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Vineman bearing plenty of fruit

  • Competitors transition to the second leg of last July's Ironman 70.3 Vineman Triathlon in Guerneville. (The Press Democrat)

Russ Pugh had a revelation recently.

Pugh was talking about one of his races — the Ironman 70.3 Vineman — with Andrew Messick, CEO of the World Triathlon Corporation. Messick's line of questioning, combined with some recent registration results, made it clear. In a sport that is skyrocketing in popularity, Vineman might be the most highly esteemed 70.3-mile triathlon in the world.

Oh, those registration results: The company opened online sign-ups last Nov. 1. The race sold out in less than seven minutes.

“He was picking my brain on what we do that makes it what it is,” Pugh said of his conversation with Messick, who was in town for the Amgen Tour of California (a cycling race he used to oversee as president of sports promoter AEG). “And really the key is that we have a team of people who have been together for a long time. We're kind of like a family-owned hardware store that's been there forever. Where Ironman is usually kind of the same, and though it's beautiful, flashy stuff, it's more like Home Depot.”

It's easy to understand Pugh's mom-and-pop mentality on the eve of his newest event, the Vineman Monte Rio, which starts with a Russian River swim today at 7 a.m.

When Pugh started the Vineman Triathlon in 1990, it was just the second ironman-length event — 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run — in the continental United States. He had worked for the other one, on Cape Cod, for three years before branching out on his own.

Pugh produced the first Vineman event — which started at Lake Sonoma and finished more than 60 miles away at the Napa Valley Expo in Napa — with triathlete Harold Robinson, and they went broke. Pugh bought out Robinson for the amount of money it took to pay off their vendors. In those days, Pugh worked at Montecito Heights Health Club to help pay the bills. He started out folding towels for $5.50 an hour.

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