‘The spirit’s still here.’ Great American Triathlon draws 900 athletes for inaugural race

As she jumped out of her kayak in the American River and sprinted uphill to the finish line, Jasmine Casillas, 20, had no idea she was about to be the first individual woman to finish the race.

Even after she was given a medal on a bedazzled lanyard at the inaugural Great American Triathlon, she wasn’t sure for a few minutes whether she had beat all the women or just the ones in her age group.

Casillas reacted with a beaming smile when race officials told her she had won the overall female ironwoman competition. Athletes in the “ironpeople” competition complete all three legs of the race while relay teams are made up of several people, who each do one portion.

“It feels good,” Casillas said, explaining that it’s a 35-year family tradition to compete in what used to be Eppie’s Great Race.

Eppie’s family hosted the final triathlon last summer after a 45-year run. The Great American Triathlon, created in January, replaced it and honors the previous event by using the exact same course — a 5.82-mile run, a 12.5-mile bicycle ride and a 6.35-mile kayak, canoe or paddle down the river.

Over 900 people turned out for the new event, officials said, which added stand-up paddleboarding as an alternative to kayaking or canoeing.

Additionally, race chairman Ken McGuire said the expected $50,000 in profits would go to Child Advocates of Placer County, Child Advocates of El Dorado County and the American River Parkway Foundation — a departure from the past.

Eppie’s had always donated the proceeds to the Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services (TRS), raising more than $1.2 million for the organization over four decades.

For many people, the reincarnated event didn’t feel vastly different.

For over a decade, both Casillas’ parents either won their division or placed in the top five in the triathlon, according to online race results. But since neither were able to compete this year for various reasons, she felt it was her duty to carry on the tradition despite it not being Eppie’s anymore.

“I felt like there was more riding on it this time,” Casillas said, talking about the annual race as if it were the same as always. “It’s kinda like continuing our legacy. We’re known here.”

Brian Fennessy, 36, also has a history with Eppie’s.

He won his division in the triathlon in 2013 and 2014. A week ago, he spontaneously decided to sign up for the Great American Triathlon’s inaugural competition.

Decked out in painter’s coveralls with NASA and Air Force patches and equipped with an American flag on a plastic pole, Fennessy ran, biked and paddle boarded through the course. Upon crossing the finish the line, he planted the flag into the ground to simulate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

“It was an exhausting step (for mankind),” he said.

But the event itself? Fennessy couldn’t identify anything major that differed from years past.

“The spirit’s still here,” he said after the race.

If anything, the rebranding of the event helped bring out new people.

Chelsea Elm and Erik Hvezda never participated in Eppie’s Great Race, but were convinced by their coworkers to do the triathlon this year for the first time.

“Everyone said it was fun,” Elm said on the starting line. She and Hvezda both did the running leg for their relay teams.

While Elm and Hvezda are locally based, others came from as far away as Hawaii and Washington, according to event spokeswoman Drisha Leggitt.

Iris Dulay, 35, lives in Garden Grove, in Orange County, and said she traveled north to Sacramento for the canoeing portion of the race. It was her first time on the course.

“We stayed upright, so that was good,” she joked.

Her joke was emblematic of the atmosphere Saturday – laid back and lighthearted.

The winning relay team’s name was “Faster Than We Used To Be.” Other notable team names were “I Was Told There Would Be Beer,” “Last Minute” and “The Procrastinators.”

Following the race, hundreds gathered on the grass at River Bend Park for music, food trucks, a beer garden and a cow-themed bouncy house.

Plans are already in the works for next year, McGuire said.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.