The 2011 Cooper River Bridge Run (Or How Procrastination Saved A Fat Kid’s Life)

It’s Thursday, I’ve got a cold, and Nathan all but physically threatened me if I don’t post soon.  So since I’m not running tonight, I’ll try to quickly knock out the latest blog entry.  But I warn you, this was a big weekend so I may ramble on for a while.

Going into 2011, I planned to run a bunch of the huge races I’d never done before.  One of the tops on my list was the Cooper River Bridge Run.

But a little while back, just a week before the race, I realized I wasn’t registered.  Somehow it’d snuck up on me.  I was on the verge of giving up on running it this year when a group of us were finishing our runner’s lunch at the Burger Company.  Mike Moran, whom I’d just met minutes before said, “I will run Cooper River every year.  If I’m in a wheelchair, I will still enter Cooper River.”  Even the fine people of Charleston couldn’t have put together a better piece of marketing for the race.

I texted my pal Scott who had told me he’d be renting a house at Charleston for the race.   Our text went like this:

“U going to Cooper River?”
“Yup.  You?”
“I want to but am scrambling.  You get a house?”
“Yeah, with room for you.  $100 both nights.”
“I am in.”

I tried to register online only to find out that there was but one way in for us last minute procrastinators:  purchase a charity bib for $150.  I was fine with that – I had already saved hotel costs by going house with Scott and I would be helping a worthy cause.  My only concern was the race start.  Cooper River attracts some 40,000 participants yearly.  Would I be able to get in a decent corral, up front, or would my late entry put me way in the back with the “I’m casually strolling 6 miles in 2 hours because I am only here for the post-race party” crowd?  I wanted no part of this madness:

Imagine trying to PR from this corral. Even Kip Litton couldn't do it. (Photo courtesy of the Charleston Post and Courier)

So 7:00 a.m. Friday came and the Charlotte Running Club Director of Membership (North), me, along with the Director of Membership (South), Scott (our official titles on the board, at least since I made them up –  Jay please make a note for the newsletter) carpooled down to Charleston.  I wanted to leave pretty early to make sure I could get registered.

Once in Charleston, we hustled straight to the expo and found the room where the charity registration was taking place.  I grabbed a registration form and quickly started filling it out.  A friendly lady seated at the table encouraged me to pick her charity, Louie’s Kids.  Since I was leaning towards Louie’s Kids anyway, having already read online my options of charities the day before, and since I thought these people were brilliant for sitting in the room and pushing their charity – no one else was – I gladly donated to their cause.  Scott chatted with the lady and told her we were from Charlotte while I filled out the form .  Turns out Louie’s Kids are involved with a Yoga Marathon here in a couple of weeks.  The great Louie himself walked in, the lady told him we were from Charlotte and Louie excitedly exclaimed, “Shut the front door!”  That became our official mantra for the weekend.

Finishing up the form, I came to the check boxes for which corral I should start in.  There it was, at the very top, “Under 40 minutes” with no available space to indicate a race where I allegedly broke 40:00.  For a split second, I hesitated.  Okay, it was less than a second before I checked the box.

I rationalized that I would have broken 40:00 at the Concord United Way 10K had they not wound us around and around the parking lot of Myers Park (ask Larry Seavers about that one – he was furious).  I convinced myself I would have broken 40:00 at the Run Ballantyne 10K had a young volunteer not directed me off course.  I assuaged my guilt since this was only a 15 second white lie (I ran 40:14 at Concord).  I mean it’s not like I lied to somebody during the race. It was weird – I felt about as nervous as a drug mule in the airport when I handed the pretty volunteer my form.  I half expected her to point and scream “Imposter!  You’re  not a sub-40:00 10K runner, you liar!”, something like this.  But she took the form and handed me a bib without flinching.  I was in the top corral, just behind the Kenyans, and Louie’s Kids was $150 richer.  Hopefully my money will purchase some sweet Karhu trainers (surely Meagan will hook up this poor, sponsorless blogger!) for some obese kid and help transform him/her into a healthy, young runner.  Lives saved because I didn’t plan ahead.  You’re welcome.

