Planning the start of the bridge run is a year-long process

The lines to the portable restrooms were dozens deep at the 2011 bridge run. (Brian Troutman/WCIV)

By Brian

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Come Saturday there will be plenty of talk of who crossed the finish line of the Cooper River Bridge Run and how fast. Little thought will be given to how the race started and what happens after about 40,000 people leave Coleman Boulevard.

With tons of fencing and rows of portable toilets that could span a several football fields, organizers say prepping Coleman Boulevard to hold 40,000 runners is a year-long process that kicks into overdrive on race day.

"Last year, once we were done, we sat down and looked at what worked and what didn't work and developed a plan on the things we needed to change," said Cooper River Bridge Run assistant director Joanna Jackson. "We have to think about how we're going to fence it; how we are going to let people in; how and where we are going to place signs to let people know where they are going; how we will utilize and train volunteers from different charities."

"We can't just say 'go do this.' We have to let them know this is where you will have to stand and this is where you will have to be. There really is a lot of stuff and obviously it is all mixed in with everything else."

Coleman Boulevard closes at 6:30 a.m. in preparation for the funneling of thousands of people to the bridge. As the early birds arrive, bridge run organizers and volunteers scramble to place all the pieces needed to organize the wave start - 15 corrals of runners or walkers, each holding thousands of bridge run participants. By 1 p.m. the boulevard is reopened and must be clear and clean.

"It's gotta be fast," Jackson said. "We tried to get the road closed earlier, but Mount Pleasant wouldn't let us. So, once 6:30 hits, volunteers have to just get in there. There is a long process of planning, but on the day, it happens like 'do it now!' "

Runners and walkers are broken into several tightly-roped corrals marked by signs to prevent anyone from starting early. For each corral are at least 25 volunteers. That means there are at least 375 volunteers working to direct foot traffic, monitor the crowd and manage the flow of the wave start that happens about every three minutes.

>>Click here to view a map of the starting line.

"When we put in the 3-minute increments, we figured that amount of time would be a good buffer for about 3,000 people," Jackson said. "That's about how many people we have in each corral. We just want to keep the flow moving."

Any more than three minutes, give or take a few seconds, and Jackson says the bridge would be closed for the entire day.

Though the race hosts more walkers than runners, Jackson says getting people moving isn't a huge problem. She said often the greater challenge is trying to get people to wait at the starting line.

"There is so much adrenaline involved, and when you are there, everybody is so excited," Jackson said. "We have an emcee who is getting the crowd motivated. There is loud music -- all those people and you. It's normally not a problem of 'its time to go.' It's normally more of a problem of getting people to wait."

But the adrenaline-filled start isn't enough for everyone. Jackson says there are dozens of people, if not more, whom never finish the race. She say's there is a plan for that - a plan that begins at the starting line.

"Once they get going, we do have people that can't make it for one reason or another," Jackson said. We have medical teams for important emergencies, and we also have a bus that goes over afterwards."

That bus, along with the cleaning crew, is at the back of the starting line, behind the swarm of runners and walkers. As the herd of tightly laced sneakers and headbands moves forward, as do the bus and the cleaning crew - pickup up trash and picking up stragglers.

Jackson said the same thing happens with the fencing for the corrals. As the crowd moves forward, items no longer needed are taken down and cleaned up.

By no means, is the management of the race and the organization of the start as simple as a "ready, set, go." To the staff members of the Cooper River Bridge Run, it's a profession in which they constantly learn and constantly plan.

"We all go to other events, and we talk about what works and what doesn't work," Jackson said. "Just this week, we had an on-site meeting with the charities that are volunteering in that specific area, to show them where they will be and what they will do. We made a little model of the start to give them an actual visual so they can see what will happen. You need people to be able to visualize these things."

The Cooper River Bridge Run will begin Saturday with a 7:25 a.m. wheelchair race. Jackson said the field has about 25 participants. The next group to start is the elite runners at 8 a.m. From the elites back, it's all one race with the wave start.