Hi team,
I would like to share my experience of IM Santa Rosa on May 11th. It was my 5th IM but it was the most challenging race for me. My name is Yoshi Kaneko. I joined the team from January this year for mainly swim and run.

1. Timing

Although my race was on May 11th, they shifted the race of 2020 to July 25th. So you will have plenty of time to prepare for the race but the heat on the race day could be challenging.

2. Logistics

Santa Rosa is located about 1 hr 20min. drive from San Francisco Airport. I recommend you should rent a car to get to Santa Rosa, go to Swim venue, for T2 bike drop. Downtown Santa Rosa is compact enough to walk. The race was on Saturday and athlete check-in had to be done by 17:00 Thursday. As my work schedule did not allow me to fly on Wednesday, I took an early AC flight so that I didn’t have to rush into registration if flight got delayed or the roads got congested.
Actually my flight got delayed about 1 hr but I still had enough time to pick up my bike and to rent a car.
My recommendation is to fly on Wednesday or Thursday early time.
I stayed at Hyatt Regency hotel in the downtown. It was a bit too pricey considering the facility but it was only 10 min. walk to T1 and Ironman Village. There is plenty of public parking in the town. If it is not your first IM and want to save some money, you may want to stay at cheaper hotel near-by. For first timer, to minimize hassle, I would recommend staying at a hotel near T1.

3. Swim

The swim is a 2 loop course at Lake Sonoma, which is about 40km away from Santa Rosa. On Friday I did practice swim when I went there for bike and gear drop. It looked the lake was open for practice even before Friday. On Friday, the buoys are put as they are for race day but there were no support kayaks. The water temperature was 18.6C and visibility is fair enough. I asked other athletes to swim together for safety reasons.
If you are nervous in open water, I recommend you go to the lake early like 8:30 and take your time to familiarize yourself to the environment. I tend to be nervous if I don’t see support kayaks and my first attempt in was not very successful. I could not exhale well but I took my time to float for a while, back to the shore and get relaxed. On my second attempt, I could smoothly swim and had confidence for race day.
Athletes took school bus to the lake from 4:15. I took one around 4:45. Swim start is continuous self seeding start. About every 3 seconds, 4 athletes are fed into the water and there was no visible congestion. Very encouraging thing for nervous swimmers is that there are buoys than 50m apart in the first 250m or so. Also there is a floating island that you can grab and rest, adding to kayaks and boats. You are well monitored and you can focus on swimming. The race started at 6:40 and I had to wait for about 20min to start with the 1:25 seeds. The water was good and scenery was beautiful. Once you pick up your pace, you can enjoy beautiful lake settings when breathing. After the 1st lap, you have to exit the water and step on the timing mat before entering again for 2nd lap. By this time, you are calm and excited for another lap.
Concluding the swim and climbing a long steep hill to T1 takes about 2-3 minutes. You can take deep breath and prepare for bike in the changing tent.

4. Bike

As it was early season race and the winter in Calgary was too harsh, I could not ride my bike outside at all. Literally zero miles. However, I spent enough time on bike trainer with Zwift to get legs up to 180km. If you are thinking to race in 2020, you should be concerned about the heat. July in California can be hot enough to cause struggles for those who trained in Calgary.
The course is a 2 loop course for 180km. It is not an exact 2 loop. In the second loop, you make a turn and take a different road back to T2, which is in downtown Santa Rosa. Overall, the course is very beautiful. You ride in the famous Sonoma wine county with the backdrop of well maintained vineyards and wineries. The course is not difficult, the total climb is 1200m and there are no long and steady climb like ones in Whistler. The course is rather technical as it is undulating and you have to prepare for climb and decent in a quick manner. Adding to it, some pavements are really bad. Say, 1/5 of the pavement are not ideal with bumps, dint and holes. The worst parts make your bike rattle. On some roads, you have to share it with cars while police control the traffic well.   My 2 cents is that if you bring your tool bottle, put electrical tape to stick the bottle to a holder. I saw a lot of bottles dropped on the roads. (I always think if I pick up all the drooped bottles, I could make over $300. Sometimes nice aero system was dropped.)
My challenge was a bike fit. I raised my saddle while I trained on the bike trainer and did not change the handle height because I had no issue when watching Zwift monitor. After about 2km from bike mount, I took aero position but I found that I could not look forward. The angle was too steep and I had neck pain. So I had to change my strategy from the beginning of the bike leg. I decided to enjoy cycling in the beautiful wine county. It worked for a while but riding a TT bike upright continuously made my wrists dead before legs. 180km without aero position was a big challenge but I managed to complete the bike leg and all the effort paid off when I saw my family waiting for me at the bike dismount.

5. Run

The run course is 3 loops in the downtown area. The course is designed by having a creek in the center and making go-s and back-s using bridges and turn arounds. Most of the course is paved but some is trail with gravel. The course is flat. Only when you go over the creek on bridges, you climb a bit. There are lots of spectators, neighbors and music. Before entering the final lap, it was getting dark and they handed out head lamps! Although I had a small flash light, I grabbed a lamp and went into the last lap. Because I did not run enough mileage in the winter, this was the toughest marathon ever. I told my wife to wait for me at the finish line in 6 hours but my legs, body did not allow me to make it happen. However, I kept moving forward, chatting with other runners and cheering up a runner in trouble and finally all the effort of the day delivered me to the red carpet.
Getting to the red carpet with the full of excitement and spectators, the only facial expression I could make was a smile. After 15 hrs of long endurance day, I was still smiling and hearing them call me in Japanese, I broke into further tremendous smile and a little bit of tear. I stopped at my family, gave them huge hugs and expressed my appreciation with limited words but I had everything fulfilled.
I realized again that I’m doing this crazy sport for this moment. My wife told me, “Go strong and finish. we are watching your back” and all of my expression got exploded, nothing was there other than happiness.

6. Conclusion

Although it was my 5th IM, it was the slowest by far. The finish time was 15:52 but the record did not really matter. I could prove that Zwift can make me an ironman, Coach Mary helped me a lot to be calm in this very first open water swim in the season and Coach Amanda taught me how to run like a real runner and at least I could run well in the first loop and on the red carpet. Every time I passed timing mats, I was thinking of my teammates monitoring behind the technology. IM or triathlon is a weird sports. It is an individual sport but without support from coaches, teammates and family we can’t enjoy it as much as we do.  Somebody had spectating board saying “One day you will fail but today is not that day”. Yes, we have to appreciate that we can face the challenge now with healthy mind and body.”
Thank you so much for sharing your race day experience with us Yoshi!  Your description of the course is so vivid it makes me feel like I was there. And I know many readers will appreciate your travel tips and course & venue feedback. You are so inspiring!  Can’t wait to hear what comes next for you! 🙌 Coach Mary