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Triathlon draws rave reviews


The Hagg Lake Triathlon attracts some of the top triathletes from Washington County and beyond

By david roza

The News-Times

Forest Grove residents put up a strong showing at the 33rd annual Hagg Lake Triathlon last Saturday, taking medals and having fun under the sun in and along some of Washington County’s most scenic waters, roads and trails.

“It’s great to see so many Forest Grove people of all ages come out to do this,” said 70-year-old Steve Whisler, who placed second in the sprint distance in the men’s 70-74 division.

“I don’t even know where I placed,” said Whisler’s friend Christopher Toole, 63, who actually wound up fourth among men 60 to 64. “It’s so beautiful out here, it’s just fun to see if I can do it!”

While many like Toole raced the triathlon just to see if they could complete it, other Forest Grove residents are veteran competitors who pushed as hard as they could in the warm water and hilly terrain to finish with the best of them.

“It was a fun race, especially the hills,” said Dan Litwora, 38, who covered the Olympic distance’s 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike leg and 10K run in 2 hours, 8 minutes, 24 seconds, to place second overall.

Dan’s wife, Elisa, traversed the same distance in 2:32:32 to take fifth in the women’s division. Both Litworas are elite endurance athletes who will compete in Quebec at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships on Sept. 7. The two are also part of a long line of excellent Forest Grove triathletes, including Gordon Haller, who won the first-ever Ironman race in 1978 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Cyclists navigate a twisting section of the course at the 33rd annual Hagg Lake Triathlon, held Saturday at Hagg Lake. The event drew 425 competitors from around the country.“Washington County is one of the best places to ride a bike,” said Dan, who often trains around Hagg Lake. “The views are great, the traffic’s not bad and the drivers are really nice to bikers.”

Meanwhile, in the sprint distance race, 20-year-old Marco Ramirez covered the half-mile swim, 20K bike leg and 5K run in 1:10:14 to place fourth overall and first in the men’s 20-24 division. In 2012, Ramirez graduated from Forest Grove High School, where he learned how to swim just four years ago.

“Now swimming is my favorite part of the race,” he said. Ramirez now trains with the triathlon team at Oregon State University, where he is studying biology.

While Forest Grove was well represented, many of the 425 participants who finished the event came from far-off places, including New Hampshire and Arizona.

“I’m visiting my family here in Oregon and I’m training for a half-marathon,” North Carolina resident Don Willemstein, 55, said before racing the Olympic distance. “I figured I would just do it while I’m out here, because I’d heard it was a beautiful, well-run place to race.”

The race organizers take great pride in what Willemstein had heard of the Hagg Lake Triathlon.

“What makes most people come out here are the gorgeous vistas and the fact that we keep it very well organized for the athletes.” said Stephanie Foster, director of sales and marketing at AA Sports, the Beaverton-based company that has coordinated the Hagg Lake Triathlon for the past 20 years. The company also trains the 70 volunteers and 30 staff members who make the event possible.

“Hagg Lake was one of the first official triathlons in the country, so there’s a rich tradition here and a history.”

Indeed, Hagg Lake has hosted legends of the event, including Dave Scott, who won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii six times between 1980 and 1987.

In addition to the landscape, the leadership and the legends, many people are drawn to Hagg Lake because of its homey atmosphere.by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Forest Grove resident Dan Litwora, 38, transitions to the running stage of the Hagg Lake Triathlon on Saturday. Litwora finished second overall in the Olympic distance triathlon.

“There’s a very local, rural feel here, much less intense than the big city races,” said Corvallis resident Alesia Duncombe, just after her husband, Rich, raced the Olympic distance. “There’s not much traffic, everyone’s friendly, the crowd’s really supportive and I can take my dog Raffles here to swim in the lake.” Alesia gestured to her panting golden retriever sitting under the shade of a tree overlooking the lake. “It feels like I’m in a park,”

“It’s always very festive at the end here,” said Rich, as he downed a salad, peanut-butter-smeared bread and a beer provided by Deschutes Brewery.

Meanwhile, live rock music by the Shwing Daddies rang out across the lake as athletes and spectators snacked under the pavilion at Boat Ramp C. “People stick around afterwards for the sense of community,” Rich noted. “And the fact that there are shorter distances here like the sprint and the Tri-It also make the sport more accessible.”

The Tri-It is an unusual aspect to the Hagg Lake Triathlon. A separate event with only a quarter-mile swim distance, it’s meant to give newcomers a taste for the longer races.

“For many people the most intimidating part is the swim,” Foster explained. “No pun intended, Tri-It lets people get their feet wet. Almost without exception, people who do the Tri-It are like, ‘Wow that was great!’ And then they end up going the full distance next year.”

While ages and hometowns vary widely, the one thing that unites all participants at the Hagg Lake Triathlon is the drive to challenge themselves.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Forest Grove residents Steve Whisler (left) and Christopher Toole relax in the shade after finishing the Hagg Lake Triathlon on Saturday.“It starts with a choice,” said Gary Willemson, a veteran triathlete and owner of the Portland triathlon shop Athletes Lounge, which set up a repair tent at the event. “It’s a huge challenge but people pick up a bike and decide to do it anyway. Then one step leads to another and all of a sudden they’re hooked.”

“It’s challenging, it’s fun, it gets you in good shape, and look around — it’s beautiful!” said sprint distance racer and West Linn resident Scott Stapleton as he waved at the meadow- and tree-coated hills framing the glittering lake in the golden sunlight.

As the triathlon wound down, bike racks and timing chips were replaced by families with picnic blankets and fishing rods, the race all but forgotten except by those who just raced and watched it.

“This is what it’s about,” said Foster. “People go out into the county, into nature, the water and the hills, to test their bodies and see what they can do.”