All registered and starting up front, I finally relaxed.  Scott and I tooled around the expo, drank multiple free beer samples, got screened for diabetes and cholesterol, snagged some sweet swag (including a free Charleston Stingrays baseball cap), met his friend Glenda, then headed out to grab some lunch.  Shortly thereafter, Scott’s friends Cliff and Lissi joined us.  After lunch, we headed back to the house on Folly Beach, where Cliff and Scott cooked a delicious spaghetti dinner.  I was in bed by 9:00 so I could get up at 4:00 a.m. to give me enough time to get everything ready by our 5:00 departure time.

That night, howling winds prevented me from sleeping well and at times even made the house sway.  During those brief moments when I actually slept, I had anxiety dreams:  I forgot my shoes, I couldn’t find the starting line, I got lost on the course, etc. etc. etc.  I was grateful when my alarm finally sounded.  The only pre-race morning snag – there was no sugar for the coffee.  Lissi, who purchased the groceries, had specifically asked Scott if she should buy some sugar.  Scott, knowing what a masculine man of a man I am, assumed I drank my coffee black, but he assumed incorrectly.  I take my coffee sweet.    But this wasn’t my first pre-race coffee rodeo – I’ve used any number of sugar replacements in the past, ranging from honey to syrup and any number of things in-between.  This time, I quickly improvised with some expo-swag Muscle Milk and mixed up a surprisingly tasty blend of chocolate, amphetamines, and steroids.  As wired and pumped as Barry Bonds leaving a Starbucks, I belted out my standard plagiarized pre-race phrase (stolen from NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip), “Boogity, boogity, boogity boys!  Let’s go racing!”

Shortly after 5:00 a.m., we all piled into Glenda’s SUV and headed into Charleston.  We found a parking deck strategically located near the finish line and started walking to queue up in the bus line (this is a point-to-point race so you take a bus over the bridge to the starting line).  Lissi, after mercilessly making fun of me for my “shorter than Hooter’s” waitress’ shorts, snapped this photo of me all decked out in my Charlotte Running Club racing attire:

Ready to race in my CRC, aka Hooter's, shorts.

I trusted those among us who were veterans of this race when they said we needed to hurry, even though it wasn’t even 6:00 yet and the race didn’t start until 8:00.  When I saw the line for the buses, I instantly understood why the big rush.

There stood thousands of people in a line that stretched for what looked like miles.  The second I saw it, I was filled with dread and fear, dread because I had to stand around in the cold while wearing nothing but skivvies, fear because I was suddenly afraid we might not make it to the start in time.

But I actually had a grand ol’ time waiting in line.  Many people wore costumes for the race.  When 2 people dressed as a shower, with an actual functioning shower head, walked by, I pronounced, “I swear by all that is holy, if that shower passes me on the bridge, I will jump.”  Scott told me I should be cautious about such claims, adding, “Remember the taco“.

The girl in front of me looked down at her bib and laughed, saying “I thought they put my name on my bib!”

“Is your name Cooper?”
“No.”
“Is your name River?”
“No.”
“Is your name…”
“Bridget.  My name’s Bridget.”

While it was slightly chilly, the temperature, low 50’s, wasn’t unbearable.  I hopped up and down and was able to remain relatively comfortable.  Before I knew it, we rounded the bend and could see buses ahead.  There was also a long row of port-a-johns.  Glenda and I both decided to take advantage of these since there was no wait and everyone agreed that we’d not be so lucky on the other side of the bridge.  So we jogged over.

But when we came out, the line of folks waiting for buses was rapidly moving forward and we couldn’t spot our companions anywhere.  Glenda and I ran up and down the line but had no luck finding our friends.  My biggest concern was that someone would think we just showed up and were trying to break in line – I feared some official might make us go to the back of the line, and I was ready to bare knuckle brawl with Quentin “Rampage” Jackson before going to the back of this line.  Glenda was more concerned about getting her Ipod back from our friends.

I convinced her that our best course of action was to get on the bus.  I was guessing that our friends had been shuttled along by the crowd and impressed upon to board.  Glenda reluctantly conceded and got on the bus.

