I started Bloomsday and once led the pack — and then I had a daughter

Bloomsday 2019

click to enlarge One of the beloved back-of-the-packers (above) and Bloomsday founder Don Kardong (below). - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
One of the beloved back-of-the-packers (above) and Bloomsday founder Don Kardong (below).

I've done Bloomsday every year, but even so I'm sometimes accused of never having experienced the real Bloomsday. You know, the experience of being surrounded by scores of fellow citizens who are bumping and stumbling as they huff and puff their way through seven-and-a-half miles of challenging real estate. Mass migration, lemming-like, with a chance of being trampled.

It's not that bad, I can tell you, because if maneuvering through a crowd is what constitutes the reality of the first Sunday in May, then I've earned my stripes. Been there, done that. Numerous times.

It's true that for many years I ran fast enough to float along near the front of the pack, at least if it can be called floating when accompanied by labored breathing and desperate sweat. The first year I led the pack down Riverside and across the Maple Street Bridge, which in 1977 was still a toll bridge. When I raced past the toll booth, I remember the toll taker beaming an impressive smile. And no, I was not required to deposit a dime in the basket.

click to enlarge Don Kardong - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Don Kardong

After years of roughly similar Bloomsdays, when I raced up front, finished as high as third, and clocked times as fast as 37:22, 1984 rolled around. That was the year when we woke to snow in the morning. Thankfully, it had melted off the course by the 9 o'clock start time.

It wasn't snow that would slow me down that day, giving me my initial first-hand experience of running in the middle of over 30,000 of my fellow citizens. It was my daughter Kaitlin, eight months old and traveling her first Bloomsday courtesy of a Baby Jogger. The inventor of the Baby Jogger, Phil Baechler, had given me the second production model. That was Kaitlin's ride that day. My wife Bridgid and I would alternate pushing, and we were the very last people to start.

Yes, the very last starters. I glanced behind us. Nothing but wet, empty pavement. I think we heard the starting gun fire, but we didn't move for a very long time. When we finally did move, it was stop-start-stop-start for most of the first mile. This was what back-of-the pack was like in 1984.

As we reached that first mile, I noticed helicopters aloft to our right, just north of the river gorge. This puzzled me. I assumed these were news helicopters, but why were they at that location, which I knew would have been just above the six-mile point? I looked at my watch. Just under 30 minutes. I computed. Then it hit me. The helicopters were following the lead pack, which had just passed six miles. Bridgid, Kaitlin and I were five miles behind the leaders!

It would be another hour before we wove our way through the crowd to that same six-mile point. By then I had learned that, as smooth as sailing was with a Baby Jogger, it wasn't a good fit in a huge race like Bloomsday, at least not when running. But it was a blast being in the crowd, enjoying the elevated spirits of thousands of Bloomies. We reached the finish that day in 1:53:43. That was good for 24,182nd place. The year before I had been 43rd.

In successive years I would race near the front many times, straining for fast times. But in recent years I've drifted back, year after year, increasingly a member of the throng. Even so, 1984 has always held a special place in my heart. Not only was it my first time back in the crowd, it was the one and only Bloomsday I did with Kaitlin.

A few years ago Kaitlin returned to Bloomsday on her own two feet. And this year she'll be pushing her two kids, Vivian and Joe, in a stroller. I've assured her, based on my own experience, that back-of-the-pack will be just fine, and not a bad way to share Bloomsday with future participants. Some of them might even be front-of-the-packers one day. ♦

Madame Butterfly @ Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox

Sun., Sept. 22, 2 p.m.
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