The modern sport of triathlon began with an event held in Mission Bay in San Diego, Calif., on Sept. 25, 1974, with 46 participating athletes. Seven years later, the Hagg Lake Triathlon became one of six stops on the Bud Light Triathlon Series Tour, drawing roughly 500 athletes — and triathlon legend Dave Scott was crowned the winner.
Last weekend, as one of the nation's oldest and longest-running triathlon events, Hagg Lake entered its 35th year and its appeal continues: this year's event attracted more than 500 participants over two days of competition.
Its popularity is rooted in a rich tradition. And its exceptional and challenging venue — one of the most scenic in the country — offers a true test for participants with its rolling hills on both the bike and run portions of the event.
"It's just a terrific course," said Jeffrey Nelson of Beaverton, who has competed in the event on multiple occasions. "The lake offers a pretty benign environment for the swim and these hills really challenge you."
Nelson didn't compete in this year's event due to injury, but came out to root the competitors on and participate in what he described as an unrivaled atmosphere among local endurance sport contests. He's been competing in triathlons and other endurance sport events for more than a decade, and considers the Hagg Lake event to be one of the best.
"I just love this place and everything this event has become," he said. "It really shows the best of such an awesome world."
Expanding beyond Ironman
Endurance sports are classified as sports that require sustained athletic performance at low intensities for long distances or periods of time. The "world" Nelson described had roughly 100,000 members in 1998 and has grown to more than five times that since, expanding beyond the original "Ironman" version.
At this year's Hagg Lake event, a number of different competitions took place, including varying distances, road and off-road tris and duathlons, which in most cases eliminate the swim while participants compete in a bike and run race and even an off-road 5K run.
"It's so cool that they're doing off-road stuff now," said Nelson. "As someone who likes to mountain bike, I'd love to do that off-road triathlon they're doing tomorrow."
That "tomorrow" was Sunday, July 9, the day after the bulk of the weekend's action. While Saturday featured the more popular events, such as the Olympic and Sprint distance tris, Sunday was a lower-key version, hosting the burgeoning off-road sprint triathlon, off-road sprint duathlon, sprint aquabike and 5K trail run. Nelson said he knows a lot of people who participate in events both days — some because they're here and that's what they do, while others just can't get enough.
"It's a lifestyle," Nelson said. "People travel from all over to compete in this event and others like it, so if they're here for the weekend, some will do something Sunday as just another form of exercise."
Entry fees rising
Participation in non-traditional endurance sports like triathlons has almost doubled that of traditional ones like marathons and half marathons in recent years, and some have suggested the increase in participants, coupled with the inevitable influx of corporate money, put the sport's inherent values in danger.
Some original fans of endurance sports were drawn to these edgy competitions because of their lack of public attention and commercialism. The Ironman was supposed to be the ultimate challenge and its early participants were mainly military men, lifeguards and adventure-seeking fitness fanatics. Today's triathlons typically draw affluent participants: in February 2016 the New York Times reported the average Iroman participant's household income was $147,000 a year.
Some longtime participants have become disillusioned by the increasing expense of race entry fees and commercial associations (Hagg Lake's event ranges from $15 to $115), which they believe are purely a profit-seeking move. But Nelson sees the fees as a "necessary evil," and the corporate involvement as a "predictable" sidelight of anything with this sort of popularity.
"Look around," said Nelson. "If you want to have an event like this you're going to have to have some money to do it. But it seems kind of petty to get upset about something that ultimately is about fitness. Especially how bad our fitness has become in this country."
Nelson has a point. More than two in three adults in the U.S. are overweight, and one in three are obese. Additionally, the problem is growing exponentially among American children — childhood obesity has immediate and long-term health outcomes for kids who experience a range of health conditions previously seen almost exclusively among adults.
In addition to exercise, the camaraderie of triathloning keeps people coming back, providing athletes with a pleasant combination of a workout, competition and outdoor picnicking for folks of all ages and abilities.
"It's a big family out here," Nelson said as he looked around and pointed to the scene. "What's not to like about this?"