EDITORS NOTE: For 34 years, Benita Shaw has been a part of the Cooper River Bridge as a volunteer, a local elite runner, assistant race director, volunteer coordinator, running clinic coach and even, for one year, the director. Her service demonstrates a deep love for the event that keeps her coming back year-after-year.
Q: You’ve been involved, in an evolving role, with the Bridge Run almost from the very beginning. Tell me how you got interested in running and the Bridge Run.
A: I began running in August, 1983 after going through a traumatic experience.
After running home that day from Sullivan’s Island to Tradd Street, which was over 10 miles, I went to a local running store and bought my first running shoes and saw a flyer to sign up for a running clinic to train for the Island Marathon (which was held on Isle of Palms) in December, which was four months away.
Dr. Brian Smith told me I should have at least two years of running under my belt before attempting to run a marathon but I assured him I was going to run it whether he let me train with his group or not. He was kind enough to let me train with his class, and I ran the marathon that December in 1983 in 3:23 and finished fifth for females. In 1985, I won the marathon and then repeated a win in 1990 at Kiawah.
Dr. Smith advised me to join the local running club to find out more about running and racing. When I joined, they told me I must help with at least one race a year, and I told them I really wanted to run them all. That (1983) was when I was told that the Bridge Run needed help months in advance and pretty much the rest is history.
I ran my first Bridge Run in 1984 and came in 10th (with a time of 38:30), which was before the Kenyans arrived en masse.
Q: Do many people realize that you were a really great runner? Tell me some of your running accomplishments.
A: Most of the runners who are 60 and older remember my running accomplishments, but I don’t think the younger runners do.
(Her running resume includes personal bests of 17:42 at the President's Run in Marion in 1987; 35:15 at the Hilton Head Spring Fest in 1987; 55:13 (a course record) at the North Myrtle Beach Winter 15K in 1988; 1:30:45 at the Governor's Cup 15-Miler in 1986; and 2:54 at the Twin Cities Marathon in October 1987.)
Q: How in the world did you end up becoming the Bridge Run director in 1993 and tell me all the things you were juggling at the time?
A: I helped in the fall of 1983 for the upcoming Bridge Run and organized the mail out. In the early years with about 5,000-6,000 runners, we mailed out all of the numbers in advance and then at the finish, the runners had to show their number to get a shirt.
The Bridge Run became the race that I volunteered for each year. In 1988, I was on the original staff that started the MUSC Wellness Center, and I continued my running and also helping with the Bridge Run.
In 1990, Dr. (Gilbert) Bradham and Dr. (Marcus) Newberry decided they wanted the Bridge Run moved back to MUSC where it originated. They hired the current race director to also direct the Wellness Center. When he resigned in the fall of 1992, Dr. Bradham asked me, since I was the local runner, to take over as race director (for the 1993 race).
I was overwhelmed to say the least, working, and taking care of young children and then the Bridge Run on top of that.
Q: Would you say that your becoming the director set the stage for Julian Smith to take over in 1994? Take us back to that time.
A: As fate would have it, Julian Smith was hired as the new director of the Wellness Center and he was wonderful to help me through that year along with Tami (Varn) Bourne and Howie Schomer. I was turning 40 the summer after the 1993 Bridge Run and decided to take a year off to run and race in the masters division.
I told the Cooper River Bridge Run Board of Directors that Julian was a perfect fit to take over as race director. Besides being a marketing genius, Julian had such vision for the race. In 1994, the entries jumped to almost 20,000 with many sponsors jumping on board. The race has continued to grow ever since.
After serving as race director for the Bridge Run in 1993, I took a one-year sabbatical and began my year of racing as a masters runner. I ran five marathons and many other races that year, winning the masters division in all but one. But I was so burned out that I returned to the Wellness Center as Julian’s assistant at the center as well as the Bridge Run.
Julian had a vision to begin running clinics to help train people for the race. So a group of us went to the Nike coaches camp and received our coaching certification. We began the running clinics in 1995 and directed them for 20 years.
Q: When did you start as an assistant director and tell me about your latest role as volunteer coordinator?
A: When I returned to the Wellness Center in 1994, I also became assistant race director of the Bridge Run along with Tami Bourne. I helped with all aspects of the race: registration, mail out, souvenir items, elite runners, etc.
When our previous volunteer coordinator retired in 2014, Julian asked me to take over organizing more than 4,000 volunteers. There is a tremendous amount of coordination getting enough volunteers at each site; the start, water stations, medical tent, finish line, our three “Taste of the Bridge Run” dinners and the two-day Expo where we give out numbers and T-shirts and host over 150 vendors.
It is a huge challenge.
Q: Can we expect you to continue being part of the Bridge Run in the coming years or are you nearing retirement?
A: All of us who work on the Bridge Run start saying that this is our last year, especially in March, but we all work together so well that when it’s over, we say, "OK, one more year." I like to take it one year at a time.
Q: What do you envision the future of the Bridge Run being? Do you think it will last another 40 years?
A: In 1978, South Carolina was named one of the most "unfit" states in America, and that is when Dr. Newberry and a few others had the idea to create an event to get people motivated to get moving: walking or running. I think the Bridge Run is one of the reasons that Charleston has become so popular. Each year we have runners from all 50 states and over 12 countries.
The Bridge Run has the largest economic impact on the city than any other event. With the medical knowledge that we have gained about the importance of physical activity to greatly reduce the risk of heart trouble, obesity, diabetes, and many types of cancer, I can’t imagine the Bridge Run ever ending.