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‘Maybe it’s my legacy’: It's the final Eppie's Great Race. Here’s how the triathlon left its mark

A look back at Eppie’s legacy as the Great Race comes to an end

On the eve of the 45th and final Eppie's Great Race, we are looking back at Eppie Johnson's accomplishments.
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On the eve of the 45th and final Eppie's Great Race, we are looking back at Eppie Johnson's accomplishments.

One of the world’s oldest triathlons and a decades-old Sacramento tradition will come to an official end Saturday.

Since 1974, Eppie’s Great Race has used a 5.8-mile run, a 12.5-mile bike ride and a 6.1-mile paddle on the American River to raise money for Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services, which specializes in treatment for those with developmental disabilities. In that span, it’s raised more than $1.2 million toward the cause.

As announced earlier this year, Saturday’s event will be the last. Organizers decided to discontinue the event following a steady decline in participation starting several years ago, down from a peak of about 1,700 participants to about 1,000.

The Eppie’s race left a vast legacy in the Sacramento region. The triathlon’s pioneer and namesake, Eppie Johnson, died in 2013. California’s drought may also have played a role in the reduced numbers.

Here’s a look at back at Eppie’s Great Race — its origins, its accomplishments and its founder.

Eppie Johnson

Eppaminondas Johnson, known to Sacramentans by the mononym Eppie, was a restaurateur, a triathlete and a fundraising activist until his death at age 85.

Eppie owned 16 all-night coffee shops plus upscale restaurants between California and Las Vegas. The first of those came at N and 30th in Sacramento, back in 1965.

But he did a lot more than just run restaurants and start a race, and he had the personality to prove it. From his 2013 obituary in The Bee:

“Colorful and charismatic, Johnson starred in his own commercials, skiing on water or snow while balancing plates of food. Eppie’s eateries hit rough times as tastes in restaurants changed. Johnson sold them out of bankruptcy in 1998.

“But Eppie’s Great Race continues to keep his name alive in the community he loved.”

Today, just one Eppie’s location exists in the region — Eppie’s Diner on Lake Road in West Sacramento. But the unconventional paddle-happy Eppie’s Great Race, which he started in 1974, became perhaps even more important than his eatery ventures, he said shortly before his death.

“The race is important to me, but it has also become part of the fabric of the community,” he told The Bee in 2013. “It’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s my legacy.”

Highlights

With nearly 50 triathlons in the region, here’s a brief look at some of the most notable Eppie’s.

  • The first Eppie’s took place in 1974. As documented in Sacramento County’s obituary, Eppie conceived the race that June in response to a challenge from his kayak instructor. As a “triathlon” was virtually unheard of at that point, Eppie and instructor Mike Ewing conceived of the curious race, which ran from one of Eppie’s restaurants to another. The entry fee was $10, and 138 people participated.
  • Even after its decline in participation, the 2015 Eppie’s marked new territory for the charitable event. Thirteen children from Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California — including one 7-year-old girl with no hands or feet — participated in the “Epic Challenge,” a mile-long race that evoked tears from parents.
  • The 2014 Great Race marked the first since its founder’s death, and the first without Eppie firing the starting gun. Friends and family honored him a week earlier with a memorial service on the American River, throwing wreaths and flowers from a bridge as kayaks paddled beneath.

IMG_1_20140713_PK_EPPIE__2_1_BF2KN0HM_L64570822
Eppie Johnson’s family and friends throw a wreath and flowers into the American River during a memorial to honor Eppie Johnson, Sacramento restaurateur and originator of the annual Eppie’s Great Race in 2014. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The final Eppie’s

Here are the details for the final Great Race.

Time: Eppie’s will begin 8 a.m. Saturday (with the Epic Challenge beginning two minutes earlier).

Location: American River Parkway, Rancho Cordova and Sacramento

Parking: William Pond Recreation Area in Carmichael

Distance: 5.82 miles on foot; 12.5 miles by bike; 6.10 miles on the river

Awards: For the top three finishers in each division.

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