Cooper Norcross Run the Bridge racers brave wind, cold, and heights for a cause

Seen from atop the Ben Franklin Bridge, runners make their way along the 10K route. In addition to 4,500 runners, 1,000 walkers joined the fund-raising event.
Seen from atop the Ben Franklin Bridge, runners make their way along the 10K route. In addition to 4,500 runners, 1,000 walkers joined the fund-raising event. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 06, 2012

The Cooper Norcross Run the Bridge 10K was both beautiful and grueling, as 4,500 runners - and 1,000 walkers - crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge with the early-morning sun to their backs, the Philadelphia skyline ahead, and swirling winds that made the chilly air feel positively frigid.

"I'm feeling unprepared," Erin Durant, 37, of Bryn Mawr, said, hopping from foot to foot to stay warm before the start of the race at Campbell's Field Sunday. "Once I get running, I'm sure it will be fun."

Only a dedicated runner would describe a course that has three big hills, crosses a bridge 135 feet above the Delaware River, and winds through Camden before ending at the baseball stadium as fun.

Despite the low temperature, the turnout for the annual race, which benefits the Larc School in Bellmawr for students with intensive special needs, was the largest in history, said Susan Weiner, executive director of the school and the run's lead organizer.

"We're cold but we're psyched," said Christine Dash, 46, of Lumberton, who was running with two friends. That didn't mean they weren't hoping "we'd wake up and it would be 85 degrees," she said and laughed.

At 8:15, the crowd surged onto the field for opening ceremonies, then walked to the base of the bridge. At 8:30, they were off.

The remarkable sight of several thousand crossing the Delaware on the historic, 86-year-old bridge, bathed in the light of the first dawn, is the culmination of an intense 12 months of planning.

"You're standing in Campbell's Field and the fastest runners are coming in less than a half an hour and you still see runners crossing the bridge - it's fabulous, it's beautiful, to see the sun come up," said Weiner, who started at 5:30 a.m. Sunday and who wouldn't rest until the last participant had left the stadium.

Weiner said this year's race was on a pace to exceed the $250,000 the school raised last year. Sponsors include Cooper University Hospital, the Norcross Foundation, AmeriHealth New Jersey, the Camden County Parks Department, the Delaware River Port Authority, the Camden Riversharks, and Rutgers University.

Proceeds help the Larc School buy the latest technology, such as iPads, smartboards, and interactive computers to help teach its severely disabled students, and also go toward other capital needs. Said Weiner: "Needless to say, these funds go if we need a new roof or air-conditioning - it's there to maintain our program."

The school was started in 1968 by parents seeking a better way to educate their children with special needs, and it now trains 100 students - from 3-year-olds to adults - with a staff of 120. Weiner said the event started in 1997 as a 5K near the school to finance the launch of an adult program.

"The first one had 350 people, which we thought was astounding, and it may have raised $15,000, which we thought was unbelievable," she said.

The race moved to the Ben Franklin Bridge in 2002. This year's enrollment tops last year's by 500. So many people wanted to participate the school had to cut off online registration in September.

Some of the most enthusiastic runners are Larc teachers. This was the third time for Chelsie Connolly, 26, a special-education teacher for students at the second-grade age level.

"Being a teacher here, I see where the money really goes and what we get to do with it in the classroom," Connolly said, noting that some of the devices help students who struggle with communication to speak.

Her colleague Christine Smith, 31, said one of her favorite things about the event was seeing a few of the students come out to cheer them on.

"I feel like I'm running for the kids," she said.

Less than 30 minutes after starting, the elite runners whooshed back into Campbell's Field with Samuel Ndereba, who was born in Kenya and lives in Norristown, crossing the finish line first.

"It was nice, but very cold and windy," Ndereba said.

Though the top five men and women and the top three masters - men and women over 40 - received cash prizes, the rest left with memories and maybe a case of windburn.

Contact Kathy Boccella at or follow @kmboccella on Twitter.

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