up until 5pm. Friday was the ONLY day you were allowed to drop off your bike at transition, so plan ahead if you are looking to do this race. Something also to be noted: there are very few places to test ride the bike at Lake Sonoma. You have the option of going up a very steep hill with cars that leads away from the lake or doing the 5-7% average grade, 2 mile descent out of the lake area while massive amounts of cars are coming in and out to do their drop offs. I opted to just hop on my bike in the parking lot and rode a few circles to test out my shifting and brakes. It shifted, it broke when I wanted it to, so off it went to be racked. Friday is also your only opportunity to drop off your bike gear bag (helmet, shoes, trisuit/cycling kit if you are changing out of the lake, etc). You are given the opportunity to add things to this bag the morning of the race, such as nutrition, but the bag itself needed to be accounted for on FRIDAY.
RACE MORNING (santa rosa)
I opted to stay at the Flamingo Hotel near Downtown Santa Rosa (please refer to my feature ‘The Real Riches of Wine Country: Visit Santa Rosa’ for details on lodging, food, and things to do in the area). This was a perfect location to get to the shuttles that Ironman provides to transport you from Santa Rosa to T1 at Lake Sonoma. Race mornings are always early, so this one is no different. I suggest getting to the shuttle stop at the Santa Rosa transit mall by 5am. It is possible they can get backed up so give yourself that time buffer if you need to do anything in transition. Remember to bring your nutrition with you to put on the bike, in your T1 bags, and drop off your special needs bags by the transit mall before departing. They have marked areas and volunteers helping. Ask for help if you aren’t sure! The shuttle ride is about 40 minutes.
IMPORTANT: They do not want you to access your run bags in T2 the morning of the race (it will be tempting and very close to the place the shuttles depart from). Make sure you put everything in it you will need on Friday. They guard them….
RACE MORNING (LAKE SONOMA)
The shuttle will drop you off in the parking lot adjacent to T1. Race morning is going to be cold. As my friend David said to me, bring that BEANIE. You can dump all your excess warm clothing in the ‘Morning Clothes Bag’ that Ironman provides in the designated area at transition before you head down to the swim. Athletes spent their time loading bottles on their bikes, adding gels/food for the first leg of the bike (I saw it all: taping gels one by one to the frame, using bento boxes, pre-opening uncrustable sandwiches, you name it), and filling their tires at the bike tech station.
PRO TIP: Let some air out of your tires when you check in the bike on Friday to prevent “boom booms” (tires sitting in the hot sun all day).
Prepare to stand in the bike tech line for a WHILE if you are there any later than the first shuttle. Same with the bathrooms. You will have time but get it done early. Body markers are plentiful. Befriend yours and thank them for poisoning your skin with ink LOL. Drop off any additional nutrition you need in your bike bags that were hung the day before. It is safe to assume your swim will be wetsuit legal, so bring your wetsuit, goggles, and cap with you before leaving transition. T1 closes at 6:30AM.
Your swim is in Lake Sonoma. Duh. As mentioned previously, 99% of people will be wearing a wetsuit. I saw all varieties from sleeveless to long sleeve to neoprene caps. The water temp was in the mid to high 60s on race day. Overcast but virtually no wind and definitely no rain. One very important thing to prepare for is the distance and steepness of the boat ramp which transports you from transition to the lake. It is long and well……steep. I would add 1-2min to your expected transition time because of this and plan ahead to leave flip flops if you so desire. Ironman lays out a very long wet carpet that was perfectly acceptable to run on. Ironman Santa Rosa is a self-seated swim entry, offering five stalls spaced out 5 seconds apart. Check out my Race Report for IRONMAN Whistler 70.3 if you aren’t familiar with how self-seating works in a swim entry.
Still recovering from the mental trauma of a cycling accident a couple months prior to this race, I spent the majority of my swim just mentally preparing for the bike. I love swimming, it is my happy place, and Lake Sonoma is about as easy peasy as you can get for a swim venue. The course is two loops, both taking you under this magnificent bridge. I flipped on my back both times and backstroked to enjoy the majesty of feeling small beneath it. Do so at your own risk, other swimmers are still going to pretend they didn’t elbow you straight in the face. After your first loop you must get OUT of the water and touch the timing mat. After your second loop, you will exit to the far left and begin your “run” up the boat ramp. Good luck LOL. Possibly the most spirited wetsuit strippers in all of IRONMAN’s history will greet you 2/3rds of the way up the ramp. Lay down, let them change your life. Finish your ascent to T1, grab your blue bike bag from the hanging racks, and into the change tent you will go. Namaste.
Because this is a full distance Ironman, you will find that T1 times vary greatly. I opted to do full changes to preserve the integrity of my number one, main squeeze: the vajeen. Protect the V at all costs. Baby powder, chamois cream, fresh DRY clothing. Happy wife, happy life ain’t got nothin on keeping the queen vajeen happy on a 112 mile bike ride. I’ve got so many more jokes here, but this is a family friendly article sigh. OK! Back to the bike. First two miles are downhill. The first mile is gradual, the second is gonna serve you some speed if you are ready to feel the wind in places you never imagined felt wind. Words of caution: You are descending in the lefthand lane, and cars are leaving the lake in the righthand lane. This becomes problematic on one of the two sweeping turns, so look up and be aware of who is around you. The RD and all the coaches for this event have made the first two miles a “no aero bar” zone as well as a no-passing zone. I exercised caution. My friends who raced with me did not. They loved it. To each her own.
