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  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Eppie Johnson sits in his office surrounded by mementos and commemorative plaques celebrating Eppie's Great Race, entering its 40th year. The event has raised more than $1 million.

  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    He's a longtime restaurateur and showman, but 85-year-old Eppie Johnson is likely best known these days for his long-running, if not quirky, triathlon.

  • Courtesy of Eppie Johnson Eppie Johnson, now 85, participated in his namesake race for 30 years. He's gradually turning over race duties to his son and a small staff.

  • Courtesy of Eppie Johnson Johnson, an enthusiastic kayaker, was captured in a snapshot during the 1985 event.

Eppie Johnson looks back at a legacy of great races

Published: Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013 - 1:57 pm

He's a longtime restaurateur and showman, but 85-year-old Eppie Johnson is likely best known these days for his long-running, if not quirky, triathlon.

Featuring run, bike and kayak legs along the American River Parkway, Eppie's Great Race, entering its 40th year, attracts more than 2,000 participants annually, including a cadre of hard-core devotees.

Recently, a woman who sends the race a check each year for $1,000 told Johnson: "I kind of stole something from you. I put the Eppie's logo on my husband's grave."

Replied Johnson with a chuckle, "Well, I have the same thing going on my gravestone."

More and more, Johnson has begun making end-of-an-era comments, with oblique references about lingering health issues.

Still energetic and engaged in planning the annual race, the tall, white-haired Johnson has begun to talk about stepping away from it – Eppie's without Eppie.

He doesn't go into detail about what ails him, saying only, "I'm tired and I've had a couple of operations."

Though the event owns the rights to the name "The Great Race," everyone calls it simply "Eppie's," as in, "Are you doing Eppie's this year?"

That's a question no one has to ask John Weed, 60, an accomplished kayaker who has participated in the race "37 times so far," he said.

When he competes in this year's race on July 20, Weed will surpass the consecutive streak held by Bill Griffith, who died of a heart attack in 2012 while napping after paddling his canoe on the American River.

Weed's motivation goes beyond record breaking, however. His father, Leonard Weed, died of cancer in 2002 at age 79, wearing an Eppie's "Great Race" T-shirt. The former clergyman at Folsom State Prison competed in the Great Race several times. When Johnson heard, he was so moved he renamed the Family Division of the race the Leonard Weed division.

"It's like the local Olympics," Weed said when asked to explain his passion for the race. "It's the bragging rights until next year, the camaraderie, the friendliness of the competition."

Eppie's is an unusual triathlon not only because the kayak replaces the swim but because it attracts an unusually broad array of skill levels.

You're just as likely to find joggers and folks who ride three-speed commuter bikes as college-scholarship runners and participants atop $10,000 time trial bikes.

There's also a variety of ways to race – you can do all three legs or be part of a three-person team that divvies up the run (5.82 miles), bike (12.5 miles) and paddle (6.35 miles).

Johnson himself started the race 40 years ago because he was an avid kayaker. He participated in the race the first 30 years and continues to work on organizing and fundraising efforts throughout the year.

The race, which has year-round office space on Howe Avenue, has a small staff, an organizing committee and 800 volunteers.

The Great Race has raised $1 million for the county-run Therapeutic Recreation Services, which offers activities for those with physical and mental disabilities.

"This race is important to me, but it has also become a fabric of the community," said Johnson, who once owned 16 restaurants but is no longer in the business. "It's hard to put into words. Maybe it's my legacy."

Longtime volunteers say the race is in good hands for the years ahead. Johnson has handed off many of the day-to-day duties to his son, George E. Johnson.

Still, few can imagine the race without the lanky, charismatic and ubiquitous founder.

"Eppie is getting older, but he is still so engaged," said Will Kempton, former director of the State Department of Transportation and a longtime volunteer who served as co-director of the race for 10 years.

"I find it hard to believe that he won't be around for a number of additional years," Kempton said. "But while Eppie is certainly the spirit of the race and his engagement is always such an interesting part of the effort, there is a committee and a volunteer group in place that will be able to pick up where Eppie leaves off."

Referring to the race, which he has competed in more than a half-dozen times, Kempton added, "It's family. It's tradition. It's something I think is very positive for Sacramento."

One of Johnson's many creative ideas was to have a so-called "Great Team" made up of local celebrities, politicians and business people selected by Johnson to set a target time each year.

The Great Team this year is composed of Jeff vonKaenal of the Sacramento News & Review, Jared Goyette of Sacramento Press and Marsha Arnold, a registered nurse. The designated Ironman is Tony Whittaker, a commercial real estate broker, and the Ironwoman is Tamara Berg, a KCRA weather anchor.

At the 10th Eppie's, Illa Collin, a member of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, arrived at her Great Team event on a Schwinn cruiser with a basket on the front. The gears? She didn't know how to shift them.

"Oh God, it had the basket, the comfort seat, the whole works," Collin recalled with a laugh. "Eppie tells people about that bike all the time."

Collin says she and other supervisors always looked forward to Johnson's annual presentation of funds the Great Race raised for Therapeutic Recreation Services.

One year, he donned an outlandish superhero costume. Another time, he wrote the check on the side of a canoe. And just a few weeks back, Johnson presented a check to the Board of Supervisors that made the total fundraising effort through four decades of the Great Race $1 million.

"He has meant a lot to this community," Collin said. "He has a lot of showmanship and a tremendous ability to talk people into doing things they never would have done before."


40th Annual Eppie's Great Race

When: 8 a.m. July 20

Where: American River Parkway

What: A triathlon featuring a 5.82-mile run, 12.5-mile bike ride and 6.35-mile kayak or canoe trip. There are various age groups and team categories.

Information: www.eppiesgreatrace.org


Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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