CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- April 2, 1978: The day the Cooper River Bridge Run was born.
For the past 44 years, runners from around the globe have descended on Charleston to race across the bridge that crosses the Cooper River.
What started as a race with a few hundred participants has turned into the third-largest 10K and fifth largest road race in the country.
Let’s take a look back at the Cooper River Bridge Run’s four-decade story:
The Early Years
In the mid-1970s, Medical University of South Carolina employee Dr. Marcus Newberry came up with the idea to hold a running event on the bridges spanning the Cooper River as a way to encourage physical fitness in the Charleston area.
After receiving a permit to hold the event over the reversible lane on the three-lane Silas Pearman Bridge, the race was scheduled for April 2. The race would start at Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant and end at White Point Gardens at the Charleston Battery.
Instead of a gun, organizers decided to mark the start of the race with the firing of a cannon, an ode to Charleston’s Revolutionary and Civil War history.
Organizers had expected a maximum of 500 runners for the event with 340 having pre-registered. But even with the 80+ degree temperature on race morning, an additional 600 to 700 runners signed up. Only 766 runners would finish the race due to the heat. Many dropped out or were hospitalized due to heat exhaustion as there were no water stops on the course during that first race.
Following complaints about heat exhaustion and pushback from the churches are holding the race on a Sunday, some changes were made for the second annual Cooper River Bridge Run in 1979.
The race was moved to the last Saturday in March, where it would be held until 1985, the race time was moved back an hour, a water station was added at the base of the bridge, and the finish was moved to the College of Charleston campus.
Over 1,350 runners registered that year, with about 1,000 finishing, making it the first South Carolina running event with over 1,000 participants.
The third Bridge Run in 1980 was the only time the race has finished in a tie.
The Unforgettable Years
Fast forward a few years to the ninth and tenth Bridge Runs in 1986 and 1987, respectively, which go down in history as unforgettable marred by weather delays and “illegal” runners.
At this point, the race had been moved back into April with the ninth Bridge Run held on April 5, 1986. The starting time was set for 8:30 a.m. but Mother Nature had other plans.
A patch of dense fog caused a vehicular collision between two shuttle buses carrying runners and another automobile on the Pearman Bridge– the only access to the starting line–about 70 minutes before the race was scheduled to begin.
Even though the race was pushed back by 30 minutes, an estimated 300 to 500 runners were stuck on the bridge when the race began. Many jumped out of their cars, ran across the cut-through road between the two bridges, and joined the race midway through.
The 1987 race is remembered for the fallout of unusually cold temperatures. The start temperature was 39 degrees with wind gusts of 20 to 35 mph so runners were allowed to keep their warmups on instead of displaying their bibs.
This caused problems. Officials estimated that about 10% of the nearly 7,000 runners to cross the finish line were illegal or “bandit” runners, meaning they had not officially registered for the race. But, because the bibs were not visible under warmups were legitimate.
The Bridge Runs after 1987 were fairly standard, bringing only minor changes over the years.
The 1994 race is perhaps best remembered because of one of the participants, talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Oprah finished the race in 3,839th place with a time of 55 minutes and 48 seconds.
In 1995, a few changes were made. The cannon, which had been used to signal the start of each race, was replaced by an announcer after an accident in the 1994 race. A female runner from New York had reportedly received scorch marks on her leg when the cannon was fired.
1995 also marked the first course change since 1987 and was the first time over 10,000 runners participated in the race with women making up just over 3,000 of the runners. It was the first time in the Carolinas that more than 3,000 women finished in a running event.
For the first time, runners were timed using the ChampionChip computer timing chip in 1997 which was laced into their shoe–later it would be fixed to the bib.
The New Bridge
2005 was the last year that the Cooper River Bridge Run spanned the Pearman and Grace bridges.
In 2006, those two bridges were replaced by the single-span suspension Arthur Ravenel bridge and that year’s Cooper River Bridge Run saw a record 45,497 walkers and runners. The 2006 event also introduced a wheelchair category to the competition.
The Pandemic Hits
The coronavirus pandemic caused the entire country to shut down in March 2020, just one month before the annual Cooper River Bridge Run was supposed to be held. The race was canceled for the first time in its history.
The 44th annual Bridge Run was not held in the spring of 2021, but rather in September, as organizers said they wanted to wait until it was safer for large groups to gather again.
The 2022 Race
Now, just days away from the 45th annual event, organizers say they are expecting close to 19,000 participants as the Cooper River Bridge Run makes its way back to normalcy.
The 2022 10K race kicks off at 8 am on Saturday with the starting line on Coleman Blvd about halfway between Shem Creek and Sea Island Shopping Center.