Lifeguard racing is a South Jersey tradition that dates back decades.

It's as much a part of summer in these parts as seagulls hunting for potato chips, "Wa ... Wa. ... Watch the Tramcar Please" on the Wildwood Boardwalk, grabbing a slice at Manco & Manco in Ocean City, and watching the sunset at the Cove in Cape May.

In 2003, when Sports Illustrated celebrated its 50th anniversary by profiling one sport per state, lifeguard racing was the pick for New Jersey. Beach patrols Long Beach Island to Cape May Point compete in events featuring swimming, rowing, paddleboarding and my personal favorite, the surf dash.

It's tough to mask my disappointment over the way the coronavirus pandemic has beached those events this year.

This is usually the time of summer when the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association racing schedule gets underway. The 39th Cape May SuperAthalon, a triathlon-style event that serves as lifeguard racing's version of opening day, was supposed to be held next Monday. The first team competitions, the Cape May County Championships in Wildwood Crest and Captain Michael D. McGrath Longport Memorials in Longport, were slated for the next week as the kickoff to over 25 competitions featuring all or some of the 15 members of the Chiefs Association that are normally held in July and August.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, however, all July events were canceled and the August competitions, including the 81st South Jersey Championships - lifeguard racing's version of the Super Bowl - will be reevaluated at a later date.

Some of the canceled events are particularly special.

Attending the SuperAthalon usually means climbing aboard a Cape May Beach Patrol vehicle with Coast Sports Today's Brian Cunniff and others for a ride along Beach Drive during the 2.3-mile run, jumping out at Poverty Beach to watch the start of the 1.5-mile row, then getting back to Cannone Beach in time to watch Cape May's Rob Moran navigate the tricky current during the quarter-mile swim to pull out a victory.

A few years back, a torn meniscus slowed my return to the truck at Poverty. Luckily, I grew up only a couple blocks away - I still own the home and have rented it to Coast Guard members the last few years - and was able to hitch a ride to the finish line with former tenant and good friend Jake McMillan.

Afterwards, competitors, fans and a certain writer head across the street to the Rusty Nail - my wife's aunt and uncle were the original owners - for a postrace party. For me, that meant chef Jimmy Burton's pig roast, where I stacked my plate with barbecue, collard greens, cole slaw and corn bread and washed it down with a margarita while sitting near the firepit and listening to great music from Tim Joyce and Terry O'Brien.

The Cape May County race is also one of my favorites.

Wildwood Crest chief Bud Johnson and his staff deserve kudos for adding women's races and for including paddleboard races to go with the more traditional events. Last year's competition was especially exciting. The host patrol won the team trophy for the first time in 11 years due to a victory in the five-person surf dash relay, which requires racers to sprint into the ocean, dive over waves to reach a turnaround flag, then fight their way back to shore.

It's always the final race of the event and usually generates raucous cheers from fellow lifeguards and spectators.

Watching the Dutch Hoffman's is also a treat. Last year marked the 50th edition of the event, which was named in honor of former Wildwood Beach Patrol Captain Frank "Dutch" Hoffman.
It's the only race that features a two-mile beach run. Veteran guards who know what it's like to run in sand usually fare pretty well.

For me, the event is followed by the five-mile walk from the water's edge to the boardwalk, where I stop at a pizza place for dinner, laugh at the slogans in the t-shirt shops, and dodge the tramcar while breathing in the sweet aromas of French Fries, funnel cake and salt air.

It's also the first leg of what is considered the "Big Three," along with the Margate Memorials and South Jersey's. The South Jersey's is a special event that is steeped in tradition. Generations of lifeguards have competed in the race, which is watched by thousands of fans.

Longport made history last year. Led by swimmer Joey Tepper, it became the first beach patrol to win four straight team titles since the current format - doubles row, swim, singles row - was established in 1973.

Hopefully, they'll get a chance to make it five straight.

If so, I'll be there to watch it.

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