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Cheers and tears (and free beer) as family, triathletes toast last Eppie’s Great Race

Eppie's Final Great Race

George Johnson, son of Eppie G. Johnson and President of Eppie's Great Race Foundation, talks about the history of the race in Sacramento on Saturday, July 21. This is the 45th and final year for the race.
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George Johnson, son of Eppie G. Johnson and President of Eppie's Great Race Foundation, talks about the history of the race in Sacramento on Saturday, July 21. This is the 45th and final year for the race.

After 45 years of being a Sacramento summer tradition, Eppie’s Great Race came to an end Saturday just the way George Johnson said his father would have wanted – with a “bang.”

The decades-old triathlon had record-high registration numbers, as well as the most ironman athletes ever to participate in the event, Johnson said, adding that it was the bittersweet end to an era.

“First of all, I think he would be pretty mad that it is the last one because he loved and cherished this event, but at the same he’d be happy about the outpouring of support that we’ve had,” Johnson said before the race started. “That’s Eppie Johnson style, going out with a big explosion.”

Eppie Johnson, who died in 2013 at the age of 85, was a triathlete and fundraising activist. He also owned 16 all-night coffee shops plus upscale restaurants between California and Las Vegas, the first of which came at N and 30th streets in Sacramento, back in 1965.

Billed as on of the world’s oldest triathlons, Eppie founded his great race in 1974 and 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 (TRS), which specializes in treatment for those with developmental disabilities. In that span, it’s raised more than $1.2 million toward the cause.

The announcement came earlier this year that Saturday’s race would be its 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.

Which is kind of ironic since event organizers said Eppie’s final race attracted 2,500 people and registration for the event had to be closed earlier this month because the number of participants had reached maximum capacity. Something Eppie’s daughter Lisa Mangels said has never happened in the history of the race.

“My dad would be happy to see this kind of attendance,” Mangels said before the race started, adding that it was hard to answer questions about her dad’s last race without getting emotional.

Mangels was just 12 and Johnson had not yet turned 6 when their father orchestrated his first triathlon, so it has been a big part of their lives for a long time.

“He was a larger than life personality and gave everything into this event,” Johnson said, adding that he believes this event will go into the annals of Sacramento history and will always be remembered fondly as a fantastic event. “This event was his legacy, is his legacy.”

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

But Eppie’s kids were not the only race attendees feeling a bit nostalgic.

Joel Griffith participated in his first Eppie race in 1987 on his company’s team and met his wife there two years later at the 1989 race.

While he has registered for the triathlon around 18 times over the years, it had been about a decade since he last participated.

”I had to come back for the last time,” Griffith said with a smile after he completed the race, adding that he too felt the bitter sweetness of the moment.

Susanne Cardenas, a personal trainer for event sponsor California Family Fitness, served as the Iron Woman course time setter for the 2016 Eppie race and has participated in the event about four times over the years.

She is obviously sad about this being the last year for the race, Cardenas said, but appreciated the big turnout and noted that Eppie would be happy with it.

“You could see that he loved this,” Cardenas said, adding that over the years this race was an event where the community really came together. “It’s so fun.”

This year, organizers offered a toast to the finale with free beer for the finishers.

But this is not the end, Johnson said.

Both the Eppie’s Kids Duathlon and the Eppie’s Wellness Foundation, which was started by Eppie several years before he died, will live on.

Johnson is the president of the board’s foundation, while Mangels is the vice president.

The foundation will continue to donate to TRS but will also evolve into a different type of supporter for the community by expanding its support to more charities and initiatives that are in line with the foundation’s mission, Johnson said, adding that his dad was passionate about outdoor activities and especially the American River.

“That’ll be our next challenge,” Johnson said of where the foundation goes next in terms of funding. “The work never stops, it just gets a little different.”

Next summer he will start another journey, touring colleges with his twin children.

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