Suddenly, there was an explosion on the sand.
Forty-five barefoot runners thundered down the beach, splashed into the water and started swimming toward an offshore buoy.
The colorful scene at 6 a.m. Thursday near the Santa Ana River jetty was the beginning of the 15th annual Megacolossus, a grueling run-swim-run contest for Southern California lifeguards.
"It's kind of a spectacular sight, especially when you see the start, when so many lifeguards are all together running down the beach," said state lifeguard Steven Hawkins, 30, who helped organize the event.
The Megacolossus is a speed and endurance trial that challenges two skills all lifeguards need: the ability to run fast and the ability to swim hard. The Huntington State Beach Lifeguards Assn. sponsors the contest, which is open to both municipal and state lifeguards in Southern California.
"It's a pretty informal event," Hawkins said. "There's no entry fee. It got started as a celebration of life. The lifeguards who first started this said it was 'a gathering of friends to celebrate life.' "
Technically, the event is open to anyone, but lifeguards predominate. Only one female, Erin Farley, 17, a lifeguard who lives in San Clemente, competed in Thursday's event.
The eight-mile running course of the Megacolossus starts at the mouth of the Santa Ana River and goes north to Warner Avenue, at the northern end of Bolsa Chica State Beach. Interspersed are four ocean swims to offshore buoy markers, including one that arcs around the new, 1,856-foot-long Huntington Beach Municipal Pier.
"The hard thing is transition," Hawkins said. "There's the problem of transitioning from running to swimming and then running again. It's definitely an endurance event. You not only have to be a good swimmer, but you also have to be an incredible runner."
This year the 45 contestants included lifeguards from Huntington Beach's city and state beaches, Bolsa Chica State Beach, Crystal Cove State Beach and city and state beaches in San Diego County. Huntington State Beach lifeguards swept the honors, winning first, second and third places.
The first-place winner was Finn McClafferty, 29, of Huntington Beach, a supervisor at Huntington State Beach. He crossed the finish line with a time of 1 hour, 36 minutes and 3 seconds--breaking the old Megacolossus course record by about six minutes.
"I think the real reason I broke the record is because one of the swims is a little shorter this year," said McClafferty, who also won the Megacolossus in 1987.
Coming in second was Jeff Toomire, 17, and third was Marc Rinzler, 21.
McClafferty said he was helped by his weekly training regimen: running 50 miles and swimming 20,000 yards.
The contestants noted that the water was unusually warm at the first ocean swim, near the Southern California Edison generating plant at Newland Street and Pacific Coast Highway. Hawkins said that the electric plant uses ocean water for cooling and that the process leaves the water considerably warmer in that area of the beach.
"The water temperature overall was about 71 degrees, but the water temperature at Newland Street was about 90 degrees, and it felt like swimming in sweat," McClafferty said.
There is no trophy for the winner.
"The winner's name each year goes on a placard at Huntington State Beach headquarters," McClafferty said. "The only thing the winner gets is a handshake and bragging rights for the next year."
The lifeguards said the race continues to be a celebration of life, just as its early founders envisioned.
"It's just something we do near the end of summer," McClafferty said. "We just show up and do it. It's something we do to show our bodies are still working. It's kind of a highlight of summer."