The bike course in 2019 was slightly modified from previous years. It is considered 2 loops but you will only repeat half of the middle section twice. I’ve included the course map. I have also included an indented section here to go over specifically the questions surrounding Santa Rosa’s “rough roads.” I hope it makes everything clear!
Define “rough road.” Seriously, please tell me what level of pavement is considered smooth versus rough! I got a little tired of hearing athletes complain about Santa Rosa’s road conditions. We are riding out on country roads that stretch on for LITERALLY 100 MILES. There are going to be sections that are not smooth like a baby’s bottom. Santa Rosa receives a ton of rainfall and, on an unrelated note, has a lot of heavy truck traffic from vehicles transporting things necessary to maintain its bustling agricultural business. The biggest challenge is that some of the potholes or spots you might not want to bike over can be disguised by the speckled shadows from the trees. If you are approaching sections like this, sit up, get out of aero if you need to, look ahead, and BE ALERT. This is not a race where you can just zone out and pedal. If you want that, stick to Zwift in your living room. Sorry to be harsh. Some of the crashes I saw seemed to be COMPLETELY avoidable. Stay away from other athletes as they descend, carefully scan your bike path frequently, and be prepared for some bumps. Cyclists need good balance and need to plan ahead. Ok rant over!
My opinion of the bike course is overall really favorable. Even though I grew up in Santa Rosa, the majority of the bike course is NOT in Santa Rosa. The course varies greatly. Some sections are flat, some are gently rolling, and some are real hills. My favorite parts were by far the Chalk Hill section (right before the biggest climb on the whole course and the climb itself) and the portion that crosses a breathtaking, forested bridge as you finish your first loop. But truly…there are MANY places to love with the views. Here are the biggest tips I can give to make the day as enjoyable as possible on the bike:
Have a strong strategy for managing your body heat. It is going to be chilly on the first two miles of the course with your slightly wet body and the descent. But really…after that you will warm up. I wore a long sleeve under my cycling jersey and kept it on the whole day. It helped protect me from the sun and it was not unbearable when the temps got up into the low 80’s. Sonoma County is notorious for having rapid temperature shifts, so it was not very hot for more than a couple hours. I used ice at the aid stations to stash in my jersey and on my head. I RECOMMEND YOU DO THIS. Do not let yourself overheat.
You are 100% for sure no questions asked going to have a headwind on the second loop and maybe even for parts of the first one. It is not the worst headwind I have ever experienced, but it can break hearts on mile 100. So prepare mentally for this. You will be tired and eager to get off the bike, and the wind will try to open mouth kiss you the ENTIRE final 20 miles. Kiss her back.
Save something in the tank for the second time you go up Chalk Hill. Much like the wind, this hill is not the biggest or most challenging thing I have ever ridden. Not by a long shot. BUT, you will be climbing it for the second time at the hottest part of the day AND at mile 85ish. You need to channel Yoda, the Buddha, Thor, and Lance Armstrong all at the same time. Channel them straight into your mind and into your quads. I saw a loooooot of people walking up this hill on the second loop. Don’t do that. Trains on hills on tired legs before this race and you will be well prepared.
Ride in aero AND up on your handle bars in training. Because this course has some spots where you might be bettered served up on the drops, practice like that. I heard a lot of people complaining about sore backs. My questions to them are A) Did you train your back? B) Do you strength train and stretch? C) Did you ride LONG rides in aero and in upright positions?
The Santa Rosa run course is 3 loops. I like to think at this point if you are as blasted as I was from the bike course, you are embarking on 3 of the 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons, with WAY LESS GAIN and way more bass music. It is FLAT. The only hills on the course are a couple paved baby rolling hills that go under some bridges near the creek. It is almost 100% shaded and about half of it is “earthy” footing (dirt, rocks, earth). The first loop is pure magic. You are so excited from the crowd support, the energy from the aid stations, and the BASS MUSIC!!!! Base Performance sets up a booth under the bridge and blasts you into nirvana. I high fived those people every single time I passed them. If you are planning on being out there past dark, bring a head lamp. I grabbed mine in my T2 bag and carried it with me. I also brought a long sleeve shirt to wear when the sun went down because it gets a little chilly. Loop 3…….that s*** was TOUGH. The creek path is beautiful and serene but when you are out there in the dark and quiet, watching people dropping like flies…..keep moving. The finish line ends on 4th street in downtown Santa Rosa. Lots of people out there at all hours of the day and night to cheer finishers. I happy cried, or tried to at least. I had to stop taking in water at some point so I don’t think I had a lot of moisture left in my body LOL! I replaced 6 teeth, trained with mono, and moved through the ups and downs of a tumultuous romantic relationship to get to this finish line. I f***ing EARNED my medal. I was crawling across that finish line with no functioning legs, puking, & butt naked if that is what it came down to. And that is why I am an IRONMAN. Sign up for this race, it was worth every bump, every beautiful vineyard, and allllll the beer afterwards.