Barb's Race: 70.3 Miles of Wine Country

If Barb can beat cancer, twice, you can do a half Ironman-distance triathlon--or so the organizers of Barb's Race say. Barbara Recchia is the inspiration for the only all women's 70.3 in the world.

Since its inaugural race in 2001, Barb's Race has raised more than $200,000 to help fight cancer. No, you don't have to fundraise if that's not your thing, but you can feel good about half of all entry fees being donated to local cancer charities.

The race is held in Sonoma on the first weekend in August so temperatures can range from 70 to 90 degrees. Thermometers hit 99 degress in 2008, making my first 70.3 a hot one.

Swim

The race starts at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville, California on the banks of the Russian River. In early August, water temps are usually in the low to mid 70s so participants can decide if they want to wear a wetsuit. Since I am unfamiliar with swimming in a wetsuit, I went without and was grateful for the opportunity to swim unencumbered. As a result, the 1.2 mile swim felt like an easy stroll on a cool evening. The river was refreshing and there was enough space to get away from the crowd and enjoy the water.

The river can be shallow in spots and, although the race director was emphatic about moving to the side if you want to rest, swimmers still have to watch out for people stopping right in front of you.

Once you leave the beach on your bike you will not return to Guerneville. If bagged properly, race officials will move your swim gear to the finish at Windsor high School for you to pick up post race. There are also shuttles between Guerneville and Windsor if you need to go back for your car.

Bike

The first 20 miles of the bike are a tease with gentle hills that roll through some of Sonoma's most scenic vineyards. There are three aid stations on the course about 10 miles apart. They became mini goals for me throughout the race; just as I would start to fade I'd realize there were only a few more miles till the next station and I'd pedal on. Volunteers are armed with bite size bananas, mini clif bars, and water and Gatorade bottles that fit easily in bike cages.

Near mile 20 I met a small hill and a big headwind. The wind was persistent but so was the scenery offering quiet roads and row after row of lush green vines. Five miles from the high school the landscape dulled to concrete but I was too weary to pay attention anyway. Chalk hill is the biggest challenge at mile 48 but rising only 385 feet, it passes quickly.   

Run

In the 99-degree heat, the sun baked on the blacktop parking lot at Windsor High School, and as riders crossed into the transition area you could almost see them melting. The first mile of the run followed exposed, concrete streets that wound through the neighborhood adjoining the school.

Luckily there was a transition area in the shade at mile one that was a great refuge on the way out and a landmark on the way back in. The loop through the transition area at mile nine is both a curse and a blessing. After 66 miles of racing it's very tempting to stop, but the cheers from the crowd milling around the finish line provide the boost you need to get back out there and finish the race.

The course is exposed to the sun with only a handful of shady spots but aid stations are abundant with one at almost every mile. Stocked with everything from soda and water to cookies, chips and even hoses, they feel like a mini vacation from a long run.

Everything you need to keep going is on this course, including inspiration. If there's no other reason to do this race, do it because it's a woman's race. In a woman's race there are guaranteed smiles, shouts of encouragement, and at Barb's race, when the going gets really tough, there's Barb. If she can kick cancer--twice, you can swim, bike and run 70.3 miles.

Festival

Windsor High School is used as the staging area where vendors set up on the grassy section in the middle of the grounds. It was quiet as only a few participants wandered around after checking in. But a tasty post-race lunch is provided and there is plenty of room to relax in the grass. 

Location

Turn Barb's race into a destination race: An afternoon in Healdsburg is the perfect retreat after a long race. Shop around town, visit wine tasting rooms, and have a patio lunch at one of the restaurants on the square. Then give your body a break and tool around Sonoma--California's original wine country--in the luxury of a car.

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