The Great Idea

“Of all vine great races I’ve ever been in, this one is the greatest!”

– Pax Beale

In the 1970s, Eppie Johnson attended a slide show presentation on kayaking. The presenter was Mike Ewing, a K-2 ski rep and all-around sports enthusiast. Soon thereafter, Mike became Eppie’s kayaking instructor and this soon resulted in a very productive friendship.

While kayaking on the American River, Ewing suggested that Eppie develop and sponsor a relay race involving skiing, biking and kayaking to market his restaurants and could also benefit a Sacramento community charity. Since Eppie didn’t have any restaurants near a ski resort, their plan was restructured to take place in Sacramento and incorporate running instead of skiing.

After one of their kayaking sessions on the American River, they talked about supporting The Aquarian Effort, and anti-drug abuse program in the Sacramento area. One thing led to another, and with the help of John McIntosh and many others, The Great Race was born in 1974. The name “The Great Race” is now registered in California and also has a Federal Trade Mark.

Eppie’s Great Race has become an annual tradition in the Sacramento community. In 1984, Triathlete Magazine did an eight-page story proclaiming The Great Race as the World’s Oldest Triathlon.” With 152 participants in 1974 to over 2,000 in 2018, Eppie’s Great Race attracts competitors from around the country.

Today, Eppie Johnson still participates in every Great Race as the Great Team paddler, missing only one Great Race due to an injury. Mike Ewing now lives in Montana and teaches skiing at Big Sky and is a fishing guide.

Back in 1974, perhaps it was a wild and crazy idea. Twenty years later, Eppie’s Great Race has proven to be an incredible, fantastic and truly great idea for the Sacramento community and has made possible donations of over $400,000 to charity.

Map of the Course

The Great Race course has changed over the years, for both safety reasons and to provide a greater challenge for the athletes. The 1974 race was held between Eppie’s Restaurant locations on Zinfandel and Watt Avenue. By order of the Highway Patrol, the participants had to obey all traffic signs and signals and cyclists could not exceed a speed of 40 MPH .

In 1975, the course began and ended at Eppaminondas on Zinfandel (now The Hungry Hunter). The cycling leg was expanded and rode along the Canal Bike Trail through the tunnel beneath Highway 50. As cyclists rode out of sunlight into the tunnel’s darkness, several collisions occurred. Extreme caution was advised along this portion of the course.

Each year, The Great Race became more popular and the number of participants grew. The course was moved off the streets in 1982 to the American River Parkway where it is currently held today. Eppie’s Great Race has always stressed the importance of safety for our participants and this has proven to be the safest course.

Over $1.5 million donated to Sacramento area causes from race proceeds

The Great Race By Jim O’Neil

“Of all the great races I’ve ever been in, this one is the greatest!.” So stated San Francisco competitor Pax Beale following what was aptly and modestly called (you guessed it) The Great Race. The setting was Sacramento, and on July 27th a new and exciting type of relay was started.

Sponsored by Eppie Johnson, a Sacramento restauranteur, this race combined the efforts of three popular sports. Eppie is an avid kayaker, and wanted to promote some kind of race which would be interesting, challenging, and fun. From this developed the idea of a three man relay made up of a runner, a boater, and a bicyclist. The entry fee was set at $10 per team, with all proceeds going to the Aquarian Effort, a local drug abuse program. It seemed fitting that the tremendous physical conditioning necessary to prepare for such a strenuous endeavor should benefit those at the other end of the spectrum. Hopefully the benefits to the youth suffering with a drug problem would also include an example of what good physical exertion can do for the mind and body.  

The format of the race was as follows: The course totaled 12.5 miles, starting at one Eppie’s restaurant and finishing at another. The runners covered 2.8 miles, and passed their numbered bibs onto their teammates. The river portion of the race amounted to 5 miles, and the final lap of 4.7 miles was done by a cyclist. There were no restrictions on the type of bicycle or watercraft to be used, except of course that they be man-powered.

