Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

Kids head off from of the starting line in the ages 7-10 division of the of Eppie's Kids Duathlon on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at Discovery Park. The primary focus of the event was to show youngsters that healthy outdoor activities are fun, exciting, and rewarding.

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Eppie’s race morphs into two races

Published: Saturday, May. 17, 2014 - 5:30 pm
Last Modified: Saturday, May. 17, 2014 - 10:53 pm

Two milestones were achieved Saturday after Athena Johnson crossed the finish line in Eppie’s Kids Duathlon.

It was the first time the 11-year-old Johnson, who has cerebral palsy, competed in any race. That she competed at all on Saturday is a major accomplishment. She learned how to run only three months ago.

The second accomplishment is organizational, with the successful reconception of the 41-year-old Eppie’s Great Race triathlon.

Saturday’s run and bike event broke tradition by being offered on a different day than the Eppie’s Great Race triathlon, which is scheduled for July 19. Children ages 4 to 13 competed in the duathlon.

The main triathlon event is now in its 41st year and dubbed “the world’s oldest triathlon.” It was the brainchild of the late longtime kayaker and restaurateur Eppie Johnson. The race is a decidedly Sacramento runner’s tradition. Last year, the triathlon saw 1,769 athletes compete as runners and on bikes and kayaks along the American River Parkway.

The accompanying duathlon for kids has become a tradition of sorts, too. In its eighth year, the event drew 230 competitors last year as a side event to the triathlon. On Saturday, 156 children competed. It was held at Sacramento’s Discovery Park and the American River Parkway.

In the 6-years-old and under category, Dillon Johnson took first place, with a time of 9:15 over a half mile run and a 1 mile bike race. Lucas Dawson posted a winning time of 21:43 time in the 7-to-10 year old category over a 1 mile run and 4 mile cycle race. Jonah Kellogg took first place in the 11-to-13 year old category with a time of 32:44. That age group ran 2 miles and biked 5.5 miles.

Separating the duathlon from the triathlon allows parents to devote all their time to watching their children compete, said George Johnson, president of the Eppie’s Great Race Foundation. He also is the son of Eppie Johnson and Athena’s father.

“We wanted to carry on the legacy of what my father started, but we also saw it as our responsibility to make improvements,” said Johnson.

The idea of separating the two races came after hearing many complaints from runners about the logistical challenges that arose when athletes would prepare for and compete in the triathlon while also trying to devote attention to their kid’s duathlon races.

Offering the duathlon separately is designed to help both events evolve, he said.

“We wanted to continue to grow the event because we think one day the duathlon will be as big of a deal as Eppie’s Great Race is,” said Johnson

The opportunity to see a child take off at the starting line, track their progress over the race course, and experience the satisfaction of cheering them on at the finish line proved appealing to many at the race.

At the starting line for the first event – a half-mile run and 1-mile bike for kids ages 4 to 6 years old – more parents surrounded the starting line, with cameras in hand, than there were young athletes competing.

“I think it’s a great idea separating the two events,” said Winnie Hung, whose son Kingsley, 4, was ready at the starting line. “If I were running in Eppie’s and he was running, too, I’d be nervous about my race and wouldn’t be able to enjoy his race.”

Some came from afar to compete, like Josephine Henderson, 13, from Modesto.

Her father, Matt Henderson is a half marathoner and will compete in the July triathlon. On Saturday, he was more than happy to be just a spectator. “I think it’s great that I’ll be able to focus today completely on my daughter,” said Matt Henderson.

And the new race day was a hit with competitors.

“This is my first year doing this, and it’s really cool that my family was able to watch me cross the finish line,” said Athena Johnson.

In her age group, Athenacompleted the 2-mile run and 5.5-mile cycle course in 1 hour and 2 minutes.

Although she came in last place for her age group, finishing the race was a considerable accomplishment given how cerebral palsy had affected Athena’s legs.

Her father said that, for Athena, using her legs was akin to constantly “standing on her toes.” She underwent recent major surgery to fix that last year which entailed elongating muscles in her legs, cutting the tibia bone above the ankle to rotating her foot and insertion of a metal plate in her foot.

“She recently spent three months in a wheelchair and then physical therapy ... so this is a very exciting day for us,” said George Johnson.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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