Sara Pagano had always heard of the annual no-swim triathlon on the American River Parkway. She knew it was some kind of Sacramento institution. So, at the start of this year, she decided it was finally time to sign up, get active, and cross it off her to-do list.
Pagano, 36, started training and felt confident about her mileage in June. Then, as an increase in COVID-19 cases swept Sacramento, she tested positive. It confined her to the couch for two weeks and forced her to adjust her goals for Saturday’s big race — keep moving forward and stay upright.
“Make sure I stay up,” as she said.
More than 600 people ran, cycled and paddled along the American River Parkway on Saturday during the Great American Triathlon. Known for 45 years as “Eppie’s Great Race”, the 24.4-mile swimless triathlon has returned after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus.
More than anything, Pagano summed up the event initially in three reassuring words that were on the minds of many who toed the line: “It seems normal.”
As it seemed normal to be involved in running and among other athletes, overall attendance was down about a third from 2019, said Ken McGuire, chairman of the board of directors of Reach Your Potential, the non-profit organization that operates the Great American Triathlon.
“Nothing has changed,” McGuire said. “I think it’s largely fair that people are focusing on a lot of different things these days with the release of COVID mode and then the economy and travel and so on.”
Unlike most triathlons, Saturday’s event did not feature a swim portion. It’s what makes this long-running race a benchmark in the sport and a more accessible option for runners and riders more interested in being on the water than in it.
The course begins with a 5.82 mile run downstream from William B. Pond Park in Carmichael to California State University, Sacramento. From there, athletes hop on their bikes and cycle 12.5 miles to Sunrise Bridge in Fair Oaks where they transition to what sets the event apart in a field of competitive triathlons: a 6.1-mile paddle to the River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova.
It was only a matter of time before Jason Lanthier signed up. His wife, Whitney, was the second wife in 2019, and his father, a four-time race finisher, has more than 60 years of acumen paddling this stretch of the American river.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a while,” Lanthier, 37, said on Saturday after strategizing with his father on river navigation. He placed sixth overall.
What is the story of Eppie’s Great Race?
Eppie’s Great Race has become an institution in Sacramento sports. But it started on a whim.
Eppie G. Johnson, then a prominent Sacramento restaurateur, was kayaking in the 1970s with a friend who came up with an ambitious, albeit half-baked idea: to ski from Squaw Valley, run to the Truckee River and kayak to ‘in Truckee. There was a problem though, Johnson replied. He didn’t own any restaurants in the mountain town.
The Sacramento race was launched in 1974 and quickly became a summer tradition. Johnson died in 2013, but the race continued in his name for five years. After declining participation levels, some 2,500 people took part in what was to be the last race of 2018 – a record level of participation.
McGuire, who is also the CEO of Citrus Heights-based Innovations Health Systems, was heading to Sacramento from the Bay Area when he heard on the radio that Eppie’s big run was ending its four-decade run. The race is considered the oldest triathlon in the country. He thought it would be a chance to continue the tradition.
“It was a no-brainer,” McGuire said. “Having been there for 40 years, it was an opportunity for us to pick up something that people already knew without having to do a top-to-bottom build.
Best finishers of the Grande Course 2022
Ben Lawry, 55, of Folsom, won the overall race, completing the full course in 1:47:58. Kristi Capello, 24, of Carmichael, was the first woman – and seventh overall – with a time of 2:07:50.
A three-person team calling themselves the Fantastic Beasts won the Relay Division. Ryan Ioanidis raced for the team, Lee Piercy cycled and John Easterbook rowed in a combined time of 1:33:58.
“It’s a great community event,” said team captain Easterbrook. “It’s not just for the star athletes here. It’s for everyone.
Proceeds from the event support the American River Parkway Foundation, Placer County Children’s Advocates, El Dorado County Children’s Advocates, and the Reach Your Potential Foundation.
Saturday was Steve Willick’s second time running the race – his first was the last year it was run as Eppie. It was similar, he said. Above all, it was great to see hundreds of people on the shaded promenade on what must have been a blazing 105 degree day.
His message to anyone on the fence about participating next year?
“You only have to register.”