A Bridge Run diary by Cedric Jaggers

Cedric Jaggers talks about running 31 Cooper River Bridge Runs in a row. Jaggers covered the race for Running Journal.

Submitted by Cedric Jaggers

When John asked me to write this, he probably didn’t know that this Cooper River Bridge Run would be my 31st in a row.  Wish I could say it was my 32nd since that is how many Bridge Runs there have been, but I missed the first one due to a leg that got broken playing city league soccer in Charleston.  At the expo I was talking to somebody (honestly can’t remember who) and they asked me how many times I’d run the Bridge Run.  I said “All but the first one.”  They asked why I didn’t run it and I told them about the broken leg.  They said (jokingly I think)  “What kind of lame excuse is that?”  They didn’t know how much I regret not having gotten to run that first one.  In fact there are only four runners left who have done them all including a couple of friends of mine – Bob Schlau and Bob Walton.  But I digress.
Since we live in Rock Hill now, my wife Kathy and I always drive down the Thursday before the race so we can go to the expo that day, and to the press luncheon on Friday (I cover the race for RUNNING JOURNAL magazine.)  A lot of people don’t know that the first day of an expo usually offers the largest selection of merchandise. 

Who cares, you say?  Well, if you wear an uncommon shoe size, say a 12 or 12 ½ like I do, you find out that the vendors only have a few of them and they tend to sell out of your size pretty quickly.  I really like NIKEs and ASICS and they tend to almost always sell out of my size in both of them.  I get a great deal pleasure out of buying a pair or two or three of $100 shoes for $40 or $50 each.  Of course, if you don’t like saving money, don’t bother to check out the expo.  After all who needs half price shorts or singlets or socks or sunglasses or hats?  Not to mention the free samples of food and drink and assorted other goodies.  Expos are a great deal for runners and it seems we always run into lots of old friends at the expo.

The press luncheon is always interesting.  The location varies, and this year it was held at Lowndes Plantation which is on the Ashley River.  All the sponsors of the race are invited as well as the elite runners.  If the Kenyans and other runners stuffed down food all the time like they do at the luncheon every year, they would get so big they wouldn’t be able to run fast for long.  The mayors of the two cities – Mt Pleasant where the race starts and Charleston where it ends- always read a joint proclamation.  The race director, Julian Smith speaks briefly and introduces people, and Post-Courier reporter David Quick introduces the new inductees to the Bridge Run Hall of Fame.  I always enjoy talking to them since I was inducted in the inaugural group back in 2002.

The weather forecast for the race was very good and it turned out to be accurate.  Studies have shown that the ideal temperature for running is between 52 and 55 degrees and it was clear, sunny and 54 degrees at the 8 a.m. start on Saturday morning.  Getting to the start on Coleman Ave in Mt Pleasant can be problematic.  The first year after we moved to Rock Hill, Kathy and I took the shuttle buses provided by the race from downtown to the starting area.  A lot of people use this option, but be in line by 6 as the buses run from 5:20 to 6:45, and after they drop you off, you get to stand around in the cold, or heat or whatever until it is time to line up.  It is really nice to have a vehicle on the Mt Pleasant side where you sit and get warm, tuck your warmups and not have to put your stuff in a bag for the sweat shuttle (and then find it after you finish).

A lot of runners carpool or arrange for rides.  Jeffrey Herndon, an old friend of ours picks us up (this year as the last few just me since Kathy can no longer run due to her Multiple Sclerosis – it is really a travesty since she was a state age group record holder and won Grand Masters prize money at this race the first year they offered it) at 6 a.m. by the replica of the Hunley submarine beside the Charleston Museum.  The bridge is closed to traffic, I think at seven, so you have to get across pretty early, and you have to worry about where you will park.  This year we couldn’t go all the way down Coleman and park in the shopping center parking lot where we have parked a lot of years in a row. 

Through a fluke of good luck, Jeffrey headed down the side road we were diverted onto by the police and then took a road cutting back to Coleman.  We ended up parking in a bank parking lot within site of the starting line.  We all had to head for the portable toilet line shortly after we arrived.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of port-a-lets in groupings at various locations on both sides of the street, but with over 30,000 people waiting for a race to start, you can count on standing in line.  I enjoy hearing people talk about how many times they have run the race, what kind of time they plan to run and other running and non-running topics. So there were lots of nervous runners drinking fluids and then getting back in the port-a-let line.

The Bridge Run uses a corral system to try to group runners by time.  The race tries to seed runners by time.  When you register you tell what you plan to run, if you are a runner, or check if you just plan to walk the race.  Needless to say, the elite runners get the low numbers (as they should) and they were coded with a yellow background for easy identification.  The fast, sub 40 minute, but not elite runners get blue background numbers, the under 49-minute runners get green background numbers, the 49 to 60 minute get orange I think, the over 60 another color and the walkers yet another color. 

