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Running the Savannah River Bridge run with K.I.S.S. and Christmas tree pacers

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Running the Savannah River Bridge run with K.I.S.S. and a Christmas tree for pacers

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Oh what fun it is to run across the Talmadge bridge today… hey!

And so this is Christmas, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The annual bridge run which usually takes place in freezing temperatures and the threat of rain, took place the first Saturday of December with balmy temps requiring barely a light jacket for even the thinnest blooded natives who shiver when the temps dip below 78 degrees.

The city itself seemed a bit confused over which holiday season it actually was. While shops and store fronts boasted naturally crafted holiday wreaths of green and red, the trees boasted blazing yellow, orange and rust red foliage, still holding on to fall, and a few azaleas, which normally bloom in early spring, were sporting their fuchsia pink blossoms near ground level, making everyone a bit befuddled, but they were all here for one purpose today: to have fun and to run their fastest over what has been described as one of the toughest bridge runs in the south.

The Eugene Talmadge Memorial bridge, named after a rather controversial political figure in the south, stands 196 feet over the Savannah River and spans 1.4 miles with a 5.5% grade, which sounds relatively easy until you actually have to run over it and hit the 3% grade less than a quarter mile in where your lungs start to sound like a freight train chugging and your heart feels like a beating drum trying to push its way through the exterior of your chest.

It’s not enough that some people run the 3.1 mile 5K race, some actually do the race twice while others do what is known as the double pump and combine the 5k with the 10k to run over the bridge three times in succession with barely time for a bathroom or water break between one race and the next.

This year’s race had a slightly smaller hometown feel to it. There were still a lot of people present, but it seemed like most of them were locals and it was a lot easier to find your friends in the crowd after the race was over.

There were still complaints of slow river boat shuttles and only one water ferry for hundreds of waiting runners trying to get back to the civic center where the 5k ended and the 10 k started, but other than that, most people seemed very pleased with the way the race was run this year.

Instead of drinking glasses this year the Double Pump runners got actual race medals which thrilled everyone.

The warm weather loaned a different feel to race this year with more scantily clad runners who normally start out bundled in old jackets they toss along the roadside. Some ran in full costume, military or fire fighting gear as they stormed up the bridge, red faced and covered in sweat, but still moving forward toward some goal of their own, not just bragging rights or a medal.

It seems like many people took the race as a personal challenge this year as if they had something to prove not so much to the world but to themselves.

Seventy four year old Joanne Mock was disappointed not only in her time, but her performance on the bridge and swore she would not return stating, “ I am too old to do this anymore”, but ended up placing first in her age division and it seemed like anyone in their 80s was almost guaranteed a first place age group finish even if they walked the bridge.

Several people stopped along the side of the bridge to dry heave or vomit and though most people in the 10 K managed to keep moving up the bridge the first time, the second time back caused many people to slow to a crawl and literally lean into the headwinds that threatened to roll us backward from where we had just struggled to leave!

Still, the group powered on. I had started out running with fellow runner Pam Denson in her new Luna Sandals and this time no socks on. The last time we had run together at Thanksgiving it was nearly 30 degrees. Now two weeks later it was reaching into the low 80s and sweat stung our eyes as the eastern sun beat down upon us without mercy.

I had barely passed Pam when fellow runner Gregg Geiger came through. I stayed with Gregg for about three city blocks and then he started to pull away. I needed a pacer so set my sights on someone running my speed, which just happened to be a green faced guy in a Christmas tree suit. He looked a little like the Grinch in the face and was not a happy Christmas tree, but then if you are running in full costume in eighty degree weather, putting a smile on your face is probably not you most primary concern.

I soon realized I was gaining on the tree or he was slowing down, but needed a new pacer and fixed my eyes on the back of a woman wearing a star spangled skirt and red top. We played catch up and pass three or four times before I realized that she had not gone from tall and stocky to short and thin to average size all in the span of ten minutes and that it was actually several Wonder Women running as a group with the Moms on the Run.

The first water table came up on the right suddenly and the crowd was so thick that they blocked the table, so decided to keep running and realized this was probably a mistake about a half mile later, when thirst reminded me that replacing fluids was probably a good idea even if it did mean slowing down or stopping to get them.

The climb up the bridge was not so bad and I managed to pass a lot more people feeling not really smug, but accomplished and glad of my training to prepare. As we reached the downward side I found a clear path and enjoyed a faster pace that I could rarely achieve or maintain on flat ground.

I had slowed by about forty seconds coming up the bridge, but gained nearly 30 seconds coming down so all was good with a fairly steady ten minute mile pace.

The bottom of the bridge on Hutchinson Island is a bit misleading as you see runners coming back up the side of the bridge (if you are a slow runner and not in the lead) and think to yourself, “oh good, we can turn around here and go back!”

Actually you have to go another half mile or so and then swing back and go up another incline, which while not as steep as the bridge itself, is still not a thrill to power over.

It was on this incline that I felt my hip start to catch and thought…darn, not again, not now. I was doing so well and on target to make the run in just over an hour.

I stopped twice to try to adjust my hip, but it would not go back in place, so every step of my right foot sent shock waves of pain from my hip to my knee making me think I was going to have to walk or literally crawl to get back over the bridge and home. I kind of wanted to cry.

Earlier that day everything had fallen into place so well. I even heard my favorite motivational song on the radio coming in just before I parked the truck and was psyched to run.

