Since the running boom of the 1970s, Marc Embler has established himself as one of the most accomplished and enduring runners in the Palmetto State.

But Embler, the only Charleston area male to win the Cooper River Bridge Run, admits to having one recurring problem in races over the years.

"I've probably gone off course 15 times," admits the 56-year-old North Charleston resident, adding that it even occurred at a race last summer after he had run the course at least eight times before.

Embler reflects on his racing quirk.

"That's kind of like my life. Sometimes when I'm not focused on my faith and where I need to be going, I get off course. When I look over my life, the most peaceful and productive times are when I have my head up and I'm focused on where I'm supposed to go."

As many of his fellow com- petitive runners in their 50s find difficulty in maintaining a racing edge, Embler's focus and renewed commitments in recent years have paid off with remarkable and consistent running performances.

In 2009 at the age of 52, he finished the ING New York City Marathon in 2:51:07. Since turning 55, he has set five new state age group records, including the 8K, 10K, 12K, half-marathon and marathon, so far, for men ages 55-59.

Last year, he was the grand masters (age 50+) champion for the Bridge Run with a state age group record of 36 minutes, 19 seconds and was voted as the U.S. Track & Field's male masters runner of the year for South Carolina by peers.

Arguably, he is running on an age-graded level comparable to the days when he was breaking 30 minutes in the 10K in the early 1980s, in the years following running for the former Baptist College on a full scholarship.

Finding his soulmate

Embler's recent successes on the road have come during a transitional period in his life, both professionally and personally.

Faced with mandatory retirement from a "hazardous duty" job at the U.S. Probation Office, where he worked for 24 years, Embler went back to college, Anderson University, for a master's degree in criminal justice.

In 2011, he landed a job at his alma mater, now Charleston Southern University, as the chairman of the criminal justice department. He also finally put a doctorate in education, which he received in 1989, to use.

"When people started referring to me as Dr. Embler, I'd look around and say, 'What?' "

But the bigger difference in his life came when he met his future wife, Ruth Marie, on a group run from the On The Run running store in the summer of 2009.

Store owner Irv Batten had told Embler in advance about a female runner who had recently moved from Greenville and had been on the popular TV show "Survivor," specifically Panama Exile Island, which premiered in February 2006. Embler recalls that he didn't know much about the show at the time.

The group went for 10 miles. When they got back to the store, Ruth Marie asked if anyone wanted to run more. Though he had run all he wanted, Marc volunteered and the two headed over the Cooper River bridge together for another six miles.

Afterward, Embler told her about a 5K race series on Daniel Island and asked for her phone number to tell her more about it later.

At the time, the furthest thing from Ruth Marie's mind was getting into a relationship. The recession had devastated her industry, shopping center leasing, and she moved to Charleston for a more secure job.

"One hundred percent of my focus was dedicated to saving myself financially," she recalls.

But the two were the proverbial case of "two peas in a pod" with eerily similar backgrounds.

Both were born in the same hospital in Anderson, just three months apart (Ruth Marie is older). Her church was across from his grandmother's house.

She played softball on Embler Field in Anderson and basketball against his cousins.

Before Marc and Ruth Marie were married in December 2011, they had been married twice before and have two grown children each, all born within a seven-year time frame.

And then there is the shared love of competitive running throughout their adulthood. (Ruth Marie was the S.C. female master's runner of the year in 2013). They often have recounted races that both ran over the decades and shared "common space" without meeting. In 2002, Marc ran the Bridge Run easy and finished in 38:33. Ruth finished 19 seconds later.

As Christians, both believe that God had a hand in bringing them together, something that both express gratitude for.

Ruth Marie's influence on Marc has included eating a more healthy diet.

Prone to eating junk food, from hamburgers at White Castle and even greasy hot dogs from convenience stores, Marc has adopted a plant-based, mostly vegetarian diet, with the exception of eating fish about once a week.

She's also helped him train better.

"Ruth Marie is not my coach but kind of my guide. She follows (running coach) Jack Daniels and it's about recovery (from hard workouts)," says Marc. "I know at this age that if I have an injury, it's going to be a lot harder to come back. I've watched other people struggle."

Athletics in the blood

Marc's father, Ezra "Ez" Embler, was a very accomplished athlete in the Upstate.

Growing up in a cotton mill family, he was captain of the Shrine Bowl all-star football team and was recruited by famed Clemson coach Frank Howard.

But Ezra was drafted in World War II, serving in Germany for two years. When he returned, he had planned to go to Clemson but was offered a job as an athletic director for Abney Mills, which he took.

It wasn't much money, but it was a career and he didn't have to work in the mill. He ended up retiring from the mill as the personnel director.

Marc and his brothers were active in sports. His older brother, Mical, set the bar high, playing football, basketball, baseball and running track and was "a star in all of them." During his senior year, he was voted as Greenville County Athlete of the Year.

Mical got a scholarship to run at Baptist College and Marc often came down to watch the meets, which he enjoyed and later found out, in ninth grade, that he was good at running distances.

"I liked basketball more than anything, but God gave me the talent to run better than I could play basketball," says Marc. "And I had an opportunity to earn a scholarship and go to school for free, so I did it. The reason I chose Baptist College is because at the time the school was a track powerhouse. We competed on a national level with everybody."

Marc ran for Baptist College from 1975 to 1979, excelling in events including the steeplechase. But the track team's distance coach, Jim Settle, told him his best running days would come after college.

"When he would tell me that, it made me mad, but he was right. I think my body had not been developed enough to sustain the training," says Embler.

His fastest running ended up coming between 1980 and 1984, when he took a job at Athletic Attic and helped coach the Baptist College cross country and track teams for $1,000 a season. He was running 10Ks in the 29- to 30-minute range.

"I just got in that groove. My times just started dropping," says Embler.

For the 1981 Bridge Run, winning was not even on his mind.

"I trained really hard that week. On Thursday (before the race), I did a two-mile workout on the (Baptist College). I ran a hard 800, like in 2:07, and a 9:02 for the two-mile," says Embler, who won the race in 30:54.

The following year, he was keying again on the Bridge Run. At the starting line, he didn't see anybody whom he thought could beat him. A guy with a military-style haircut, Mark Donahue of Fairfax, Va., would take off and put 45 seconds on Embler, who finished second.

Cedric Jaggers, the author of "Charleston's Cooper River Bridge Run: A Complete History in Words and Pictures," says that Embler would "stand tall in the pantheon of South Carolina runners" even if he hasn't won another race since the 1981 event.

Jaggers says Embler may forever hold the title of being the only local to win the Bridge Run.

"Nobody remembers that he finished second overall in '82," says Jaggers. "I remember when Marc ran his (personal record) at the Hilton Head Hyatt 10K - would you believe it was 29:38? Kathy and I ran that race and we were astonished at his great performance."

Jaggers and others recognize that Embler holds a special love of running that few elite runners, who aren't in tip-top shape and running well, hold dear. He runs whether he's in peak shape or not.

"I asked him when I interviewed him for my book if he planned to continue running the Bridge Run and he told me he that he would always run it as long as he was physically able."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.