The street is fenced off on both sides with gates guarded by volunteer monitors, who will only let you into the gate which matches the color on your number.  It doesn’t work perfectly unfortunately as several orange numbers (mine was green since I hoped and planned to run under 50 minutes) and I saw some walkers in front of me.  I will say it is better enforced now than a few years ago when they first started using this system, and far superior to the early days when there was no seeding.  It doesn’t help that some people lie about their ability and what they plan to and can run.

They make announcements, have a countdown clock and have things going on from the scaffolding over the starting line.  One year Bill Murray told jokes (he ran the race that year) and this year three women singers from the USO performed songs in the style of the Andrews Sisters (they had also performed at the press luncheon).  At about 20-minutes before the start they called for everyone to get lined up.  I was glad to see the monitor turning away people with the wrong colored number from the ‘green’ corral.  I heard her telling some of the people that runners had been standing there for over half an hour.  But as I mentioned earlier there were some high wrong colored numbers already in front of and beside me.

The front edge of each corral has monitors holding an orange mesh fence type thing to keep runners from moving up into the next group.  There was a gap of 10 yards or so between our group and the runners in the blue group.   About 10 minutes before start time, all the monitors moved out and let us move up to the back of the blue group.  Then about five minutes before the race they told everybody to take 10 steps backward because the elite runners didn’t have room to line up on the front row.  So we all shuffled backwards.  I was far enough back (it took me 11 seconds to get to the starting line after the gun was fired) that I couldn’t see the elite runners.  It is amazing to look around and see runners from sidewalk to sidewalk stretching back for about a mile.

Finally, we got to the 10 second countdown (we could see the clock), the starting gun was fired and away we went, quite slowly at first, then it opened up a little and we could start running.  The first two miles of the race in Mt. Pleasant are virtually flat.  In the old days (when I broke the 40 minute barrier 17 years in a row) I always started out too fast.  The pundits say and experience proves that you can’t run more than 10-seconds-per-mile faster the first mile than you are in shape to average for the race without hurting yourself.  But my days of running the first mile in 5:30 or so are long gone but I was boxed in and didn’t run the first mile at the pace I had planned.

Here’s the plan:  first mile in 7:50, second mile in 7:50, third mile (uphill) at 8:50 to 9 (I am a terrible uphill runner) then a 7:30 downhill, a couple of 7:50’s to the six mile mark and then kick in.  In races like they say in battle, the best laid plans get thrown out the door once you engage the enemy. 

As I mentioned earlier, it took me 11 seconds to get to the starting line – I am a big believer in gun time (it is the only real time in a race since the race starts when the starting gun is fired, not when you happen to get to the starting line) so I started my watch with the gun.  I had to pass a lot of overweight runners and one or two genuinely obese walkers during the first mile – wish they hadn’t been in everybody’s way, but they were.

The pack I was running with got to the first mile and the clock and my watch and the guy calling out the split all said 8:13, so I was already off my plan.  I was also getting cotton mouthed which is never a good sign in a race.  The second mile seemed to take forever and the when the clock said 17:30 I was depressed – my sub 50 minute race was out the window for sure.  I didn’t learn until after the race that the 2 mile mark had been misplaced and that we actually ran 1.2 miles from the first to the second mile marker.  Several other people I talked to mentioned that at mile two they felt their race was over.  I guess this just emphasizes the importance of accurate placement of mile marks to runners who consider themselves serious about the sport.

When we started the mile long climb up the bridge I felt stronger than I have in five years – rightfully so since that is how long it has been since I tried to race the race and had not had some kind of surgery within a few months of the race.  So no excuses this year, I passed a lot of people going up the span including Jeff, and Larry and Tom and I wasn’t speeding up. The uphill seems to go on forever and you are actually going uphill for a solid mile. It’s a lesson that holds true for all races, when people are passing you it is because you are slowing down, not because they are speeding up, except for the final kick to the finish.  When we got to the three-mile mark and my watch showed a 7:51 mile uphill I knew the two-mile split had been off.  So I had actually run the 8:51 I had planned, but the 25:33 split meant I was way off my plan.

The wind was in our face going up the bridge, but in as big a crowd as I was in, it was easy to get the wind blocked by runners who were in front of me.  There have been only a couple of years in the race’s 32 year history when we enjoyed a tailwind and 2009 wasn’t one of them, but it was one of the lighter headwinds at between five to 10 miles per hour.

I always love it when we start going down the span.  The downhill on the Ravenel Bridge is not steep, but if you know how you can take advantage of it.  I passed Anne Boone (an old friend who was the 3rd overall female finisher back in the day) and lots of other runners I knew and didn’t know as we went down.  The 4 mile mark came with a 7:43 split, but then we got off the bridge and onto the flat final miles in downtown Charleston.