For what was supposed to be a 3 or 4 mile drive, our bus ride felt more like 30 or 40.  When we finally reached our destination in Mt. Pleasant, it was about 7:45 and I was getting downright panicky.  My panic turned into terror when I saw the thousands upon thousands of folks shuffling towards their respective corrals.  I got a little nauseous when I spotted the K corral on the distant horizon, with thousands of people between me and it.  My corral, A, on the opposite side of the mass of humanity, was much too far away to be seen.  I could hear a familiar voice singing this.

Like a salmon swimming upstream, I had to make my way from K to A. (Illustration courtesy of http://bridgerun.com)

Glenda continued to look for our gang.  When I asked her if she’d be okay alone, and she convinced me that she would, I took off.  While I was sprinting towards A, thousands of others were headed in the opposite direction, towards me to get into some corral from B to K.  Doing my best Adrian Peterson imitation, I dodged and weaved, at one point nearly trampling a girl who screamed bloody murder just as I sidestepped her at the last possible second.

As Ruben Studdard belted out the final “freeeee”, I finally saw the A corral.  A few seconds later I found the opening in the chain link fence and I darted in.

What a welcome sight awaited me.  First of all, while everyone else was packed in like sardines in the other corrals, there was plenty of room in A.  A convoy of tractor trailers could have driven through with none of us needing to take more than 2 steps to get out of the way.  But was it worth the lie to get in?  Why yes, yes it was.  (Don’t you dare judge me – it was a 15 second fibber!)

To further put me at ease, within seconds of arriving, I was greeted by a host of my Charlotte running buddies: John Chambers, Joey Church, Alice Rogers, Thomas Long, Leonard Hilliard, etc.  Mike Kahn already had his game face on and was up ahead, strategically lining up mere feet behind the Kenyans, ready to blow past them when the time was right (okay everybody, Mike’s really fast but you should know that was a joke).

Kahn, ready to pounce, was right behind these guys.

John asked me what time I was planning to run and I answered, “I’m shooting for sub-40”.  “Run with me”, he said and then outlined a strategy that sounded good to me (and was eerily reminiscent of Nathan’s suggestions for this race):  take it nice and easy for the first flat mile, about 6:30 pace, just hang on up the bridge for the next 2 miles, around 7:00 pace, then once you crest the apex, take off.

So that’s what we did.  The gun fired and we calmly settled into 6:30 pace, and it felt slow.  I kept my Adonis blood and tiger DNA on a chain.  Chambers and I chatted and it felt like an easy training run.  I spotted Alice far ahead, stopping in the median, and I wondered what the hell she was doing – as we got closer, I realized she was tying her shoes.  She finished quickly and bolted.  Similarly, Joey, Leonard, and Thomas were already out of sight.

I came through an effortless first mile in 6:19.  I was stunned.  How could that 6:19 feel so easy when a mere week ago, I had run about the same pace for the first mile in the 100 x 5K relay and it felt like torture?  I guess the crowd lining the course was feeding adrenaline through my veins.

But then, just ahead, loomed the bridge.  It was a giant beast waiting to devour us.  Don’t look directly in its eyes.  I locked into a steely resolve.  You can do this.

The swirling, brutal winds buffeted us.  I began to struggle as the amount of effort I needed to put forth was directly proportional to the angle of incline of the bridge.  I fell behind John.  He dropped me like a corkscrewing pop fly in the sun.

I felt my heart racing and knew I was playing with fire.  If I didn’t back down now, I’d soon trip the dreaded lactic acid time bomb.  I slowed down and tucked in behind a group in front of me.  I was baffled by the number of people that we passed who were already walking.

Mile 2 was a pedestrian 6:36 but I was okay with it – I expected as much up the bridge.  We still had another mile up.  I tried to relax, sneaking peeks over the side at the beautiful waterway.  I kept looking up, mesmerized at the massive supports – these gargantuan structures were surreal, like an eighth wonder of the world.  I’m told that these giant supporting towers, at over 550 feet tall, are about the same height as the Washington Monument.  I marveled at them and temporarily forgot my pain.

Bridge supports the size of the Washington Monument towered over us (Photo courtesy of the Charleston Post and Courier)

The supports were massive and surreal, but come on people, we're supposed to be racing here (Photo courtesy of the Charleston Post and Courier)

I continued to tack from one runner to the next.  I felt like I was broaching some runner etiquette but quickly forgave myself – I wasn’t latching onto just 1 person and my drafting times were brief as I passed frequently.  I welcomed anyone who wanted to latch on behind me but no one did.  Mile 3 was a glacier-like 6:54.  As I finally crested the bridge apex, I spotted Chambers some hundred meters or so ahead.

