The Cooper River Bridge Run was originally created with the goal of improving the health and fitness of people living in the Charleston area.
Most would agree that it has exceeded those goals, while others may say its economic impact now trumps its wellness effort.
According to a survey conducted in 2016 by The Citadel’s Dr. Harry Davakos, a former Bridge Run board member, the direct economic impact of the event was $19.2 million (hotels, restaurants, stores) and its total impact was $29.6 million.
Former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a supporter of the Bridge Run since its inception, said the Bridge Run “ranks among the most prominent and important events in the community each year.”
“As the Bridge Run developed into a world class event, that process involved everyone — cities, the county, businesses, nonprofits and all those volunteers. Everyone was engaged, just like Spoleto and the other major festivals,” said Riley, adding that the community “upped its game.”
“Then there was the economic impact, which no one foresaw at all. It has been so surprising that it got as big as it is. The economic energy of all those people coming. It’s really had an enormous positive impact on the city and the region.”
Many, including Marcus Newberry, who is credited with founding the Bridge Run, said that the Bridge Run's evolution from a local race to an international one came with leadership of Julian Smith, who took over as race director in 1994.
In his full first year, Smith took the Bridge Run past the 10,000 finisher mark for the first time and networked with other races and directors to build it to a race that almost outgrew itself in 2012 — a year that set a record but also saw a series of mishaps.
Smith said he thinks staying on "the cutting edge," combined with Charleston being a destination city, will assure the Bridge Run's health for the foreseeable future.
Even within the greater realm of running, the Bridge Run is a major player, ranking in the top 10 of biggest U.S. races for the last 11 years. Most of the top 20 races are in major cities. Even with a 10,000 drop in finishers the past four years, the Bridge Run ranked ninth largest with 26,843 in 2016.
Irv Batten, a long-time local runner, former running store owner and Bridge Run deputy director, is one of the authorities on local running and said the impact of the Bridge Run on the Lowcountry and the state is tangible.
“I think the Bridge Run helped start the running boom in Charleston,” he said.
Since its start, the area has always had at least one running specialty store, and it currently has five, not counting big box retailers. An annual calendar of races continues to grow and currently numbers more than 140 a year, including two other “bridge runs” on connector spans, in the greater Charleston area.
Batten added that the Bridge Run is even a big deal to locals who are non-runners.
“I’ve been living here a long time and have run a ton of races. My neighbors see me run. They’ve never said, 'I saw your name in the paper for the Turkey Day Run,' but they’ll look it up for the Bridge Run."
Howie Schomer, a former assistant director for the Bridge Run and current co-director for the Charleston Marathon, said the Bridge Run is “a source of pride for local runners and non-runners alike.”
“I think even if you're not into the sport, the fact that a relatively small city can attract such a large event is pretty exciting, and the area always seems to be abuzz on Bridge Run weekend,” said Schomer.
That buzz helps lure people to other local fitness opportunities, such as training camps and fitness clubs.
“I'm sure the race has some effect on the size of the running community in the area because it will always serve as the first running experience for so many people that would not try or even know about running opportunities in the area if not for the huge hoopla associated with it,” said Schomer.
The Bridge Run was the first race run by Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, and he caught the running bug.
“I think my first run was 18 years ago or so, and I have run 14," he said. "It started as a quest to see if I could actually do it and is now the one annual event I cannot imagine missing.”