The Cooper River Bridge Runs of 1978 and 2017 couldn’t have been more different experiences, as far as their participation, organization and impact.
The evolution and growth of the Bridge Run over the last 40 years has been remarkable to track, and it seemed at times that the only constant was change.
With that in mind — and with the 40th race in the books — it's a logical time to ask: What might the next 40 years bring?
How many runners will "get over it" in 2057, and can one of Charleston's biggest events keep flourishing?
The Bridge Run does not occur in a vacuum, and its steady growth has mirrored a national boom in running, but there are signs of that tapering off.
Last week, Running USA reported the third consecutive year of declines in the numbers of finishers in races in the United States.
In all, 16,957,100 runners crossed a finish line of a reported race in 2016, down 1 percent (17,114,800) from the year before. And 2015 was actually considered a “leveling off” from the 9 percent drop seen between 2015 from 2014.
Granted, the 2016 totals still ranked as the fourth largest since Running USA started tracking numbers in 1990, when the numbers were in the 5 million range.
The Bridge Run expected a bump up in its finisher numbers on Saturday due to the 40th anniversary celebration and associated marketing and publicity. But it already suffered a drop from its record of 36,756 in 2012 to 26,843 in 2016.
While some of that is due to drop in the cap from 45,000 to 40,000 registrants, the cap drop doesn't explain it all.
Cooper River Bridge Run Race Director Julian Smith is not worried about the national trend affecting the Bridge Run's numbers in the future.
"People will continue to come here because it (Charleston) is a destination," he said.
Currently, few imagine that the Bridge Run won’t last another 40 years, but many also see challenges – from a potential change in public interest to costs and security.
Former Bridge Run assistant director and current Charleston Marathon Co-Director Howie Schomer is confident that the race will "continue to flourish even with the recent dips (2014 and 2015) in entries,” which he also attributed to increases in race fees.
“It (the Bridge Run) will always be a must for locals, and the appeal of coming to Charleston at really the best time weather-wise is so strong. Part of the reason that I felt so strongly that the Charleston Marathon would be successful is the overwhelming feedback I got when working expos for the Bridge Run, on how people were looking for any excuse to come run in the area,” said Schomer.
Schomer added that he doesn’t think the running boom is over but that it has evolved to more social, less competitive running that lends itself less to formal races.
Bridge Run founder Marcus Newberry said he envisions the Bridge Run lasting another 40 years as Charleston’s “centerpiece of a healthy active community.”
Newberry said the biggest challenge in the future will be containing expenses and keeping the registration cost in check.
“The run has become the highlight of an extended weekend festival, and there are a lot of expenses with strong potential for escalating cost. Sponsors help a great deal. Security and safety will continue to be of concern, and many thanks is owed to a lot of people for managing this so well,” Newberry said.
Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said he is confident the Bridge Run will celebrate its 80th anniversary, in part because experience improves execution.
“We’ve learned that there’s a maximum size for the Bridge Run (40,000),” said Riley, noting that Atlanta manages to host the nation’s largest run, the Peachtree Road Race, in a large metropolitan area.
“As the region grows, logistics will be become a little more difficult,” said Riley. “The Bridge Run is a precise event. The bridge closes at 7 (a.m.) and it’s amazing how quickly it reopens. I don’t see any reason that it wouldn’t continue, nor would I expect any significant change or interest in physical fitness.”
Riley said the thrill of the event — “running with all these people around you and (on the bridge) glancing across a majestic harbor” — will keep people coming back.
“People will never tire of that. I think it will be here for another 40 years and 40 years after that.”
Keeping it fresh
A large part of the Bridge Run’s growth over the last 15 years has stemmed from innovation, using new technology and adding elements to the race that often have little to do with running.
Some examples include improving the organization of the starting line, adding several musical bands along the course, moving and expanding the expo and enhancing the Kids Run event.
Much of that has been the handiwork of Race Director Julian Smith. The addition of former running store owner and coach Irv Batten as deputy race director promises to keep the innovation coming.
Batten came up with the idea to put small, permanent mile markers along the race route and wants to approach Mount Pleasant and Charleston and state officials to have the starting and finish lines permanently painted in the roadway, similar to the Boston Marathon.
Batten said the idea being that the Bridge Run is literally imprinted in Charleston's history.
"Those (the start and finish) should be landmarks," said Batten.
He added that the Bridge Run needs to continue adjusting to the changing demographics of runners, who are notably less competitive than in the past.
"I think instead of giving a finishers medal only on special anniversaries, we should give one for every race," he said. "When I went to expos at other races, people would ask if we gave a medal. When I said 'no,' they turned around and walked away."
Julian's "not going anywhere"
Meanwhile, the man at the helm of the Bridge Run since 1994 plans to keep at it.
"People always ask when I'm leaving the Bridge Run," said Julian Smith, who is 65. "But I'm just starting to have fun with it ... As long as I'm having fun, I'm not going anywhere."
He notes that many of the race directors that he has worked with are his age or older, adding that Portland (Ore.) Marathon Director Les Smith is 76.
Smith has taken pride in his efforts to network with other races, adding a larger charity component, and rolls with the punches, including working with local law enforcement to improve security after the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013.
Even when the time comes, Smith said he will assure that the Bridge Run is put in good hands.
"I love the Bridge Run," he said, "and I'm not going to leave it in a bad way."