I felt myself regaining my breath as I made a conscious effort to reel John in.  I caught him near the bottom of the bridge, pulled alongside and said, “Man, that bridge nearly destroyed me.”  John replied, “I think it did destroy me.”  We ran together for a little ways longer but I gradually pulled ahead and hit the 4 mile mark, near the bottom of the bridge, with a 6:11 split.

Having vanquished the bridge, I suddenly felt great.  I knew there were no more hills.  Let’s roll.   Spying a group of 5 or 6 runners up ahead, I decided to go after them.  To steal a line from a recent episode of The Office, “It was on like Genghis Khan”.  I caught and passed them shortly.  Mile 5, 6:13.

Cruising now, I picked off as many runners as I could and hoped for a PR.  I was genuinely excited because most everybody looked like solid runners – svelte guys and girls in split shorts and singlets.  No tie dye shirts, no obese grandparents, no 8-year-old children.  Everyone looked legit.  Until…

I was cruising along at about 6:10 pace when an Asian kid in a Duke warm-up shirt passed me.  Oh hell no.  I went with him.  But he just continued to accelerate.  He was Kyle Singler in game 3 – I was Harrison Barnes.  (That one’s for Stan on his birthday – Happy Birthday!)  It was painful to watch the word Duke pull away towards the horizon.

I battled it out with some Latino guy for the last mile before finally dropping him with about a quarter to go.  Unlike these kind elites (the winner and runner-up), looking out for each other by locking arms on the last turn into the final straightaway, I was on the inside while my new rival went wide – this was the exact point where I made my move as centrifugal force betrayed him.

I wasn't as nice as these guys (photo courtesy of the Charleston Post and Courier)

When I hit the final straightaway, I could make out Leonard’s voice in the crowd as he screamed at me to kick.  I said “Sorry bud” to myself as some guy blazed right by.  I saw the clock ahead ticking away, 39:50…39:51, and I tried to kick but I was spent.  I crossed the mat right at 39:59 or 40:00 – I couldn’t be sure which.  Luckily, that was gun time – my official chip time was 39:54 (funny aside, Caitlin’s and my running buddy during the Myrtle Beach half marathon, Brad Tripp, ran a 39:53.  I just happened to see his name right before mine in the newspaper’s list of results).

I stopped just past the finish line to look for John.  Rebecca Thomason came through and once she caught her breath, we chatted for a second.  I missed Chambers’ finish and wondered if he had somehow passed me along the course without me noticing.

I found Leonard.  Karin Helmbrecht showed up, having driven down last minute the night before.  We had our “Got Milk” mustache pictures taken (Leonard was smart and faked his milk-stache.  I actually did mine, drinking a little shot of vanilla milkshake to create a Sam Elliot-esque  stache.  Leonard’s pic looked cool while mine looked like a big dork with a fake milk mustache).

We found Charlotteans John and Joey and Thomas and Jim Cristini.  We drank complimentary chocolate milk and I ate a free brat (of the sausage, not the screaming kid, variety) – not a recommended post-race combination my stomach soon informed me.

Leonard, Karin, and I wandered around the big post race courtyard that was rapidly turning into a party zone.  Karin spotted some friends and bolted while Leonard and I checked the results and found out he won an award for fourth place in his age group.  Did I mention that over 36,000 people finished this race?  The man can flat out haul.

That night, Leonard was kind enough to let us piggyback off his restaurant reservations at Fleet Landing.  Thank god, or rather Leonard, because every restaurant downtown was packed – he probably saved us hours of wait time and the food was delicious!

Later we went bar hopping through Charleston.  Somewhere Pat Conroy was smiling.

Director of Membership (South), Director of Membership (North), and John Chambers enjoying our spots at Leonard's table (note my sweet Stingrays hat)

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One Response to “The 2011 Cooper River Bridge Run (Or How Procrastination Saved A Fat Kid’s Life)”

  1. Paul Newnham Says:

    Great post. Congrats on the sub 40!

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