The wind was behind us as soon as we got off the bridge and suddenly the temperature felt like it had shot up 20 degrees.  To me it felt like an oven and my legs started telling me they had had enough and to stop trying to run.  I told them to keep going but we (my legs and me) slowed to an 8:25 and got to mile 5 at 41:30.  The ugly truth that I was going to finish over 50 set in.  We headed down Meeting Street towards the cutover Street (John St) and I pulled off my hat and splashed water on my head and back of my neck to try to cool off.

Kathy and I were staying at the Hampton Inn on John Street and she watched the start of the race live on television in our room (they showed eight minutes of coverage before returning to regular programming) and then came out to watch for me.  As I ran by I spoke to her, tossed her my hat and told her I was suffering.  Later she told me that a lot of people were suffering including Marc Embler a previous race winner and Bob Schlau who was runner-up one year.

As we turned left onto King Street I felt worse and worse, it seemed like thousands of runners were passing me, and when Anne caught up with me and spoke to me I made a serious effort to pick up the pace.  Mile six came with an 8:12 mile and a time of 49:41.  We turned the final corner and I could see the finish clock up ahead.  I passed some runners, but not like in the old days when I could run the final .21 in 60 to 65 seconds. In fact it seemed to take forever and I was just glad to finish as the clock showed 51:20.

They told us to keep moving and we did as we headed up to Marion Square for refreshments:  water, ade drinks, fruit, massages (if you were willing to wait in line) and other things which I hardly noticed or paid attention to or can even remember to write down now.

Since our hotel is almost adjacent to the Square I headed to our room and told Kathy about my race while grabbing a quick shower and change of clothes.  Then back to the Square with notebook in hand and Press pass around my neck.  I interviewed the couple of dozen Charleston Running Club members I could find for an article I do annually for the CRC newsletter called ‘Tell Me About Your Bridge Run.'  It is always a pleasure to talk to old friends and meet new ones when I get them to tell me about how the race was for them.  I could hear the awards ceremony in the distance and went over to see if my slow time was good enough to make the top five-percent age group award in my 60-64 age group.  The list showed 49:49 as the last time so I wasn’t on it.

I had talked to Steve from Burns Computer the night before the race to arrange getting the results for Running Journal magazine and for my role as Cooper River Bridge Run historian.  There are a number of extra files they give me every year and now instead of printing them out on paper as they used to, I get them on a stick drive, except for one printed copy of complete results and one of the awards list.

The police checked my press pass as I approached the results computer table and graciously let me by – they keep everyone from interrupting them while people are still finishing the race.  It was about 11 A.M., three hours after the race started when I said hello to Steve and told him I wouldn’t bother him, just sat and waited.   

Keith Namn from the Post-Courier newspaper was there to get the results for them as they always print most of the finishers’ names and times in the next day paper.  The paper used to only print the top 100 or 200 or 250 or 300 and he was itchy because they had an early deadline.  Since he was the one who used to decide how many names and times were listed I harassed him about the old days when he would always cut off the number of finishers just before it got to me.  When I finished 60th he only printed the top 50, when I finished 212th he only printed the top 200, when I finished 268th he only printed the top 250 etc.

The last walker came across the finish line well after 11, and they started breaking down the finish line setup.  Steve told me he had had to reprogram the computer because the Bridge Run people told him at 10:30 the night before the race they had decided to us chip time instead of gun time.  He said the software was not especially user friendly so it took a while.  He printed the results for me (693 pages to print all the 31,430 finishers), put the rest of the results – I asked for real time i.e. gun time, full age group list, male and female separate lists as well and he put them all on my stick drive,  and I thanked him and headed back to the hotel.

Kathy and I then went the Bridge Run post race luncheon-party at the Marina.  We sat at a table with David Quick (who finished 3rd in his age group) and Bob Schlau (who finished first in his – which is also my age group), both of whom like me, were disappointed with their race.  We also talked about chip time versus gun time and David felt there were arguments both ways.  I don’t but didn’t even know I had a horse in the race when I was talking to him.  When I looked at the age group results by gun time I found out that I was the actual 25th person to cross the finish line in my age group and would have gotten a top 5% award if real place had been used (all age groups in the race award three-deep plus the top five-percent of finishers in the age group up to a maximum of 25).  However since nine people had faster chip times than mine they showed me as 34th in the age group.  It makes a difference.  The argument is that the people actually ran a faster 10k by chip time, and they did.  But is a race from the start line to the finish line or does the race start when the starter fires the starting gun?  Is it a race against other runners or a race against time – just a time trial?  I think it should be a race against other runners but I wasn’t asked.

At any rate it doesn’t matter for most people and the experience of running such a massive race and enjoying everything that goes with it makes it worthwhile.  If you have never run a mega-race such as the Cooper River Bridge Run you are missing out on one of the great experiences for a runner.