New triathlon this weekend is the ‘successor’ of Eppie’s Great Race — with a few twists

Last year, “the world’s longest-held modern triathlon” announced its last run in Sacramento. On Saturday, a new race will take its place.

The Great American Triathlon hopes to be the “successor” of Eppie’s Great Race, said race chairman Ken McGuire. The triathlon will follow the same course as the Great Race – competitors will run 5.82 miles, bike 12.5 miles and paddle 6.10 miles on the American River Parkway, winding from the Sacramento State campus to Rancho Cordova.

As in the past, contestants can enter as “Ironpeople” and finish all three legs themselves, or join a team and complete the events as a relay.

Triathlete and fundraising activist Eppaminondas “Eppie” Johnson owned 16 all-night coffee shops plus upscale restaurants between California and Las Vegas. The first Great Race was held in 1974 as a way for Johnson to promote his original restaurant, at 30th and N streets in Sacramento. The race ran for 45 years until 2018, five years after Johnson’s death at age 85.

The Great American Triathlon is trying to strike a balance between honoring Eppie’s traditions and creating a new competition with a long future, said McGuire. McGuire is the CEO of Innovations Health, a Roseville-based company that is the official sponsor of the triathlon.

The new competition wants to reach a new audience: stand-up paddleboarders.

“The last two years [of Eppie’s,] they had a couple stand-up paddleboards, to see if they could do it,” said Drisha Leggitt, a volunteer spokeswoman for the Great American Triathlon. “Now that they’ve proven that yes, they can, they’re making it a much larger aspect of the race.”

Paddleboard divisions added

In addition to kayaks and canoes, the triathlon is hosting paddleboard divisions. Paddleboarders will race in the same race as slow kayakers, race director Charlie Willard said.

Twenty volunteers will be on hand Saturday to help paddleboarders navigate the San Juan Rapids by the Sacramento Waldorf School in Fair Oaks.

As of Tuesday afternoon, registration had reached 834, Leggitt said. This included 23 ironmen and ironwomen who registered to paddleboard, as well as five paddleboarding relay teams. Organizers expect a surge in registrants late this week, Leggitt said.

Last year, the final Great Race drew a record 2,500 people, The Sacramento Bee reported — a large spike for the last hurrah, following a steady decline.

The second shift in the event’s planning is the major role played by Innovations Health Systems.

The 45th Great Race was billed as the last. Participants thought they might never do a similar “no-swim” triathlon again. But in August, McGuire reached out to longtime participant Rich Hanna to ask if his company could sponsor a new event with much of the same tradition, but without Eppie’s name.

McGuire had never attended or competed in the Great Race before, but had heard a lot about the event.

“We saw it as a great opportunity to promote our company’s brand, and emphasize health and wellness,” he said.

McGuire quickly found out that the Sacramento County Parks Department is able to close the American River Parkway for only one weekend every year. For decades, the slot was filled by Eppie’s Great Race, the third weekend of July. Now, the slot was wide open.

McGuire and Innovations Health Systems submitted an application to the parks department. In late January, they heard that the application was approved.

“We didn’t have the benefit of a whole year to fundraise or do the planning,” McGuire said.

Charity event run by volunteers

The Great American Triathlon is entirely volunteer-run. Like Eppie’s Great Race – which over time raised more than $1.2 million for Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services – the event’s goal is to raise money for worthy causes.

“We’re putting every penny of entrance fees towards charity,” Leggitt said.

This year’s proceeds will benefit Child Advocates of Placer County, Child Advocates of El Dorado County and the American River Parkway Foundation.

McGuire said he was encouraged to disclose all financial aspects of running the event to those involved.

“You have to show people how much money you brought in and where the money went so they can feel confident,” he said. “We’re going to have a reception in mid-September, and we’ll have the donors and sponsors there. At that time, I’ll hand an annual letter with a profit-loss statement that shows where the money went.”

Under the sponsorship of Innovations Health, the competition will seek to expand and capitalize on the unique social element of the Great Race. This year, the post-race gathering will feature a beer garden and a performance from solo artist Ruby J, organizers said.

“In future years we want more ways to engage local breweries,” McGuire said.

Organizers also said this year’s triathlon will feature a peace officers grudge match. The Citrus Heights Police Department and Auburn Police Department have challenged each other in the relay competition. Officers from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and Probation Department will also compete, McGuire said.

A tradition, with ‘new faces’

Nicole Young, a three-time Eppie’s Ironwoman champion working as the race’s assistant director this year, said she’s excited to continue a tradition she’s participated in for more than a decade.

“I have made lifelong friends because of the race,” Young said.

This year, Young will compete in a relay team with her 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter who grew up watching her compete. She noted that most of the past Eppie’s champions won’t be in the field this year, leaving the podium competition wide open.

“This year is going to be very different,” Young said. “There will be lots of new faces and new people. I think it’s going to get people really excited.”

Young described a final way that the new race will depart from tradition: medals. In the past, winners received laurel crowns – an homage to Johnson’s Greek heritage.

“This year we’re doing a special medal with a gold band and bling on it,” Young said.

The race’s organizers are optimistic that small changes like this will gradually build the Great American Triathlon into an event that draws from the past but will build and retain its own personality and quirks in the future.

“This is our first of many, many years to come,” McGuire said. “It’s great to carry on a tradition like this.”

If you go

Planning on attending or racing the Great American Triathlon this weekend? Here’s what you need to know.

  • The gun goes off at 8 a.m. Saturday, July 20. Runners should arrive at William Pond Recreation Area to park between 6 and 7:15 a.m.
  • You can register throughout the week at www.greatamericantriathlon.com/registration/. Depending on age and division, registration costs $30 to $300.

  • Participants should pick up their packets on Friday, July 19, between 4 and 7 p.m. at River Bend Park in Sacramento.
  • Last-minute packet pickup starts at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday.
  • Instructions for watercraft and bike staging and pickup are available on the Great American Triathlon website.
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Elliot Wailoo, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in prison systems, police, and education. He is originally from New Jersey.