Moving to Charleston four years ago and driving over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge for the first time, I was awestruck. It was simply beautiful, arched above the blue water, as it seemed to touch the sky at its highest point. It’s amazing to think that an architectural structure as simple as a bridge built over the Cooper River blesses the Lowcountry daily as people drive to and from work on their daily commutes.
Speaking of daily commutes, some people trek over this man-made wonder daily by foot. Running, walking, with strollers … however they can make it. The Ravenel Bridge, if anything, is a source of inspiration to get out and do your best – to cross the bridge.
And thousands of runners, ranging from the world-class to the average-joe morning jogger, will get out and do just that this April 6 to enjoy the 42nd annual Cooper River Bridge Run 10K, spanning from Mount Pleasant’s Coleman Boulevard to Marion Square in downtown Charleston.
Our town’s great road race has enjoyed tremendous success and publicity, thanks to the efforts and dedication of Julian Smith and his many years at its helm as race director.
We all know the Charleston area is booming with newcomers and tourists, so it’s no secret the race has enjoyed increased success each passing year. But what if we were to rewind to a simpler time – to get a glimpse into the race when it was mostly confined to locals? These hearty souls, along with a slew of other runners who probably knew one another, woke up, slipped on their shorts, perhaps a cotton T-shirt or tank top and a pair of Nikes, all in the name of pure, friendly competition.
Marc Embler, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Adult and Professional Studies and is the assistant vice president for academic affairs at Charleston Southern University. He’s been running for 48 years and is the only local to win the Cooper River Bridge Run – the fourth race, in 1981. “My one – and only – claim to fame,” he said with a laugh. Although his times are still competitive, with talent pouring in from far and wide, it’s much more difficult to finish at the front of the pack.
“The race has changed dramatically from being a local, state/regional race to an (international) race. … And what I mean by that is that the competition went from being more regional and surrounding states to really it’s a worldwide event now. They’re bringing in athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries, and there’s prize money. … When I won, there was a trophy,” stated Embler, musing at the growth of the race over the years.
Although the race is hard-core competition for those elite runners up front, that doesn’t stop the Bridge Run from being an “event” filled with fun for others in the mix.
“About this time of year, everybody is asking, ‘Are you doing the Bridge?’ … It’s a big event that leads to a party in the park afterwards,” Embler explained.
Burt Hodges, a resident of Mount Pleasant’s Old Village, is a longtime bridge runner and sees the race as a father-son tradition. Hodges has run the Bridge since 1998 – 20 years – and, for the past five years, he’s been running with his son, Marshall, now a sophomore at Academic Magnet, where he participates in cross-country and track.
“Obviously, it’s gotten a lot bigger. … I think the biggest change that we saw was when the new bridge went up. The last year of the old bridge was a big one just because everyone wanted to run that for the last time, then the new bridge went up … and I think they probably set a record for attendance at that race,” Hodges said.
Citing one of his favorite memories running with his son, Hodges recalled spotting one of his favorite running celebrities, Bill Rodgers – four-time winner of the Boston Marathon – and snapping a photo of Marshall as they passed Rodgers, who was obviously running at a leisurely pace.
Hodges also lauded Julian Smith’s efforts in growing the race over the years. He recalled seeing Smith rallying excitement and attendance for the Bridge Run while he was in Big Sur, California, in 2000 for a marathon.
“Julian was out there at the expo for the Big Sur Marathon trying to draw up support for the Cooper River Bridge Run. … I saw firsthand how hard he worked at it. … It (is impressive) that he has built it to what it is today,” Hodges said.
Local resident Stephen Judy echoed Hodges’ sentiments, stating, “The amount of people it brings to town … the fun everyone has … it is a big social event and a tribute to Charleston and Mount Pleasant. I have friends from Charlotte and Raleigh that have been coming for the last several years – not to win it, just to be a part of it.”
Judy also reflected on the previous two bridges that hosted the race, before the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge was opened in 2005: the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge and the Silas N. Pearman Bridge. The Grace Memorial Bridge was a narrow, shaky structure, and a pack of stampeding runners made the race an interesting, likely hazardous, experience.
“I remember a run on the Silas Pearman Bridge when it rained so hard that we ran through ankle-deep water at the base of that bridge,” said Judy.
Terry Hamlin fondly recalled the earliest days of the race, which he and Dr. Marcus Newberry founded in 1978. A chemist at the Medical University of South Carolina, Hamlin had already formed the Charleston Running Club in 1977. Dr. Newberry, dean of the College of Medicine at MUSC, was a member.
“Marcus came into my lab one day and he said, ‘I have an idea to see if the club and MUSC would partner up and do a race across the Cooper River Bridge. Do you think we should get that done? And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And that’s exactly how it was born – that day at that moment,” said Hamlin.
The partnership between MUSC, with its mission of promoting community health, and the Charleston Running Club, with its knowledge of conducting races and of the sport, proved immensely successful even in the early years, with Keith Hamilton and Hamlin directing the race. But that success skyrocketed in the mid-1990s, when Smith was hired as race director. He excelled in his role, growing the race from a regional competition to an international race. Smith remained in his role as director until January 2019, following a diagnosis of glioblastoma.
People like Hamlin and Smith are indeed the backbone of the Bridge Run, and Hamlin continues to promote wellness, train and educate in the sport of running, writing a book on training long-distance runners.
This book is special in that it is dedicated to his to wife and to Julian Smith, with a portion of the profits on each book sold going to the Glioblastoma Foundation to fight brain cancer. Eventually, proceeds also will help the American Cancer Society in general and the MUSC Foundation.
“I not only wanted to write a book because I’ve been asked to write a book for decades on training – and I’ve trained a bunch of athletes … I wanted to write one that would have some relevance on what’s happening now and be able help the efforts and research on cancers,” Hamlin said.
By Helen Harris