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Once considered a foolish notion only a generation ago, The Great Race, "the world's oldest triathlon," returns to Sacramento for its 36th campaign. Located along the American River Parkway, the annual event brings the history and allure of the original modern triathlon, now a staple in U.S. competitive summer sports.
"My PR team thought it was a crazy stunt," said restaurant owner Eppie Johnson, referring to his pitch for a three-pronged race. "I was a kayaker, so I'd be in it. And I thought, 'Well, this is a quick way to both kayak and advertise the restaurant.' And the people had a great time, so it worked out well," he said.
"Between the San Francisco and Sacramento communities, we had about 150 people the first year, so it was a success right from the start."
The Great Race for adults will take place this Saturday at 8 a.m., while children 17 and younger will also line up for the Kaiser Permanente Kids Duathlon for running and cycling, beginning at 10 a.m.
Founded and invented by restaurant owner Eppie Johnson, the 36-year-old triathlon consists of a 5.82 mile run, a 12.5 mile cycle and a 6.35 mile paddle split between three competitors per team. Online signups for both events will close Wednesday at midnight, but people can still enlist at the Packet Pickup Party and Pasta Dinner, sponsored by the Old Spaghetti Factory, Friday from 4-8 p.m at the finish area of The Great Race in River Bend Park. Pre-ordered tickets are $7.00 for adults and $3.00 for kids 12 and under for the dinner, which includes spaghetti, salad, bread and beverages ("day of" cost is $10 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and under). People can also sign up to compete the morning of the event, with instructions on The Great Race provided by the staff at no extra charge.
Touted as the first modern triathlon in the world, The Great Race was inspired by Eppie's kayak instructor, Mike Ewing, in 1974. During that year, Eppie and Ewing sponsored a freestyle skiing competition near Lake Tahoe, and it was through that successful experience that Ewing suggested to Eppie the notion of creating a three-part race involving skiing, kayaking and cycling near Truckee in the Sierra Mountains. After some deliberation on the location, sports, and distances involved in the race, Eppie decided to begin the first modern triathlon — running, cycling and paddling — at his restaurant named Eppaminondas (Eppie's true first name) near Highway 50 and Zinfandel Drive, while ending close to Eppie's restaurant on Watt and El Camino Avenues.
Held on July 27, 1974, Eppie's first "Great Race" commenced in Sacramento with 51 teams competing, one person per team for each leg of the event. It appeared that it was well-received and enjoyed by those who participated, enough so to convince Eppie to make the race annual. Eppie, 81, competed in the kayaking portion and continued to do so almost every year from 1974-2004.
Although the unique race's popularity continued to grow year after year, Eppie said it wasn't until 1982, thanks to a little help from the media, that The Great Race became as recognized as it is today in northern California.
"Right about the eighth year it began to take flight, because Traffic Magazine came to Sacramento and did about an eight-page story with pictures on the race, so we really arrived just about then," he said. "We maybe had about 800 people or so compete at that time."
Last year, over 2000 people across 303 teams participated in the 35th year of the event, as the reputation of "The Great Race" has continued to expand almost every year. The growth has somewhat leveled out in recent years, but another strong showing is anticipated for this year's event, according to public relations and marketing director Anita Fitzhugh.
"This year, we're expecting about 2,000 people again," Fitzhugh said. "We're hoping to be about even for The Great Race, at least that's the goal. And there's a small increase for the Kaiser Permanente Kids Duathlon for running and cycling."
Since he began the triathlon, Eppie has built friendships with many of the competitors, as some people continue coming back to the popular summer event. At the same time, Eppie says that when he asks for a show of hands from first-timers before each race, he gets around a quarter of the crowd.
"We've got a couple guys who have done this race for 34 years," Eppie said. "So there's some tradition for a lot of people. There's also about 25 percent hands raised when I ask before the race, 'Who's new?' I think that's because people always want to do Eppie's, and for some, once is enough."
Another big reason why Eppie has continued to organize the event every year is the funds it raises for the Sacramento County Theraputic Recreation Services, an organization providing support for mentally and physically challanged individuals. According to Fitzhugh, the race has accumulated nearly 900,000 dollars for the charity since donations began in 1980, with all proceeds going to the group every year.
While the funds had always gone directly from Eppie to the charity, an organization called Eppie's Great Race Foundation was started in 2005 to help transfer the proceeds in case something were to happen to the now elderly Eppie.
"We started the foundation in order to continue going on in case of the demise of the guy with the guiding lights that was me," Eppie said with a laugh. "I've got a full succession plan put together with the foundation, a board of directors, The Great Race committee and the people who actually get stuff set up for the race.
"We've got an operation manual about five inches think. And if something happens to me, I think my son would be willing to take over, as well," he said.
Entry fees for The Great Race vary between $30-$285 depending on entry submission date and division, with the Duathlon only $5 for kids and $10 at the spaghetti dinner and the day of the race. More details for signups and entry fees, as well as details of both races, can be found at thegreatrace.org.