By all reports, the bridge run, supported financially by many local businesses, is one of the best organized marathons in the country.
The bridge run is limited to 1,500 participants. Routinely, ten times that number apply.
At 6:00 a.m. on race day, runners, race officials, support personnel, police officers, and dozens of volunteers gather in the dark near the east end of the bridge.
By 6:50, the runners are receiving their final briefing in the parking lot in front of the railroad car that serves as the Pigeon Key Visitor Center, and support personnel and vehicles, ready to jump out onto the bridge and take up their stations, are staged on the shoulders of the Overseas Highway. The sun is just beginning to lighten the sky. Passing motorists begin to close ranks and accelerate in their effort to get to the bridge before it is shut down and they are obliged to sit and wait. Excitement builds.
At 7:00, police stop traffic at both ends of the bridge. Support crews and officials move first, fanning out along the length of the bridge, assuming positions as monitors or emergency medical resources, or setting up watering stations. With support crews on their way, runners gather at the starting line, wheel chairs first, and the race is started.
Personally, I have never witnessed the start of the race. Although it is held a few minutes from my home, I am not a runner, and my place of choice at five o'clock on a Saturday morning is in bed, asleep. The real reason, of course, is that when the race is started, I am usually near the other end of the bridge, hurridly unfolding tables and helping to fill more than a thousand paper cups half full of water while others on my team put hundreds of sponges to soak in coolers filled with ice water.
Not long after Nancy and I moved to the Keys, I decided that being an active part our new small town community would be a good thing. So I asked around for suggestions of events that might welcome another volunteer. Sally Mishmash's annual Reef Sweep was one. The bridge run was the other. I joined both. Sally's Reef Sweep went dormant a few years later when Bicardi and the local dive shops commandeered the concept, over-scheduled events, and turned a wonderful day for volunteers riding out to save the reefs on donated commercial lobster boats into an overdone photo-op made meaningless by its commerciality.
Each year, the bridge run team has looked a little different. There are usually a couple of new people in the group, the excitement of a first experience reflected in their faces. Dennis Kelner was the team's leader when I joined. He left the group to Richard Toles so he could run in the race himself, and later wander the world scaling mountains. Richard kept things going for a couple of years until he ran off with another woman, and Gerry Clairmont, who had been a steady member of the group for years took over. Gerry kept some of the group's traditions, but replaced the rickety wood tables with light aluminum ones, and replaced pouring with dipping to improve the efficiency (even better than my innovative bilge pump technique of a few years ago) of our setup procedures.
Though the complexion of the group and the techniques have changed, the ritual itself has not. Five gallon jugs of spring water. A box of paper cups. Two inch foam pads cut into somewhat irregular sponges. Coolers full of ice for the sponges. Tables on which to set up the water cups. Refreshments for the crew. We have three vehicles permitted for the event. Usually it is Gerry's Construction work truck and a couple of pickups. Our equipment and supplies are loaded into one pickup. The others ferry the crew. After everything is ready, the team "runs the bridge," the width of it anyway, from one side to the other.
Every year several disabled individuals participate in the race, speeding across the bridge in competition-class wheel chairs. They are the first to come by our station. Following them are one or two seasoned marathon runners, men and women both, who run behind a pickup carrying a large digital clock displaying elapsed time. The winners. Some distance behind them will be a small group of very competitive runners. By the time they approach, we will have our sponges and water cups prepared, and also will have had time to visit a bit, renew acquaintances, and sip a mimosa or pop open a beer which, as Richard was fond of saying, "is not just for breakfast any more." Granted, an adult beverage early in the morning is an indulgence, but being with a small group of friends out on a shut down 7 Mile Bridge, the Atlantic on one side, the Gulf on the other, the sun just coming up, police motorcycles hot-dogging by, and a horde of 1,500 sweaty men, women and children racing toward you in the distance constitutes a moment one wants to celebrate with more than a cup of coffee.
Obviously, the race must be time-limited. Otherwise, the stragglers, of which there are many, would keep traffic stopped in the Keys for hours and hours. So at the appropriate moment, a couple of yellow school busses are dispatched. They drive slowly across the bridge, collecting the slowest or most fatigued runners as they go. Many entrants, in fact, enter for the fun of the event, having no real chance of winning, wanting only to "beat the bus."
By the time the bus arrives at our station, the kids have collected the sponges and empty paper cups, the tables have been disassembled to be stored for another year, all of our things have been loaded into the pickup, and we are ready to leave the bridge - in the condition we found it - as if we were never there.
By 8:45, we are off the bridge and back at Knight's Key where magically there has appeared a stage (complete with performing musician), beer truck, water truck, and tables for t-shirt sales and other refreshments.
By 9:00, the convoy of yellow busses ferrying all 1500 runners back across the bridge arrives, the police let traffic resume, and the post-run party begins.
By 9:15, I am back in bed, trying to make up as much lost sleep as I can. I have added another t-shirt to my wardrobe. I have fresh memories of a unique and amazing Keys event. And I am already looking forward to next year's race.