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The Bloomsday Mystery 

by Howie Stalwick


Statistics suggest the average American is fat, more than a little bit lazy and jogs only when a downpour strikes between the 18th and 19th holes. And then there's the Lilac Bloomsday Run. "Bloomsday" for short. When you're famous -- like Elvis, Tiger and Bloomsday -- you only need one name.


On the first Sunday of May, Bloomsday transforms Spokane into the world's largest health club -- sort of a Jack LaLanne/Richard Simmons/Jane Fonda fitness video with suburbs.


Quiet, conservative, somewhat isolated Spokane, for reasons no one can quite put a finger on, annually stages one of the biggest and best running/walking/wheelchair/stroller events in the world. It's not, however, primarily a competitive running event: The majority of participants, in fact, are women who walk most or all of the 12-kilometer (7.46-mile) course.


The usual pack of 45,000 or so entrants will jam the downtown streets once more this May. Men, women, boys and girls will surge forth en masse like a giant tube of gelatin for a mile or two. They'll gradually spread out a bit as their travels take them across bridges over the Spokane River and through rolling hills on the outskirts of town and up cleverly/savagely named Doomsday Hill and finally back to the heart of the city.


Bloomsday has long attracted some of the most talented distance runners in the world, including Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Henry Rono, Joan Ullyot, Anne Audain, Gerry Lindgren, Jon Sinclair and Kim Jones. First place at Bloomsday is worth $7,000 to the top male and female; the total purse runs around $75,000.


The magic of Bloomsday, however, lies in the fact that it is the ultimate gathering place of the weekend warrior, along with the middle-aged housewife, the 9-year-old with braces, the young mother pushing a stroller -- and that baby's grandmother and grandfather.


"I marvel at how this little town has attracted people to keep coming back," says Karen Heaps, Bloomsday's race coordinator since 1992. "People have family reunions here. We've got people from Salt Lake who come to meet their friends from Seattle, or family. Someone told me, 'We get together at Christmas and Bloomsday. Those are the two times my family gets together.' Others say the feeling of Bloomsday weekend reminds them of the feeling they have Christmas morning when they wake up -- that excitement."


Don Kardong organized the first Bloomsday in 1977, one year after he finished fourth in the Olympic marathon. With the running boom starting to catch on in the United States, Kardong thought a little run would be a nice thing to have in Spokane, where he taught grade school.


"I was hoping for maybe 500 runners," Kardong recalls.


To his delight, almost three times that many people signed up. Nearly 1,200 finished, including winner Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist. A year later, Rodgers (four-time winner of both the Boston and New York City marathons) led more than 5,000 across the finish line.


"The biggest races in the country were drawing about 3,000," Kardong says.


In 1987, Bloomsday topped 50,000 for the first time. By 1996, Bloomsday had reached all-time highs with 61,298 entrants and 56,156 finishers. For years now, Bloomsday has been the biggest road race in the world in which every finisher is individually timed.


"Everyone feels noteworthy," says longtime Bloomsday announcer Tracy Walters.


"It's nice to see all the people, and it's a pretty course," says Margaret Swanson, an 81-year-old Spokanite who is walking religiously in her neighborhood in preparation for her 22nd straight Bloomsday. "You feel like you've accomplished something."


"I used to run in places like Eugene (North America's track and field capital) 'back in the heyday' -- and it was good, but still not the quality of Bloomsday," says Bob Barbero, a longtime Spokane high school cross country and track coach. "Runners from Eugene come up here and go, 'Wow.'"


Heaps, who ran in about half the Bloomsdays after watching the first one while sitting on a curb ("Drinking champagne, yelling 'Go! Go!'"), credits some 4,500 volunteers for much of the event's success.


"We just have an incredible group of people," says Heaps, Bloomsday's only full-time employee. (A part-time secretary is the only other paid employee.) "A lot of our chair people have been with us for 25, 26 years. That's why this event is so well organized... they stick to their jobs, make certain it's perfect."


"Other races just marvel at the level of city (workers) and community involvement," adds Al Odenthal, a Spokane policeman and Bloomsday board member.


"There's a certain graciousness in how we accept our visitors," says Walters. "And, of course, every Bloomsday is viewed as a failure when we sit down and do our critiques. Really, I think that helps."


Tens of thousands of spectators line the course each year to shout encouragement, provide musical entertainment via home or car stereos or with live bands and, occasionally, to soak weary bodies with water from garden hoses. Vendors hawk everything from soft drinks to ice cream to used cars. Local television and radio stations cover the race live.


Still... why? Why does this massive wave of two-legged humanity descend on Spokane each year to run, walk, roll or stagger their way through town? Why not Seattle? Or Chicago? Or Los Angeles?


Kardong, still a Bloomsday board member, claims Spokane was ripe for starting Bloomsday during the running craze of the '70s. Walters makes note of Spokane's legacy of great distance runners, including Lindgren, Kardong, Jones and untold numbers of state high school champions in track and cross country. Odenthal says there's always been strong support from city government.


Heaps cited the above factors and others for Bloomsday's remarkable success, including revived community spirit stemming from the Expo '74 world's fair in Spokane. However, when one considers that Spokane plays host to Bloomsday as well as Hoopfest -- the world's largest three-on-three basketball tournament, which drew more than 24,000 players last summer -- Heaps says there's ultimately only one explanation.


"Why Spokane? Because we love to volunteer. You can't have an event without volunteers."





Publication date: 05/01/03

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