Outdoors

Are you ready to Eppie?

A forest's worth of trees has been felled for articles, not to mention untold gigabytes of bandwidth gobbled up, to teach recreational athletes how to perform well in the triathlon.

But where can we find advice for a competition truly unique to Sacramento, Eppie's Great Race, in which the troika of triathlon events is given a bobbing and floating twist?

Instead of the standard swim-bike-run alignment, Eppie's substitutes kayaking for the open-water swimming segment and flips the event order on its head. So when competitors toe the line for the 35th staging of Eppie's on July 19, they'll run 5.82 miles, cycle 12.5 miles and finish with the 6.35-mile paddle down the American River.

But you knew that already.

What people might not know is just how to approach training for this race, especially that tricky kayaking stage.

No need to get your heart rate elevated by worrying. There's plenty of time to develop a plan.

In fact, we've enlisted fitness experts, Eppie's veterans all, to develop a 10-week training program for each discipline. (See the accompanying week-by-week chart, which today is on Page E10. It will run each Thursday on the Outbound page and is available in full at www.sacbee.com/eppies.)

We've also talked to six successful Eppie's participants – some of whom are kayakers who survive the run and bike, others vice versa – about race strategy, training tips and motivation for the road (and current) ahead.

Because, after all, it's never too early to start planning.

Linda Casillas

Age: 45

City: Davis

Credentials: Six-time Eppie's Ironwoman (open division) winner

History: An elite runner and cyclist, Casillas remembers her first Eppie's experience 20 years ago. Well, it was not her greatest triumph.

"I had borrowed a boat, a family-style (kayak)," she recalls. "I was a swimmer, but this was the first time on the water ever. I had great run and bike and just put the brakes on (in the third stage). Literally, the kayak would veer to the left and I'd put down the right paddle. All I did was brake the whole way down the river. I think I ended up 16th."

Not bad. But considering that Casillas led the pack of Ironwomen after the second stage, lagging in the kayak was dispiriting.

"I'd be going down (the river) backwards and in circles," she says. "Basically, it's like Pac-Man (video game), with all the real kayakers coming after you, eating your gap away."

That changed in the mid-1990s, when Casillas got kayak training from one of the region's best teachers, Dan Crandall of Current Adventures. After just one set of classes, she became proficient enough to become a multiple Eppie's winner.

"If you want to do decently in Eppie's, you've got to take classes and learn paddling technique," she says.

Key to the race: The run.

"If you can get a huge lead off the run, the bike is draft-legal," she says. "You just have to find a wheel to draft off, but half the time I couldn't find one. If you're not in good shape on the bike, then you have to draft or you're in trouble."

Training tip: Follow the training log, but don't overtrain by doing all three programs.

"If you're an Ironperson, pick your weakest event and follow the plan for your worst leg; then your second-worst, put a little more time for that, and then the third one," she says. "These Iron people, they can be obsessive and try to do it all. But focus more on your worst event. Whatever your best event, back off a little."

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Vic Vicari

Age: 48

City: Sacramento

Credentials: Four-time overall Ironman division winner, including 2007

History: Vicari, an orthodontist, took up paddling nine years ago when he first wanted to compete in Eppie's. Running and cycling came much easier to him. Now, he can stay up with all but the elite kayakers.

"It took me about four years before I felt comfortable. The one spot everyone worries about is (the) San Juan (rapids)," he says. It's a couple of miles downriver from the Sunrise bridge starting point. "For years, I'd be anxious until I got through San Juan. Now, I don't worry too much. I'd almost have to try to tip over to tip over. I've practiced it enough."

Being consistent in all three events is the key for Vicari.

"It's true," he says. "I'm not great at any one event. Get me out with the fast runners, even in my age group, and they're ahead of me. I can keep up with most of the fast cyclists, but the fast kayakers go past me."

More often than not, it's Vicari crossing the finish line first among Ironmen.

Key to the race: Getting the kayak that best matches your skill level.

"You want to get the fastest kayak you can," he says. "That's the thing that's not fair for newcomers. Us guys who have done it for a while have really nice boats. It's important to get the fastest boat you can handle. The key is being able to handle it. If you're in a fast boat but wobbling and tip over, it defeats the purpose."

Training tip: Emphasize cycling training.

"I feel like I can put in a lot of time on the bike and not have the pounding and need as much recovery from the workout," he says. "So I can put more time in on the bike. I try to ride 100 miles a week. Running, 20 to 25 (miles a week). Kayak, I'll spend two hours, three times a week. I'll run three (days), bike four. That formula worked well for me. Last year, I had my best time ever."

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Denise Rowland

Age: 39

City: Orangevale

Credentials: 2004 and '07 winner, Ironwoman open division (second woman overall)

History: Rowland works odd hours as a hairdresser, and many of her free hours are spent with her three children.

