“The World’s Oldest Triathlon” is still GREAT after 40 Years!
By Drisha Leggitt • Photos courtesy of Eppie’s Great Race
In June 1974, while paddling in his kayak on the American River with instructor and K2 Ski Salesman Mike Ewing, Northern California businessman, restaurateur, and respected leader in Sacramento’s Greek community, Eppie Johnson, was challenged to sponsor and launch a race that featured three different athletic events. No one had ever heard of a “Triathlon” at that time.
Now, 40 years later, “Eppie’s Great Race” – “The World’s Oldest Triathlon” – has become a signature event for Northern California, attracting over 10,000 participants, volunteers and spectators annually, to run, bike and paddle on American River Parkway. Over the years, Eppie’s Great Race has also raised over $1,000,000 for programs benefitting Sacramento County’s mentally and physically challenged. But in 1974, the concept of “Eppie’s Great Race” was simply entertained as a potentially fun publicity stunt to promote Eppie’s restaurant chain!
Eppie, who was (and is) an avid skier and all-around athlete, was intrigued by the idea of hosting a relay race featuring three different athletic legs. It was not unusual for him to perform curious, funny or athletic stunts within his own television commercials to promote his regional restaurants. His “Eppie’s” restaurant commercials often featured him personally carrying a tray of his food while on snow skis, water skis or running. But actually forming an athletic event that required teams or individuals to complete three different physical feats during the same race…could that be done?
Mike suggested that Eppie could begin his “Great Race” by skiing down from the top of Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows Ski Resort to the road, then biking to the Truckee River at River Ranch. Participants could then finish the race by kayaking to the City of Truckee.
Eppie replied, “That’s a great idea; but I don’t have any restaurants at Alpine Meadows or in Truckee!”
A week later, Mike announced to Eppie that he had discovered the perfect potential race course in Sacramento to host a “Great Race”—starting at Olson Drive where Eppie was building a restaurant named “Eppaminondas” (Eppie’s actual first name) and ending at the “Eppie’s” Restaurant on Watt Avenue.
With that, Eppie decided the launch “Eppie’s Great Race.”
Simply implementing a three-phased race in Sacramento wasn’t as easy as it first sounded. Four days before the event, Eppie was called by a Sacramento Assistant District Attorney and the Highway Patrol Area Commander for an emergency meeting. Who knew he needed a permit? No one had ever done this before! Eppie quickly obtained a permit.
The challenges didn’t stop there. He was also told that if any bicyclist did not stop during the race for a stop sign or a red light on busy Watt Avenue, the cyclist would immediately be arrested! Eppie emphatically cautioned the bicyclists…and to his knowledge, none were arrested.
The entry fee for Eppie’s first “The Great Race” was ten dollars and there were only 138 participants.
For 40 years, the Great Race has attracted hundreds of the world’s most famous athletes and celebrities to Sacramento.
Each year, Eppie leads a “Great Team” that features renowned sportspersons, luminaries and regional business leaders. The “Great Team” sets the pace or the “time to beat” for The Great Race competitors the following week. And anyone or team that beats the “Great Team’s” finish time is treated to a free breakfast at Brookfield’s restaurants.
The “Great Team” is often as entertaining as they are athletically gifted. For example, Olympic champion “miler” Peter Snell competed as the runner of “Eppie’s Great Team,” and upon completion, downed two 16-ounce glasses of beer at the finish line before a cheering crowd!
In recent years, Eppie has launched a new element of his “Great Race.” To engage more children in healthy, physical activity, Eppie and U.S. Bank have added the “Eppie’s Great Race Kids Duathlon.” Children ages 17 years and younger are challenged (as “Iron Kids” or in teams of two) to run 2.5 miles and then bike six miles, also along the American River Parkway. Last year, over 200 children participated in the Duathlon. Eppie hopes to double that number in 2013!
This year’s Eppie’s Great Race is expected to attract over 2,000 competitors. However, there is still plenty of room for additional participants, volunteers, sponsors and spectators. With each additional participant, Eppie is able to donate more money to fund Sacramento County’s Therapeutic Recreation Services. Therefore, Eppie hopes the 40th Annual Eppie’s Great Race will be the largest and most successful of “The Great Races” to date.
Anyone interested in learning more about Eppie’s Great Race or Eppie’s Kids’ Duathlon, is encouraged to check the event’s website at: www.eppiesgreatrace.org