Even long time runners who had run and won the race before were nervous and none of us really knew why. It seemed like we were Olympians at the Games and representing our countries or something much more serious than it was.

It sounds silly, but conquering the bridge is a bit like conquering all those demons you carry with you… the ones that tell you that you are too ugly, too old, too slow, too fat, that you are not really an athlete or anyone special, so who are you kidding?

If you can conquer the bridge and push through the pain, then you gain something more than just a title or a t-shirt or a medal; you gain the confidence you need to go out into the world and do what needs to be done, knowing you can accomplish anything if the good Lord is willing. It is something that affects the soul of your heart not just the soles of your feet.

While my soul was willing to keep moving, the pain in my hip made me wonder how smart it was to keep on going. Would I rip something off the joint and take a year to recover like last time? Would the cartilage on my knee wear out entirely? Would my ACL snap in two as I curled up in a ball on the pavement screaming in pain as fellow runners got upset with me for making them feel guilty if they kept on running and did not stop to help me?

I kept stopping to readjust my hip, but it was not cooperating, so I decided to slow my pace and run in pain and see where this took me. Soon people I had passed starting passing me and there went Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman. I was dejected. Wonder Woman I was not for sure. It was like a sign. I got it. Humbled again I kept on limping, wanting so badly to walk or better yet, sit down and just wave to people as they passed by.

I drank an entire cup of water at the next water table and continued on, up the ramp to the bridge again where everyone seemed affected by the steep, long incline. I decided to do the 'granny/grandpa' run/walk I had nick named the Kirschner shuffle after a running acquaintance who had a plate put in her leg but still continued to walk/run with arms pumping and upper body leaning into the direction of movement. I had met her earlier and discovered she had heart surgery so was just a spectator today. She did not look like the kind of person that would have a heart attack and made me rethink my own pounding heart as every muscle from my butt through the backs of my calves tightened and gave out of energy making me think I might start having muscle spasms if I did not slow down.

I did not want to, but quit pushing and slowed to as fast a walk as I could muster as I practiced deep inhaling through my nose and out my mouth and spotted a guy/girl dressed as K.I.S.S. up ahead of me carrying an American flag and decided to use him as my pacer.

I felt a little like vomiting, but kept breathing deep as a woman in front of me darted to the railing and hurled. Apparently it was not just me then as I tried not to look and focused on moving ahead.

The pain in my hip was still there, but the pain in my knee had shifted from the outside to the inside which actually gave me some hope that it might shift out all together.

I ran side by side with the leather clad rock star and had to lean left to avoid a flag in the face. Another Wonder Woman brushed my arm on the left, nearly going out into on coming traffic to get by. I let her go. I was too tired to compete anymore, it was all a matter of survival.

Soon I heard the sandaled feet of Pam coming up behind and wished her well, feeling a bit bummed for me, but glad she was still going strong.

Another friend passed me by as I seriously contemplated giving up, but kept moving one foot in front of the other, praying for the end.

The cheering crowd at the finish line encouraged me to pick up the pace a bit faster, but it still hurt. The competitor in me tried my best to kick it in the last 100 yards, so with sights set on a younger woman in front of me, I charged to the finish, passing the woman just feet ahead of finish… the best victory I could make of it that day.

As we passed by the rows of fruit and water, the only thing I really wanted was an orange. My blood sugar was so low I felt like passing out. That orange tasted like the most wonderful fruit on the planet. As I slung a bagel around my ring finger, tucked my water under my arm pit and snagged a banana I headed for the Coke stand for Powerade to replace my lost fluids. It was also extremely welcome!

During the awards ceremony we discovered there were well over 20 Wonder Women, two batmen (to be fair one was a bat boy), a reenactment of the running of the bulls with some runners wearing bull horns and others running in mustaches white clothing with red sashes and red bandanas, a beach babe in a lounge chair, several elves, santas and reindeers and even a flying squirrel and Big Foot. They kept everyone as entertained as the service men kept us inspired.

There are many different levels of runners. Some runners run for others or to raise awareness of some cause or event. Some run for bragging rights on Facebook and Twitter, but some run to beat demons, to find that part of themselves they did not know existed that can keep moving forward when the whole world seems to drag them back.

For those people running is almost addictive. As one runner put it, “when I don’t run for a few days it feels like my muscles are itching.” It seems there is a longing for the muscles to move as if some primal force is driving us on.

I guess that is really the mark of a runner, not so much if you are fast or can run forever without stopping or getting tired, but that, after you do run, you want to do it again and again, even though you may be in pain while doing it or afterward.

While I didn’t win any awards or break any personal records, it was still fun to run with a Christmas tree and a rock star in stilettos and for a brief second when I ran side by side with a female firefighter in full gear, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself and in all reality, I guess that is why runners like to run whether in races or small groups, there is just something primal about running with the pack and sharing the experience with kindred spirits.

If you didn’t get your fill of holiday cheer and pounding feet and strange costumes, there are still several holiday runs in Savannah including some jingle jogs at night downtown and across the river on Hutchinson Island. For a complete list of races coming up, check out: http://www.runningintheusa.com/race/ListByCityRadius.aspx?City=Savannah&State=GA

For a complete list of runners in the 2013 Bridge Run and their times go to: http://event-tech.com/results/

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