However, that doesn't mean Rowland, whose background is in cycling, doesn't make an all-out training assault for Eppie's each year.

"I'll get up at 4:30 (a.m.) and do gym work. Part of that work will be rowing," she says, referring to the machines that strengthen her upper body. "That's my weakness. Last year, I was only able to make it down to the river three times (to train for kayaking). But Don Hicks (a veteran kayaker) helped me not just with my paddling skills but having that mental focus and determination to do it."

Key to the race: The boat.

"Equipment makes all the difference," she says. "Every year, I get better equipment. And I see my (performance) improve."

Training tip: Adhere to a set schedule.

"When I'm training for Eppie's, about three months before, I do running and biking before work. The kayak's on my car and I'll go down to the river after work and (paddle) from the Aquatic Center to Rainbow Bridge and back. It's a good routine."

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Chris Heath

Age: 37

City: Santa Rosa

Credentials: Won the 2007 Ironman open division, finishing second overall to Vicari

History: Last year was Heath's debut at Eppie's, and he didn't know what to expect.

He's an avid paddler and, about 10 years ago, ran a triathlon. But he never thought of combining running and cycling with his kayaking.

"People kept telling me at paddling races that I ought to do Eppie's," he says. "I didn't start running and biking until about four months before last year's race. It's quite difficult to do three different sports and prepare. I didn't spend as much time as I should have."

It was good enough to win.

He credits his paddling.

"Paddling is an endurance sport, and you want to build your base up through distance training," he says. "You got to have the technique right and then you build fitness through intensity work, not unlike running. I find it a lot easier on my body than running or cycling – as long as you don't hit a rock."

Key to the race: The running stage.

"If you're a strong runner, you pretty much establish your position for the rest of the race because you can draft off of other cyclists," he says. "I'm not a strong runner, so I had to pass a lot of cyclists to get to where I wanted to be for (the kayak)."

Training tip: Find a local paddling group.

"Get somebody knowledgeable to take you down the river," he says. "A fast boat helps a lot. But you have to have some experience to paddle a fast boat because they aren't very stable. The fastest boats out there are not something you can just hop into. There's a steep learning curve. Whereas, with running, you go do it and get faster with practice."

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Jeff Holden

Age: 51

City: Folsom

Credentials: A veteran distance athlete and 20-year Eppie's participant, he finished seventh in last year's 50-plus Ironman

History: For Holden, it's all about balance. He has a time-consuming job as the general manager of Sacramento's Clear Channel radio stations, including KFBK (1530 AM). But he makes time to train. And he also stresses the importance of balancing the three Eppie's disciplines.

"Something sacrifices when you're training for this race, and in my case it's the run," Holden says. "I much prefer to cycle. I'll run maybe 25 miles a week and cut back to three days a week and cycle more. I'll do 150 miles a week on the bike. I'll get in the water at least once a week a couple of months out. As we get closer, I hope to get in twice a week."

Key to the race: "The most important thing is to make sure you can get to San Juan (rapids) upright," he says. "You may have your line and work it and work it. The first thing that can happen is that the river flow changes and then it's a different line and you're taking a different path than you practiced. Secondly, nine out of 10 times, there's someone upside down in your path. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten plowed into or somebody's grabbed the back of my boat."

Training tip: "First, you've got to get a kayak," he says. "It's the bane of everybody's first few races. The community is small, so as soon as you put word out that you're looking, you can find them. It'll range from $300 for a heavy plastic tank to $4,000 for top of the line."

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Dan Crandall

Age: 50

City: Lotus

Credentials: National championship member of the U.S. surf kayak team; member of the national champion kayak polo team; owner and founder of Current Adventures Kayak School and Trips; anchored a team with Carlos Casillas (cyclist) and Conrad Knutsen (runner) that captured four straight overall first-place finishes in Eppie's

History: Crandall's Current Adventures is one of the half-dozen kayak groups that offer Eppie's-specific river training two months before the race (see accompanying story).

In addition, he annually takes part as a kayak participant in the team competition – and usually wins.

Key to the race: The kayak stage. "It's where you can make the greatest gains against your competitors, if you can improve your skills," he says. "Somebody might be a minute slower in the run but you can pick up a minute on the river really easily just by choice of boat and skills. You can pick up 10 or 15 minutes, in fact. You'll pass large numbers of folks."

Training tip: Learn kayaking fundamentals.

"Every year, we get a certain contingent who come to us at the last minute," he says. "Often, they are the ones who are good runners and bikers and look at the kayaking as not a big deal. 'Hey, it's all downriver, right?' We'll get them out there on the river and they'll realize fairly quickly, even after just one training session, how much there is to improve.

"It's about technique, strategies, reading the river, how to set the courses, how to draft, how to pass, where you want to be. It's a progression."

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