The seed of the Cooper River Bridge Run — marking its 40th birthday this year — germinated as a dream of Dr. Norman Walsh, a surgeon who was living in Mount Pleasant.
But it almost didn't take root.
Like many in the 1970s, Walsh caught the running bug after Frank Shorter won Olympic marathon gold in 1972. Walsh was among the few brave enough to run along the 21-inch-wide walkway on the north side of the former Silas N. Pearman Bridge.
At other races in Charleston, he kept mentioning his idea of having a run over “the only mountain in Charleston.” On Feb. 20, 1977, The News and Courier floated his idea publicly.
“Among other things, he (Walsh) tells of a constant fantasy," the article said, "close one of the bridges over the Cooper River and hold a race from one side to the other. ‘At most, they’d have to close the bridge for an hour.’”
Walsh shared it with Marcus Newberry, then dean of the Medical University of South Carolina, after a Charles Towne Landing race in late 1977. Newberry approached the director of that race, Keith Hamilton, to put the idea in motion.
Newberry recalled his only interest was to promote health and physical fitness in the Lowcountry.
But the event eventually would become much more.
'It won't do any good'
Also in 1977, the Charleston Running Club was founded and chose Terry Hamlin as president.
Newberry, credited as the “founder” of the Bridge Run, headed to the electrophoresis lab where Hamlin worked to see if the new club would support it. Without polling other members, Hamlin agreed.
Then came a run of good luck. John Conroy, Charleston's police chief at the time, was a runner, as was the city's new mayor, Joe Riley. Both gave the event a green light.
“The start of the Bridge Run, to me, was a great example of networking,” Newberry said, and three months before the first race, that networking effort was only starting up.
“I was cruising along with plans and then ran into the Highway Department," he said. "Thud.”
Closing a bridge for a run was a foreign concept to the S.C. Department of Highways and Public Transportation, and like any bureaucracy, its officials were hesitant to embrace change.
Hamlin got a random phone from the bridge's namesake, Silas Pearman, who rose in Highway Department ranks to become its highway engineer and then its chief highway commissioner.
When Hamlin heard the caller identify himself as Pearman, “ I thought he was going to congratulate us about this great race we were going to have over the bridge. Not. His words to me were that ‘Mr. Hamlin, you can have a race anywhere in Charleston, but we’re not letting you shut down my bridge to do it.'
“I responded, ‘Can I call you back? I need to talk to the other people on the board for the race.’
"He said, ‘You can call me back, and it won’t do any good.’”
A Wise intervention
Luckily, Newberry had an ace in hole: state Sen. Dewey Wise, a Charleston Democrat who might have been the only legislator who also enjoyed running. Wise shepherded a resolution through the General Assembly allowing for the one-time closure of one of Pearman's three lanes.
A few years later, Wise would promote yet another resolution that truly saved the race forever.
On Nov. 30, 1979, highway department Commissioner Paul W. Cobb wrote to Newberry to say that new weight restrictions on the smaller 1929 John P. Grace Memorial Bridge meant it could no longer handle trucks.
Cobb said the department did not find it advisable to permit the closing of a Pearman lane for a run, adding that he felt the Legislature would agree with him on rejecting a resolution allowing the 1980 race.
Wise then promoted a resolution, ultimately signed by then Gov. Richard Riley in March 1980, saying the bridge would close on the last Saturday of March every year for the Bridge Run — ending the race's annual dependency shifting state politics.
Learning by doing
The inaugural race was a far cry from today’s affair, with its corrals, wave starts, musicians and massive expo and post-race party.
Walsh, Newberry, Hamlin and Wise all ran in 1978, and they recently shared laughs at the chaos of that first race, which began at 10 a.m. on a Sunday.
Temperatures were an unseasonably high 82 degrees at the start, and there was very limited water along the course. Hamlin said the organizers had debated whether to provide water. Some thought it a good idea, but the American Athletic Union had a rule that races of 10,000 meters or less were not allowed to have water on the course.
“But I knew that we weren’t dealing with well-trained athletes. I rented some banquet tables, bought 500 paper cups, got some Citadel cadets and some women in the club who weren’t running, got a couple of coolers, and set the tables up at Meeting Street near The Post and Courier and down at the finish line on the Battery."
It was far from enough: 37 of the 766 finishers were taken to the hospital, mostly for heat-related issues, Hamlin said.
Even Wise had a close call. Walsh, who finished just ahead of Wise, recalled how red the senator's face was at the end.
“He (Wise) lays down on the ground and was obviously about to have a heat stroke," Walsh said. "I went by St. Francis hospital and got IV equipment, took him home and filled him up until he recuperated.”
The timing of that first race fell to The Citadel’s Gary Wilson and two Citadel cadets who used stop watches and biked over the bridge to the Battery.
Later, Wilson recalled how he almost didn't catch up to the lead runner, Benji Durden. “For a while, I wondered if he (Durden) would get to the finish line before I did.”
Surviving through change
Organizers quickly learned that Sunday was not a good day for the race.
They had opted for Sunday morning to avoid as much traffic as possible, but the 10 a.m. start put runners, many in short shorts, on course with churchgoers heading to and from downtown churches.
Newberry recalled getting letters from local ministers “saying that that we were agents of the devil.”
“We immediately shifted to Saturday.”
Over its 40 years, changes like that would become one of the race's constants. The four key players in the original Bridge Run gradually faded from leadership roles and passed the baton.
Dr. Gilbert Bradham, who helped develop the MUSC Harper Student Center, also helped bridge the gap between the original Bridge Run organizers and 1994, when current Race Director Julian Smith took charge.
Under Smith’s watch, the race ballooned from 8,000 participants to about 30,000, give or take a few thousand, ever since 2006 (the year the Bridge Run started counting walkers).
“Julian is a natural promoter,” Newberry said.
Of the original crew, perhaps only Hamlin has remained as involved in the Bridge Run as Newberry. Hamlin lost a leg in a horseback accident and felt driven to promote the race among the physically challenged.
Despite all the drama and change, Newberry always believed his seed would grow into something big.
“Did I ever think there would be the 40th anniversary? I’d say yes, I did," he said, "but I just didn’t know if I’d be here.”