The sponsor provided some outstanding prizes for the first three teams. The winners would each receive a Trek 10 speed bike, the second place team would get inflatable rafts, and third place finishers would be given complete jogging outfits.

Another interesting twist was added. Eppie  formed his own group, The Great Team, with Burnett Miller (Councilman) doing the running, and Larry (Aquarian Effort) handling the cycling chores. This team would run the course prior to the race, and any entry beating their elapsed time would be awarded free breakfasts at Eppie’s.

Now I suppose that you sports fans are anxiously awaiting an accounting of the Great Race. So with no turther ado I shall relate the story of this unusual competition.  

When I heard about The Great Race in early September I immediately contacted my friend and fellow senior runner, Don Pickett. He was the winner of the torturous Dipsea race in 1968, and recently he has been doing considerable bike racing.

I asked him if he knew of any ancient kayakers so that we could make up an all-senior team. He quickly suggested that we get Gunther Hammersbach, a transplanted German kayaker of no little repute, Although Gunther is a mere 37 years of age, the average of the three of us would be 44. With his consent to join us, all that remained was to select a team name, which would be The Rammers” (our sponsor was The Ram, a local restaurant). Don assured me that Gunther could practically walk on water, which figured to make us solid contenders.

Race morning arrived with perfect conditions for our competition and, with what amounted to very little publicity, the race attracted a strong field of 51 teams. I took my place at the starting line along with other runners representing such impressive sounding teams us “The Valiant Vegetables,” “The Krauts”, “Dog meat”, “Bull Frog”, “Billie Jean King” and “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. It was a very fast field, and the first three runners to reach the river were Carl Schaechterle, Mike Tulley, and Noel Hitchcock. I arrived in 12th place, feeling that I may have let my teammates down. That feeling was soon dispelled when I watched Gunther cast off in his raunchy looking, kayak,  which didn’t look like it could negotiate the width of the river! I swear Gunther’s’ craft didn’t hit the water more than twice in the first quarter mile, and as he disappeared around the bend my hopes began to rise.

Other assorted craft included canoes, single sculls, and even a nut who crashed into the river in an inner-tube. The five mile stretch of the American River used in the race feature several tough series of rapids, offering quite a challenge to the competitors. Many capsized, including one of the sculls, and the aforementioned inner-tube entrant was a DNF. The bicycle portion of the race brought some amused looks with one of those weird looking wheelers with the huge front wheels that our grandparents used to ride (great-grandparents?).

I drove directly to the finish line to await the outcome. At the parking lot of Eppie’s there was a Dixieland band warming up to greet the finishers. There was also much free beer and hot dogs beings dispensed to participants and spectators alike.

After a terribly suspenseful wait of about forty minutes, a cyclist was sighted pumping frantically towards us. My beer went flying when I finally recognized my teammate Don Pickett, and it was great to watch him zip across the finish line in a total time of 1:26:45. Second place went to “Marins’ Hope”, composed of Jim Farren, Brennan Agajan, and Toby Pickett (son of Don). Brennan captained the Redwood High School 1974 championship crew, and he competed in a single scull. Their time was 1:38:45, exactly three minutes ahead of the third placers, the “J.C.’s”, composed of Noel Hitchcock, Lyle Eastman, and Pat Scott.

The Great Race was an exciting experience for everyone. The general feeling was expressed by runner Chuck Stagliano when he said, “The enthusiasm was unbelievable! Getting these three together for a relay was a fantastic idea!” Plans are underway for next year’s competition, and the feed- back from the entries will improve an already successful concept. One suggestion already adopted is to lengthen the running and biking legs of the race so that the emphasis is not so much on the boating.

The Great Team previously mentioned recorded a time to beat of 2 hrs. 1 min. Eppies’ kayaking leg put a real dent in his pocketbook when he dumped in the rapids three times, and 120 hungry athletes representing 40 teams enjoyed the sponsors’ hospitality.