Cape May triathlon starts with a 12-foot leap - off a ferry

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More than 1700 athletes will test their mettle Sunday at the Escape the Cape Triathlon near Cape May. But first they have to jump off the Cape May-Lewes Ferry into the C & D Canal to complete the swimming portion of the race. CREDIT: DelMoSports Inc.

LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. — For Mike Mader, who grew up steps from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal, it’s the dramatic 12-foot leap off the front of a ferry at the start of the Escape the Cape Triathlon that has kept him coming back year after year for the race.

“It’s definitely a nice rush when you hit the water,” said Mader, 47, of Lower Township, a pharmaceuticals researcher. “As a kid you wonder what it would be like to jump off the ferry … and now I know.”

“And I have bragging rights to be able to say `I jumped off this boat,’ when I get on the ferry to go someplace later in the year. It’s pretty cool,” said Mader, who with a partner this spring opened a store in Cape May called Cape May Running Co., which specializes in apparel, running shoes, and coached training.

Race participant Rich Montgomery, 51, a computer sales rep from Sewell, who grew up in Philadelphia, agrees.

“It’s that Facebook profile picture you want to get.  It really is all about getting that photo,” joked Montgomery, who calls the jump “nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time.”

Set for early Sunday, the race, sponsored by DelMoSports Inc. and Inspira Health Network, attracts some 1,700 athletes and has been listed as one of the top five “bucket-list” races in the world — among such notables as Norway’s Isklar Norseman and Hawaii’s Kona Ironman World Championships — by Triathlon Business International, an industry organization dedicated to the promotion and business of triathlons.

Modeled after the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco — which has been called “the leap of a lifetime” with a jump into the water that appears to be about half the length of Cape May’s — Escape the Cape is the only race of its kind east of the Rockies, according to founder Stephen Del Monte, CEO of endurance-events promoter DelMoSports Inc. in Wildwood.

And much like the former Philadelphia International Cycling Classic that made a cheering section out of those who lined the race route as it wound its way through local Philly neighborhoods on its way to the fabled Manayunk Wall, Escape the Cape has become a favorite among residents and visitors in the Cape May area, drawing more than 2,000 spectators along the triathlon course.  The event, now in its fifth year, is so beloved by some residents that they offer the athletes cold drinks and towels along the race route and hose them down with water if it’s hot.

But before participants can take even one step on land toward the finish line, they have to commit to the ride-or-die moment of truth at the edge of the ferry deck. The picturesque run and bike course, closed to traffic for the race, winds alongside coastal roads, vineyards, and bird sanctuaries.

But it’s the leap from the ferry that most participants will tell you they came for: Just after dawn, the athletes are loaded onto a ferry at the Cape May terminal and the boat is taken to a spot about 400 yards out, near where the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet in a sometimes roiling current. From there, they will have to swim nearly a mile back to shore and board their bicycles.

Athletes can participate in two categories: a “Sprint” triathlon, which consists of a .35-mile swim, 12-mile bike race, and 5K run, which costs $179 to enter, or the “Olympic,” which is a one-mile swim, a 23-mile bike race, and a five-mile run, which costs $229.  Both categories are filled and no additional participants are being accepted for this year.  Awards will be given at the end of the race.

Depending on the tidal conditions, which can vary year to year, officials from the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which operates the ferry, decide whether to tether the vessel with the aid of a tugboat or engage the large boat’s rear thrust mechanism to hold it in place in the current.

The ramp on the front of the boat — where vehicles usually drive onto and off the ferry when it transports passengers and vehicles between New Jersey and Delaware — is used as a jumping-off point for four or five athletes at a time.  As they make the leap, a team of photographers captures shots of each participant for a souvenir photo.

Recognizing that some participants might have second thoughts when it comes time to jump, a sports psychologist is on hand to help them through the experience. If participants change their minds about leaping, race officials say they can return to the terminal aboard the ferry and complete the swim portion of the race in the nearby canal.

But few ever do.

“I think most people are attracted to the race because of the jump off the ferry,” said Scott Leslie, 45, a chiropractor from Center Moriches, Long Island, N.Y., who brings his wife and two children to the race each year. “I do a lot of races all over the country every year and I wouldn’t miss this one.  It’s so exciting because of the jump, the scenery is beautiful, the people here are lovely, and the race itself is so well thought out, so well run by Stephen and DelMoSports.  It’s really world-class. It’s worth a four-hour drive to get here.”

That’s music to the ears of event creator Del Monte, who started the race in 2013.

“This event is lightning in a bottle,” said Del Monte, 40, a former Philadelphia elementary school math teacher who grew up in the hospitality business at the Jersey Shore.

The race has a maximum number of participants — 1,700 — because of the ferry capacity, officials said.

“The interesting thing to keep in mind is that people are coming here from 45 different states to participate … and this isn’t San Francisco,” Del Monte said. “This is the South Jersey Shore, this is Cape May County. And this is considered a world-class event by these participants and by leaders in the triathlon world.  We’re really proud of that for this region.”