SWEET HOME — The starting gun fired Sunday morning at Lewis Creek County Park and triathletes in Foster Reservoir splashed westward through the water.

The seventh annual Best in the West Triathlon Festival started on Friday, and drew about 915 participants to swim, bike and run east of Sweet Home. Sunday competitions included the Olympic distance triathlon, the “Try-a-Tri” Youth Tri and the Kids Splash and Dash.

“Our biggest year ever. Our first year, we had about 100,” said Staci Partridge, who owns and organizes the festival with her fiancé Blair Bronson.

Marcus Ewton of Albany was participating in the Olympic distance triathlon — a 1500 meter swim, 24.8 mile bike ride and 6.2 mile run.

“The competition is steep. There’s a wide variety from first-timers to people who live and breathe this stuff,” said Ewton.

The 46-year-old started the sport in 2011, and worked hard at the Mid-Willamette Family YMCA to improve his swimming. Now he’s completed 20 events. But races aren’t really the point for him.

Ewton is a member of the Pure Endurance triathlon team, a collection of mid-Willamette Valley athletes, and he said that the camaraderie in training sessions is his favorite part of being a triathlete.

Oregon State University Triathlon Club member Emile Chol dove into the sport because he wanted to prove to himself that he could do hard things.

“My grades improved and pretty much everything about my life improved when I started it,” he said.

“It kind of gives you confidence. You see you can do these things and everything else seems easier,” added Chol, a senior studying sociology who is originally from Pasadena, California.

Chol said the OSU team had about 20 athletes in the festival, and 40 students are “really active” in the club.

Fellow club member Joseph Unfred, a junior from Salem who is double-majoring in German and anthropology, said the setting was amazing. “The lake is great and the views are incredible on the bike and the run,” he added.

Conditions also seemed ideal for a triathlon on Sunday, with cool temperatures and overcast skies.

The Best in the West has strong OSU ties, and not just because of the Beavers competing against Washington, Boise State and Montana State athletes.

Partridge and Bronson were both presidents of the OSU Triathlon Club.

The Best in the West began as an OSU public health promotion student internship for Bronson, who decided he’d rather get people active than push papers in an office.

“I started with the plan of doing it once,” Bronson said with a chuckle. Now, it’s a full-time job for him and Partridge. The Philomath couple own eight races and also are hired to help coordinate other events.

Partridge said she’s also “dabbling” in getting a doctorate degree in exercise sports science from OSU.

This weekend, Bronson and Partridge were actually able to participate in a triathlon, which is a rarity given their busy schedules. They raced together in the mixed-team relay on Friday.

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Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.