Construction of the New River Gorge Bridge occurred from June 1974 until October 1977. Before the bridge, traveling from one side of the gorge to the other took almost an hour. Now, depending on your speed, you can reach your destination in less than a minute.
Governor John D Rockefeller IV invited everyone out to take part in the dedication of the new bridge on October 22, 1977. He closed off two of the four lanes of traffic and invited the people of West Virginia to walk across the bridge so they could see the amazing view the span offered. So many people made their way to the new bridge to see the sight. They could never have predicted that the event would be repeated every year and that it would grow into “Bridge Day”, an event known worldwide for attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists on the third Saturday of every October to watch the most passionate of athletes jump from, rappel down and now run across the structure. The only time the event was canceled was after the terror attacks on 09/11. Since those attacks in NYC, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic (with the exception of the buses transporting people up and down Fayette Station) on the day of the event.
It is a steel (COR-TEN) arch bridge measuring 3,030 feet in length and, at its center, 876 feet in height. It is one of the tallest bridges in the world. Burton Ervin, from Cowen, West Virginia (a coal mine foreman), was the first person to jump from its edge on August 1, 1979.
According to My WV Home:
He made his first skydive in 74/75 at “Green County Sport Parachute Club” in Bidwell Ohio under the direction of Jerry Nesbitt. Burton broke his leg and his wife injured her back on their very first jump. Both were transported back to Cowen WV in a private ambulance after a quick stop at the local hospital. Burton then made some trips to Virginia (the New River Valley Parachute Club) and made a total of about 25 jumps there. He also flew with my father (my father being a pilot and living nearby) and jumped with my dad at NRVPC. My dad was 60 at the time and the oldest person to static line at NRVPC.
Burtons jump numbers were only in the high 30s when he decided to attempt a jump off the bridge.
Burton jumped a conventional North American Aerodynamics Mini Rig System with a 32 foot Lopo canopy. Due to the small number of jumps he was making each year, Burton never had reason to purchase one of those “new fangled” squares (my words, not his) that had just come on the market. Besides, he trusted the round.
After much investigation, planning, and a lot of phone calls to parachute companies, suppliers, and personal jump friends, Burton decided that the jump COULD be made, but due to swirling winds during the daytime, the jump would take place at dusk. Long story short: Winds and the threat of rain postponed the jump until around 10:15 that night. (about 45 minutes after dark)
In 1980 on Nov 8th, the first Bridge Day was held. Five jumpers exited the bridge that day. In 1981, there was 10. By 1984, there was 300.
According to the official Bridge Day page, 2016’s numbers are as follows:
260 BASE jumpers (24 different countries and 34 states) – 587 jumps, 16 tandem jumps
924 rappels / 47 climbers (youngest rappeler was 17, the oldest was 78)
118 highline riders (zipline)
170 Bridge Day 5k runners
And, if you are wondering, 92 BASE jumpers were rescued from the water below.
My Bridge Day Story
The picture to the left is of Daddy and I on the bridge circa 1980 or 81, to the right is one of the BASE jumpers that year.
So, where do I fit in with the history of Bridge Day? My connection to the bridge started way back to the years between 1974 and 1977. I grew up in Carlisle, WV about a fifteen minute drive from the bridge. As a little kid, my Daddy and I would go over to the Fayette Station area, park and watch as the construction took place. He explained to me about Cor-Ten steel and how because of using this steel the bridge would never be painted because it would “rust” after years of being in the weather. He explained that the rust on this bridge would not mean it was degrading in quality, it was just a trait of that particular type of steel. He was fascinated with how the bridge was designed and the brave souls who dared to dangle from those heights.
We went to all of the Bridge Day festivities. Every year it was a family event. We ate festival-style food, braved the weather and looked for our friends as we walked the length of the bridge and back. We watched as the first BASE jumpers took flight and I swore one day I would do the same.
If you have read my blog, you know that I live my life like my ass is on fire. So it will be no surprise to you that when in high school, we would shinny the fence and walk the I-beam over to the catwalk beneath the bridge. Once there, we (and our six packs of Old Milwaukee) would make our way to the center of the bridge where we would dangle our feet over the edge, drink beer and throw the empties out into nothingness. Later in life, I would enjoy a nostalgic trip on that catwalk in what is now known as “Bridgewalk”. Being tethered is not near as fun as walking of your own accord. However, walking it in daylight gave a whole new dimension to the foolishness we enjoyed as kids.
That bridge has been part of numerous journeys for me: (to the Lake, home from NYC, driving with Daddy to Fayette Station…). When I think of “home”, the bridge is always on the peripheral. As soon as I saw the post for the first ever Bridge Day 5k, I just knew that I had to be a part of the adventure. After years of the bridge being part of MY life, now I could be part of its history. Once signed up, I immediately called Dad to tell him the great news. I was eager to share this adventure with him. Unfortunately, my Dad would pass away exactly two weeks prior to the race. Because of caring for him, I was unable to properly train in the weeks leading up to the race. I decided to run anyway, in his honor, thinking of him and the amazing childhood filled with discovery and adventure that he had afforded for me.
My friend Renau and I rented a rustic cabin at AOTG, less than a mile from the starting line. I woke at 5:30 AM, had coffee on the porch and laced up my sneakers. The weather was rather warm for the time of year. I decided to drive to the starting line where I would pick up my bib. I was the first person to pick my bib up that morning. I found out that we would be running the southbound lanes. There was a thrill in that for me. The northbound lanes are the ones always open for Bridge Day. To be running on the oppoiste side was such a treat. 170 runners gathered on that side, excited chatter filling the air. We gathered at the line and off we went! I am normally a Run 3 Minutes, Walk 2 Minutes pace person. However, for this race, I ran the entire length of the bridge (stopping once to take a picture over the side of the shadow cast on the mountains) and then I slowed close to the end but was prodded by other runners who knew it was my goal to run the length. Renau caught pictures of me at the start of the race.
The race proved to be both difficult and amazing for me. My lack of training was felt at every turn. But the thrill of being part of this race drove me on. In the end, I finished 156 out of 170. My official course time was 46:48.2 with a 16:02 pace time. The race was actually 3.64 miles long and according to my Garmin, I finished it in 50:20.22. Also, according to my Garmin, I completed 3.1 miles of that race in 43:26 which is closer to a 14 min pace time (but who’s counting).
That last pic is of me taking a picture of the road sign so my family would know the name of the hill that killed me! Ha The picture does not do it justice, it was the straight up hill of death…
I met a wonderful woman who had a great tshirt which read “Slow Runners Make Fast Runners Look Good”. She was a great companion for the last half mile of the race. And by the last half mile, I mean the section of this 5k from 3.1 miles to the finish at 3.64. To she who will not be named – thanks for keeping me company, your story and your companionship made the day more special. As I rounded the corner at the courthouse a man with a cardboard sign caught my eye. The sign read “Never Quit” and my eyes immediately teared up. See, Daddy’s mantra was “Never Give Up” and although the wording was different, the sentiment was the same and for the flash of a moment, Daddy was there with me, like he was supposed to be, sharing in this moment.
If you like unique races, the Bridge Day 5k is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of race. The view, the bridge, the crowd… It was as amazing an experience as I thought it would be. I celebrated my survival with a cup of coffee and a new mug from Cathedral Cafe. I plan on running the race next year too and I promise, I will be better prepared.