SACRAMENTO — The 2011 Ironwoman championship in the 38th Eppie’s Great Race came down to the final 400 meters, something the winner wasn’t aware of.
Donene Vukovich’s primary goal wasn’t necessarily first place in the annual triathlon but she still relied on a true and tested strategy that has served her well during a lengthy running career — catch the person in front of you.
The 32-year-old Cameron Park resident and proud mother of Ponderosa High wrestler Aubrey Hutcheson, scanned her competitors on the American River, spotted Melanie Cleland in the distance and went for it.
Prior to entering the water on her 17-foot Huki surf ski boat for the final 6.35 mile paddle to Riverbend Park, Vukovich wasn’t sure she was in the hunt for the women’s title. At the finish line, her family’s screaming reaction said it all. Vukovich had won in her fifth Eppie’s try, edging out Cleland in overall time by just 8.4 seconds — 1 hour, 57 minutes and 38 seconds to 1.57:46.4.
“It was huge to win. I was so excited,” Vukovich said. “I’d heard prior to the last event I was the ‘third Ironwoman’ but I wasn’t sure if that person was correct. I had to do my own race so I didn’t give it much thought.
“I got into the boat and tried to remember everything I’d learned, picked out a woman (ahead of me) and tried to catch up. The last 400 meters was a stroke-for-stroke battle to the end. It was so much fun. I loved it and it’s a wonderful event.”
The wonderful event Vukovich alluded to, Eppie’s Great Race, is a 5.82 mile run, a 12.5 mile bicycle trek and the final, aforementioned leg in the water. It is one of the biggest regional events, so competition is fierce. Vukovich was a top-five finisher in her four previous Eppie’s races. She was fifth in 2007, fourth in 2008, third in 2009 and second in 2010. She hadn’t planned to compete a fifth time.
“I wasn’t going to do it. My husband (Milan) was in a swim relay race in Lake Tahoe and I was going to be in the boat for support and to cheer him on,” Vukovich said.
But she changed her plans after winning an entry to the Eppie’s Race at a prior mountain bike race.
A life-long runner accustomed to the national stage as a teen growing up in Carmichael, Vukovich trailed Cleland, who is eight years her senior, by more than three-and-a-half minutes after the running portion. While Vukovich is a skilled runner, she is also an accomplished bike rider who races tandem with Milan. The pair is especially proud of their top three results at several Downieville Classic races. Their very first date was a leisurely tandem trail ride.
Vukovich felt cycling was her strongest discipline going in Saturday and she gained ground on Cleland, shaving 50 seconds off a deficit that she, from a field of 2,000 individual and relay racers — 750 of them women, 105 in her age group — didn’t know existed. It came down to the water and Vukovich’s triumphant push to the end.
“I bailed out of the boat first, practically jumping out of the Huki to run the final 50 or so meters to the actual finish line. I gave it my all and she (Cleland) couldn’t catch me,” Vukovich said.
“Even though it’s a sweet victory and great to win, my goal was to have fun, place in the top 10 and go as fast as I can. I didn’t go in thinking ‘this would be my year.’ I always think there’ll be someone better and that pushes me. I set out to do my best and give my all and however it comes out, I’m satisfied.”
In addition to placing 1-2 as Ironwomen, both Vukovich and Cleland won their respective age divisions. Overall, Vukovich finished 24th and Cleland 25th.
Vukovich is a certified massage therapist at Asante Spa in El Dorado Hills, a personal trainer and a USA Track and Field Level I coach. Her passion for track prompted her to create the F.A.S.T. (Foothill Area Speed Training) running club that practices on Ponderosa’s all-weather track.
“I grew up running track and my coach was like a second dad to me,” Vukovich said. “I loved to be involved in running. It’s a great experience, so rewarding, and I want to share that with the community. I felt this area needed a running club.”
She enters an average of 10-15 events per year stretching back over 10 years. Several of her most cherished results are winning the XTERRA three-race Trail Run series for the Northern California division followed up by a fifth-place finish at the XTERRA National Championships. In 2010 Vukovich was third in the XTERRA national competition.
Vukovich was selected to participate at the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition in Venice, Italy, where she’ll run as a living artist in the U.S. Pavilion.
“It’s been a really great year for me,” Vukovich said, looking forward to the European trip.
If her schedule isn’t busy enough, Vukovich is also the running coach for the El Dorado Hills Triathlon Club.
For more information on F.A.S.T. visit foothillareaspeedtraining.com or call Donene at (916) 289-3956.