Ever run across a name and somehow you know — you just know beyond the shadow of a doubt — that it is familiar? Happened to me when working on a story about the first Cooper River Bridge Run. The first-place winner (30:22) was listed as Benji Durden, Atlanta, Ga.
“That guy’s from Jesup,” my hometown in southeast Georgia, I said to myself without questioning why I knew the name.
Turns out I was mostly right. Durden went to high school in the late 1960s in Jesup in Wayne County but lived in the small neighboring farm village of Odum. His aunt worked at my father’s newspaper and Durden, a young runner, was on his way to becoming a national sensation in the early days of the sport.
Durden’s father was from Odum, but left Georgia for a career in the Air Force. Durden, born in California in 1951, remembers winning the “shuttle run” in the early 1960s as part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
“I was a good student and had very good grades,” he recalled recently from his home in Boulder, Colorado. “Those kinds of kids don’t get a lot of friends. I tried a lot of different sports. You offset good grades with good sports. But I didn’t like people throwing hard balls at my head.”
So he went out for track and field, first trying the pole vault. On the day a teammate crashed to the ground after breaking a fiberglass pole — and his arm — Durden said he switched to running.
In ninth grade, he ran a five-minute mile, which he remembered as being pretty good in California. By 1966 in 10th grade, his father retired and the family moved to Odum. In Wayne County, the school record for the mile was 5:05. That year, the school’s top runner set a new record at 4:54, with Durden coming in a second later. By junior year, Durden set the school record at 4:36, which he says may still be the school record.
Durden then attended the University of Georgia and walked onto the track team, eventually winning a scholarship. As a freshman, he ran a 4:15 mile. After graduation, he didn’t run as much, but eventually picked it back up in Atlanta, running longer races and gaining acclaim.
Bridge Run founder Marcus Newberry invited Durden to the first race in 1978. Durden recalls placing in a 15K race on April 1 in Jacksonville and then flying to Charleston on a private plane to run the next day in the first Bridge Run. “I was somewhat dubious and hesitant — two races in two days — but we did that more back then,” Durden said in 2010.
In the years that followed, Durden ranked among the top American marathoners for six straight years and was seventh in the world in 1982. The following year, he ran his personal best marathon in 2:09:57 when he placed third in the Boston marathon. Over a decade, he ran 25 marathons under 2:20:00.
On this April 2, Durden will miss being in Charleston. But he will be running … in this 137th marathon as a tribute to a friend who is running his 1,000th.
Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper.
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