By Susan Shinn, Catawba News Service
So how did a 43-year-old, slightly overweight, non-traditional Catawba College student find herself at the Cooper River Bridge run in late March?
It was about a bridge. But it was about much more than that, too.
I'd always wanted to do the Cooper River Bridge Race. My mother ran over 500 miles last year so I figured surely I could make it across some dinky bridge.
"Some dinky bridge" turned out to the be Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge — 2.5 miles long, 200 feet high, with a slope of 4 percent. If you want to know what a slope of 4 percent feels like, punch that into the treadmill the next time you're at the Y. Charleston, S.C., may be flat, but its bridge is not.
This is a good time to tell you that I hate bridges, I hate heights and I hate crowds. More than 30,000 people sign up for this race each year, including a lightning-fast group of Kenyan runners.
I found out all of these statistics about the bridge when I got my race materials. So you could say the horse was already out of the barn at that point.
Oh, I'd been training. Every week, I had a few "short" days where I ran 2 or 3 miles and one "long" day when I ran 6 miles, the length of the race. Sometimes I didn't do it all at once, but I got in 6 miles by the time the day was over. (I wasn't sure if that counted, but I didn't ask any of my running friends.)
I hit the treadmill several times at the Y and went up that daggone slope. (One of my [Catawba education] professors, Dr. Lou Kasias, loves the word "daggone.") On the bridge, the slope lasts for 1.25 miles, and my friend, fitness guru Ester Marsh, told me I should try for at least 2 miles with the slope. No thanks, Ester. I knew if I could make that mile, I could make it over that bridge.
Then there were my knees to worry about. I didn't start running until after I turned 40, because I'd always had trouble with my knees. Losing weight helped, but when the race rolled around, I had a little extra weight. Not good for the knees. However, I had two good knee braces, and I had a current prescription for Celebrex, so I knew I'd be OK. I'd bought a new pair of running shoes a couple weeks out, and was feeling pretty confident.
The week before the race, I came down with a pretty bad case of shin splints and didn't get in as much running as I'd hoped. At that point, I wasn't worried about my knees, I was worried about taking steps without having stabbing pains in my shins. It's always something, right?
The night before the race, I had a little meltdown. I loved my job, I thought, why did it have to disappear? (I'm sure you're wondering, where the heck is she going with this? Bear with me.) In my mind, this race had become a lot more to me than just a race.
Last summer, a job I had loved for a long time disappeared. Fortunately, Catawba College was just around the corner from my house. I enrolled in classes in teacher education in August, and I've never looked back. It's been a wonderful year here at Catawba. My classes have been interesting, my professors have been challenging and my classmates are fantastic. Never mind that I'm their parents' age; I'm sure they've noticed but most have been too polite to point it out. They're great kids.
When Tonia, my friend in the college's public relations office, asked me to write about the race from a student's point of view, I jumped at the chance. Not only was I running a race over a real bridge in Charleston, Catawba College is helping me create a bridge to a new career, to a new future.
I was scared that I wouldn't love teaching as much as writing, but guess what?
I do. I was scared that I wouldn't make it over the Cooper River Bridge, but guess what? I did.
The day of the race dawned cloudy and cool — almost too cool, I thought. After much consternation about what to wear, I ended up in my race T-shirt, leggings and a zip-up sweat shirt.
My friends dropped me off as close to the start as they could, and I joined a sea of humanity making its way up to the start line in Mount Pleasant. The Kenyans, of course, were nowhere in sight. I finally got to the start line about 9 minutes into the race. So in a race that large, you have your clock time, and then you have your chip time — the time it actually takes you to run the race. One race official joked that all the clocks were set to "Kenyan time."
So we were off. I learned quickly that this race wasn't a place to make your "personal best time" — not that I had one. It was pretty crowded going through Mount Pleasant, but it was still a neat experience. There were people all around me of all shapes, sizes and ages. Everyone was having a great time and the energy in the air was phenomenal. I began to think I was gonna make it.
Then, up ahead, I saw the curve of the bridge. "Oh my Lord," I said aloud. You couldn't see the pavement at all, there were so many people. On the other hand, it was such a huge structure that you really couldn't tell you were on it once you got on it.
I had my trusty iPod, and I punched up "When the Man Comes Around," by Johnny Cash. I figured if anybody could get me over that bridge, it would be the Man in Black. I listened to that song over and over, until suddenly, I realized I wasn't going uphill anymore. I was at the top of the Cooper River Bridge! From there, the bridge sloped gently downhill. I could tell because the running got easier. My knees didn't hurt and my shins didn't hurt. Everyone around me was smiling, and I was, too.
It was hard not to smile as runners passed me or I passed them. One runner went by with a T-shirt that said, "Like father." Then another whose shirt read "Like son." Yep, they were. The Chick-Fil-A cows were cheering us on. A couple of guys went by in dresses. I couldn't come up any explanation for that. Five runners were dressed as characters from the "Wizard of Oz." Glinda the Good Witch nearly gave me a "flat" when she passed me, which was appropriate since I was listening to the "Wicked" soundtrack at the time.
Once I got into downtown Charleston, I knew the race was almost over. I pulled up even with an 85-year-old man, then passed him. The reason I knew he was 85 was because he had a sign on the back of his shirt which read, "I'm 85. See ya!"
I knew I must be getting close to the finish line, but we kept turning one corner and then another. I was starting to get a little tired at that point. I'd walked some and run some, but now I just wanted to get it over with.
Suddenly, we turned the corner and there was the finish line! I got one last little burst of energy, and I made it over the line. My time was 1:25:51, which I guess you could call a personal best because my goal was to finish in under an an hour and a half. That made me the runner who finished 12,215 out of 33,030 finishers. I felt pretty good.
In a couple of weeks, I'll finish my first year of two at Catawba. I feel pretty good about that, too — 'cause, you know, it's about a bridge.
But it's about much more than that, too.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.