On Saturday morning, around 1,600 people are expected to line up on the American River Parkway to compete in a running, biking and paddling contest that bills itself as the world’s oldest triathlon.
But for the first time in the contest’s 41-year history, founder Eppie Johnson won’t shoot the starting gun for his Great Race.
Eppaminondas Johnson died in September at age 85. His family members and longtime volunteers vow that Eppie’s Great Race will carry on as an internationally known athletic event, as the world’s largest single-day paddling event, and as a unique Sacramento tradition.
“We basically look at the event, the fact that it’s continuing, as one of the best ways that we can commemorate my dad,” said Johnson’s son George, who has taken on the role of chief race planner and president of the Eppie’s Great Race Foundation.
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George Johnson said that while registration numbers are down slightly this year – he believes it’s due to people assuming the race would be canceled because of Eppie’s death or the drought – race planners are excited to roll out some new features for competitors.
For example, a greater social media emphasis will allow racers to opt to have their times for each leg of the race automatically posted to their Twitter and Facebook accounts during the event. Afterward, they’ll be able to share a 10-second video of their finish line crossing.
Of course, Johnson’s absence will be felt, especially in the first year without him. A larger-than-life personality, he founded the race in 1974 as a promotional event for the chain of 24-hour coffee restaurants he owned.
He eventually sold the restaurants, but the race – consisting of a 5.82-mile run, a 12.5-mile bike ride and a 6.35-mile paddle – lived on, and became a fundraiser for Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreational Services.
The Great Race attracts participants from all over the United States and the world; in 2011, one competitor came all the way from Hong Kong.
Johnson participated in the race’s paddling portion until he was in his mid-70s. At each Great Race, he fired the starting gun and served as the master of ceremonies.
“He was pretty much lock, stock and barrel with Eppie’s Great Race,” George Johnson said. “Since he retired and sold his restaurants, it was really his primary focus.”
The very structure of the race reflects Eppie Johnson’s worldview. While other triathlons include a swimming leg, Eppie’s Great Race features a section completed in a kayak or canoe, because Johnson loved paddling.
Local paddlers, some of whom knew Johnson for nearly 40 years, held a memorial service for him July 13 as part of the annual paddling pre-race.
Just as they have for years, local kayak-and-canoe fanatics gathered on the American River a week before the Great Race. Friends and fellow paddling enthusiasts shared stories about Johnson. Then John Weed, a longtime kayaker and friend of Johnson, towed Johnson’s old kayak down the river. The kayak, which Weed refurbished for the memorial service, bore a large flower wreath.
Dan Crandall, owner of the Current Adventures Kayak Store in Lotus and a veteran Great Race paddler who knew Johnson for 25 years, said the ceremony was inspired by memorials for fallen surfers.
After the wreath began its float down the river, the paddlers followed. Crandall said he hoped the event would demonstrate how much Johnson meant to the local paddling community.
“We just thought there needed to be something that was personal and appropriate, in memorium to Eppie and the efforts that he put out,” Crandall said. “Eppie will be there with us in the pre-race.”
Crandall said he knows people who never considered paddling before they signed up for the Great Race.
Now they’re hooked.
Since the first Great Race in 1974, kayaking has gained popularity across the country, Crandall said. In Sacramento, Eppie’s Great Race helped augment that trend by providing an event to unite and inspire local paddlers.
“Without Eppie, I don’t think you would have seen even one-tenth of the growth we’ve had in paddling,” Crandall said.