Courtesy The Chart Group
The Cooper RIver Bridge Run wasn’t always over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. | Courtesy Cooper River Bridge Run

Bridge Run 45 

That first Cooper River Bridge Run on April 2, 1978, had an unplanned feature you won’t find in today’s modern race — a reversible lane barrier on what then was called the “new” Cooper River Bridge. Seems newbie race officials didn’t lift the gate in time for the lead runners. So Georgian Benji Durden and two Baptist College track team members adapted. They jumped over it.

“For some reason, the gate had not been lifted to run through,” recalled 70-year-old Durden, a Boulder, Colorado, resident who won the first race. “I’d just moved into the lead. I didn’t want to duck over it or go around it, so I hurdled it. Then I went on and ran alone and won the rest of the race.”

A flyer for the first race noted a water station at the halfway mark … “if necessary.”  | Photo courtesy Cooper River Bridge Run

Veteran racer Bob Schlau, who now lives in Beaufort, remembered the two track team members, both from Kenya, hurdling the gate, too.

Some 766 entrants, — 653 men and 113 women — participated in the first race, although newspaper reports from the time pegged the number of runners around 1,000. The race, with its $3 entry fee, started at 10 a.m. on a warm Sunday. By the time many runners were headed toward the finish line at the Battery — the only time it’s been there — some got clogged among churchgoers on Meeting Street.

“It was kind of a zoo going down Meeting Street,” said Schlau, 74. “We ended up at the Battery … only once.”

A road race becomes a sensation

Owen Meislin, 69, of Charleston, remembers gathering in the parking lot at Patriots Point before beginning the first race. He and Charleston resident John Weeks are the only two runners who have run in all 44 races, including the 2020 virtual race held during the pandemic.

“We — runners — were an anomaly in 1978,” he recalled. “It [the Bridge Run] was an unknown. So were we.”

Charleston residents Owen Meislin and John Weeks (above) reminisce about past bridge runs. They are the only two runners who have raced in each of the previous 44 Cooper River Bridge Runs. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Weeks, now 80, said he was a beginning runner back then and thought the Bridge Run was a one-time event. He showed up without proper shoes, running his first race wearing Sperry Topsiders. He ended up with more than a light blue T-shirt (which he still has): “Blisters!” (which healed).

Schlau said the biggest difference between the first race and the current destination event is in the number of people. The Bridge Run, the third largest 10K run in the county, is expected to attract more than 22,000 people this year — about half of the number before the pandemic when it was at its peak.

“It’s completely different. You think of 1,000 people running together and it sounds like a lot, but it’s not really,” Schlau said. “It was a group of real runners. There weren’t any guys in clown suits or people walking.”

Meislin said he used to run in a lot of races, but appreciates how the Cooper River Bridge Run has grown.

“The Bridge Run has, admirably, not lost its soul,” he said. 

Several events in one

Batten, the race director, said the modern Bridge Run is really a lot of events packed into one. 

“We’ve got a world-class wheelchair event. A world-class 10K. A local championship. There are costumes and it’s festive,” he said. “There are so many things wrapped up in one that it’s such a cool event.”

While old-school racers might not like how some make a party out of the Bridge Run, Batten recalls several outfits that knocked off his socks — a team of costumed racers pulling a dogsled, people dressed up as area lighthouses, stormtroopers, Lady Liberty.

“Every year, there are so many cool ones.”

The starting line of yesteryear. | Courtesy Cooper River Bridge Run

Since 1986, the top male and female finishers who live in the Tri-county area have been recognized with a cash prize and the Marcus Newberry Award, the prize that honors race founder, Dr. Marcus Newberry.

This year marks the beginning of a new continuing prize, the Cedric Jaggers Award, which will be a cash prize and trophy to the top male and female finishers who live in South Carolina. Jaggers, who died in 2019, was the Bridge Run’s longtime historian and author of a 2011 book that offers a year-by-year look at the event. 

Advice to new runners

Veteran Bridge Run participants have advice for anyone who is planning to participate in this year’s event for the first time.

Experiment. Schlau encouraged children to exercise, but to not let parents or coaches force them into something they don’t want to do. “Experiment with it and do what you enjoy.”

Owen Meislin and John Weeks show off their first Bridge Run T-shirts. | Photo by Rūta Smith

Have fun. Weeks emphasized, “Start slow, run with friends, set goals and have fun.”

Be disciplined. Meislin said he didn’t enjoy running until he got swept up in it with friends who ran. “Darned if it didn’t click,” he said. “It is such an efficient way to benefit yourself in a permanent, undeniable way. The runner’s high is real. And the longer you stick with it, the more you appreciate it. … Hanging in with discipline permeates so much of one’s life.”

Meislin said he plans to run in the 45th Bridge Run to keep his streak going. So will Weeks, who still runs a few times a week — albeit more slowly than 45 years ago.

“I think I’ll try to get to 50, which is another five years, and then I’ll have to evaluate.”

To learn more and register, go to:

Help the City Paper keep delivering excellence

Winner of top 2021 state journalism honors (best editorial writing and best cartoon), the Charleston City Paper brings you the Best of Charleston every day. Support our “unafraid” journalism with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.