The largest Cooper River Bridge Run was also the longest.
Delayed by nearly an hour at the start as thousands of people tried to get to Mount Pleasant from downtown Charleston by bus, the 35th annual Bridge Run didn't start until nearly 9 a.m. Saturday. It was not over until almost four hours later, when 90-year-old walker Leroy Miller of North Charleston crossed the finish line.
“It was fun,” Miller said as he posed for photos with race volunteers.
Miller was the last of a record 36,652 runners and walkers to cross the finish line on Meeting Street in Charleston, bettering the previous record of 34,789 set last year. A total of 43,635 people, the second-highest number on record, registered for the race, the sixth-largest in the U.S.
But getting those people to the start line on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant in time for a scheduled 8 a.m. start proved to be a problem.
With up to 10,000 participants still on buses, race officials could not close the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge until about 7:45 a.m., 45 minutes later than normal. The Bridge Run did not start until 8:58 a.m., almost an hour behind schedule.
Elite runners took the delay in stride. Solomon Deksisa, a 21-year-old Ethiopian, won the men's 10K in 29 minutes and 37 seconds, while Janet Cherobon-Bawcom of Rome, Ga., took the women's race in 33:01.
But after “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks sang the national anthem and the clock ticked past 8 a.m., the almost 40,000 people packed onto Coleman Boulevard became restless. They responded with boos to repeated assurances that the race was about to start.
“It got somewhat frustrating just not knowing what was going on,” said participant Chet Chea of Greenville. “They would tell you we have a minute to start, and then an hour later, we're still there.”
To make matters worse, some issues with cellphone usage were reported during the day. That included a race official on the pace truck who had trouble communicating with other officials before and during the race. Some runners also reported a shortage of water along the race course and at the finish in Marion Square.
The problems began at 5 a.m. near Gaillard Auditorium in Charleston, where a fleet of 150 buses was to pick up thousands of runners and ferry them to Mount Pleasant.
“It was kind of a domino effect,” said race director Julian Smith. “When we loaded the buses, they were loading only 10 buses at a time when they could have been doing 30 at a time. That caused a backup as we tried to get everyone over the bridge.”
The large number of registrants, combined with some late-arriving runners at the downtown bus pickup spot, worsened the problem, said assistant race director Benita Schlau.
“We encourage them to be there at 5 a.m. to get on the buses,” she said. “But they have so much fun on Friday night in Charleston that a lot of them don't get there until 6 or later. About 80 percent of our people take the bus, and that's too many to load, even with 150 buses. We had 10,000 people still not at the start, and we wanted to get them over there.”
The delay in getting the bridge closed led to a late start for the Bridge Run's wheelchair race, which usually begins about 20 minutes ahead of the elite runners. Smith said some of the wheelchair racers struggled getting over the bridge, adding to the delay.
“A couple of people had some problems on the bridge, and we couldn't start the rest of the race for safety reasons,” he said.
Smith and Schlau both said one solution to the bus problem could be having more pickup points for next year's race.
“We've already talked about having satellite buses from downtown and the North Area,” Schlau said. “Many people stay all the way from Ashley Phosphate Road up to Orangeburg, so we could have some buses up there.”
Race historian Cedric Jaggers said it was the latest finish for a Bridge Run, and the first significant delay since fog pushed back the start of the race in the 1980s.
Despite the problems, Smith said he heard no complaints.
“It was not that much of a delay,” he said, “and it was a good time for all.”