The Race Must Go On
The highly anticipated 36th annual Bridge Run is this Saturday, and Charleston Southern University professor Dr. Marc Embler reflects on his past, present and future race experiences.
Unlike any other season, spring is the most unpredictable time of year in Charleston, South Carolina. The moments are marked by signs of life in-between; a burst of sunshine or a warm breeze hint at summer, but never committing. The season will end, and like a race, all that will remain is time.
If you’re looking for predictability and certainty this spring, look no further than this weekend’s 36th annual Bridge Run in Charleston. That’s where you’ll find Dr. Marc Embler, running. Embler has become a staple at the race, running the annual event 33 times going into Saturday. Like the season, his memories of the Lowcountry race are sprinkled with mixed emotions; wins and losses, highs and lows, joy and heartbreak.
Embler was a track standout at the Baptist College (now Charleston Southern University) from 1975-1979. In 1978, he ran the first Bridge Run, finishing fifth. In fact, three of the top five finishers were Baptist College (now Charleston Southern University) students.
Three years later, in 1981, Embler was training hard in the weeks leading up to the race. He was in excellent physical condition but had no plans to enter the race. At the last moment he decided, why not.
In sunny 60-degree weather, Embler stood among 1,650 runners, enduring the whipping spring wind and waiting for the sound of the gun. As the race approached the bridge, for the first time, runners enjoyed a tailwind. Embler ran stride-for-stride with Bicky Timms for the first half of the race.
“We ran together for about 2 1/2 -3 miles and coming up the top of the second loop, I said to myself, “OK, I am going to see what happens here; see if he comes with me,” he said.
Embler accelerated and literally ran away from the competition. Timms never caught him. Embler unpredictably won the Bridge Run finishing the race in 30 minutes, 54 seconds. In the 36-year history, Embler is still the only Charlestonian to ever win the race.
The following year, 1982, Embler decided early he would run. He trained, and this time was predicted to win the race. In 45-degree weather, Embler’s parents waited at the finish line, expecting to see their son win. As Embler waited for the gun to start the race, he looked around. Among the 2,100 competitors, he didn’t see any of the faces he thought could challenge him. The runners faced a strong headwind as they headed up the bridge.
“About a mile into the race this gentleman [Mark Donahue] took off,” remembers Embler. He’ll be back, Embler thought, and he continued to run his race with the anticipation that time and distance would balance the scales.
“We’re going up the bridge and this guy’s not coming back; I’ve got to go get him,” said Embler. “I never caught him.”
Monday morning’s headline in the Post Courier read: “‘Unknown Officer King of the Span.” Mark Donahue, a Navy officer on six weeks temporary duty in Charleston, surprised everyone when he jumped to an early lead going over the bridge. He was never challenged as he went on to win in 30:28. Embler crossed the finish line almost one minute later (31:12) in second place.
“My parents were more crushed than I was,” he said. “They were down at the finish line just waiting for me and they see this other guy and they’re like, wait a minute!?”
After graduating college, Embler worked more than two decades as a Federal Probation Officer. In 2011, he returned to his alma mater and is now chair of the department of criminal justice. Through the years, Embler continues to run – a lot -- racking up 55-60 hours per week. Since the early days of the Bridge Run, he has run hundreds of races, including the Boston Marathon in 2012 and the New York Marathon in 2002. In 2013, Embler earned the South Carolina Long Distance Runners of the Year by USA Track and Field top runner award in the master’s category.
More than 10,000 people from all over the world will converge on Charleston to walk and run a new bridge, a new race. A lot has changed since 1978.
“People don’t realize it was a much harder race then [in 1981],” said Embler. “The old bridge was steeper; there were two loops. The course was harder, and there weren’t as many people, and there weren’t as many elite [runners].”
Saturday will mark the 34th time in 36 years that Embler has laced up his running shoes for the Bridge. After all, the race must go on.