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This weekend, all eyes in the triathlon world will be on Sacramento, as hundreds of athletes—including some of the world’s best—descend on the city for Ironman California. While an Ironman is a first for Sacramento, triathlon has long been a fixture in the California capital. In fact, it’s the site of the “world’s oldest” triathlon, first staged way back in 1974.
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Except it wasn’t actually a triathlon, at least not the kind we’re used to. Eppie’s Great Race, cheekily known as the “no swim triathlon,” included a 5.82-mile run, a 12.5-mile bike, and a 6.35-mile paddle in the American River. Through its 45-year run, the race welcomed thousands of athletes, raised millions for charity, and garnered plenty of press, too. In fact, in 1984, Triathlete ran an 8-page feature on the race, calling it the original triathlon in the history of sports. (Swim-bike-run purists will beg to differ, of course.)
So how did Eppie’s come to be? The story goes that in June of 1974, a gregarious business owner Epaminondas “Eppie” Johnson was brainstorming for a creative promotion to drum up business for his local restaurants when he met kayaking instructor Mike Ewing. The pair got to talking while paddling on the American, and Ewing suggested that he sponsor and host a ski, bike, paddle relay. Johnson, a fit outdoor enthusiast who showed off his athletic chops in TV commercials for his restaurants (say, carrying a tray of food while running or water skiing), was totally game. But because none of his restaurants were close enough to ski resorts, he decided to swap skiing with running, and hold it in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, starting and ending at two of his properties.
In just a month’s time, Johnson and a few friends planned the course, promoted the race, and managed to get it off the ground, including culling together a prize cache featuring Trek bikes, inflatable rafts, and jogging outfits, respectively, for the top-three teams. The process didn’t come without its share of snafus, though. He didn’t obtain any permits until he was forced to by local law enforcement just days before the race, and the miffed highway patrol informed him that if any participants failed to stop at a red light or stop sign along the bike course, they’d be promptly arrested. “Few, if any, cyclists stopped for red lights, but no arrests were made,” reported one recollection of the race.
Despite the rush job to launch the inaugural Eppie’s Great Race, it was, by all accounts, a resounding success, with some 53 teams (including the former mayor of Sacramento and a member of the U.S. National Kayak Team) ponying up the $10 race fee to give the novel “triathlon” a whirl. Well, there was some carnage on the river, as the stretch of the American included a series of challenging rapids. “Many capsized, including one of the sculls, and…an innertube entrant was a DNF,” recalls one race report.
That didn’t stop people from coming back. Maybe it was the free beer and hot dogs and the Dixieland jazz band at the finish line or the altruistic spirit of the event (some of the proceeds went to local charities). Whatever the draw, Eppie’s Great Race ultimately became a long-lasting summertime tradition, held every third Saturday in July for over four decades. Though it began strictly as a relay event, in 1975, Johnson implemented the “Ironpersons” division, allowing participants to complete all three legs solo. In 1980, there was the addition of the adaptive division, requiring at least one team member to have a disability. By 1987, the race was broadcast on local TV, with commentary by Ironman world champion Dave Scott. Eppie’s ultimately evolved into a behemoth sports festival (said to be the largest paddling event in the U.S. at one time), with open canoe and kayak races, as well as kids, family, and corporate divisions. “The triathlon offers something for everyone,” Johnson once said.
Sadly, Johnson passed away in his sleep in September 2013 at the age of 85, having “worked on promoting and implementing [the race] until the day he died,” his memorial reads. The show did go on without its beloved impresario, at least for a few more years. Faced with dwindling numbers, Eppie’s Great Race made one last go of it on July 21, 2018. A new event, called the Great American Triathlon, aimed to recreate the event in 2019—and hopes to return in 2022 after cancellations the last two years. While the original race is no longer, the event and its founder will forever be linked to igniting and stoking a culture of multisport enthusiasm throughout Northern California and beyond.