by Pia K. Hansen

When the first Bloomsday starting gun was fired in downtown Spokane 25 years ago, the runners who were lined up didn't know they were a part of the birth of a great Spokane tradition.

The year was 1977, and Robert Dellwo was a frisky 59-year-old lawyer when he lined up on that steamy hot Sunday afternoon. The start didn't go until 1:30 pm, and runners were heading out on an 8.5-mile course, compared to today's, which is a mile shorter.

With Dellwo were a little more than 1,000 runners, some of them famous, some of them not so famous -- and a few who didn't have the faintest idea of what they were doing.

"I was part of the committee that got the whole thing started. I had competed, running, all over the country, but mostly out on the East Coast," says Dellwo, who'll be doing his 25th Bloomsday on Sunday. "I held a number of records, but the one I like to talk about is the one where, just about the time of the first Bloomsday, I was the oldest man in the world to break the five-minute mile."

But Dellwo is quick to give credit where it's due: "Don Kardong was really our leader, he deserves all the credit for that. He is a famous person, but also a smart person: He brings in people like me to work with him."

Before Bloomsday, running in Spokane was loosely organized. Runners like Dellwo, who were looking to add a little competition to the daily training, simply met up with friends or joined regular high school track meets.

"There were a lot of track meets, and of course we couldn't compete for the championship, but we had someone to run against," says Dellwo with a chuckle. "I think Bloomsday really pioneered these types of races in the U.S. After that first race, many other cities started doing the same thing."

The year before he got Bloomsday off the ground, Kardong had placed fourth in the Olympic Marathon. The year after, in '78, he won the Honolulu Marathon, and went on to collect medals at many other races. The road race he founded soon took off in a big way, too -- not even Kardong ever expected to see more than 50,000 runners lined up.

One day after his Olympics experience, a reporter asked him about all the interest in running in Spokane. He answered that he thought Spokane should have a fun run in downtown.

"I don't know that I was offering to start one myself," recalls Kardong. "I just thought there ought to be one.

"She put it in the newspaper, and I was down at City Hall when I happened to get on an elevator with the mayor [then Dave Rodgers], and he said, 'Hey, you're that Olympic runner. I saw that idea you had for a run here in Spokane. I think that'd be great.' That elevator trip -- what did it take, 30 seconds? -- was the beginning, and then the ball started to roll."

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I don't think any of us know exactly why it's gotten so big," says Bill Peters, a Spokane family physician who's preparing for his 25th Bloomsday as well. "The timing for the first race was really good -- it was the beginning of the jogging and running craze. I know that some coaches got all the track teams out for the first Bloomsday, but soon it became a thing on its own -- took on its own life. Kardong did a great thing for the community here."

Running among some 50,000 other runners is a lot like going to the fair -- a fair 7.5 miles long, that is. And the professional way in which every aspect of the race is handled, from the registration, to the lineup, to the timing at the finish, makes it hard to believe the world's largest timed road race has grown from such humble beginnings.

"The course was different then," says Peters. "I think we started on Riverside, and then we went across the Maple Street Bridge, and ran sort of a big U-shaped route. We went out, along the river, by the old Shriners Hospital, and then straight up the Meenach Hill and over to Northwest Boulevard. We somehow ended up by the clock tower in Riverfront Park."

Dellwo remembers one year where the combined pounding of all the runners, as they crossed the Maple Street Bridge, made some of the street lamps fall down.

He laughs: "They changed the route, didn't they?"

Things weren't quite as organized the first time around. Peters, for instance, almost missed getting his very first Bloomsday T-shirt. "The thing I remember most, about the first race, is they ran it at noontime. It was very hot, and a lot of people got in trouble with dehydration and heat," he says. "Coming in, there were still people laying around the course [collapsed from heat stroke], and I and my best friend got together and helped out getting IVs going. But I never got my T-shirt because I was busy helping out."

He later called in and got the treasured first T-shirt -- even though it's not in his size, he's still happy to have one to show for that first race.

Many changes have been made over the years. For instance, in the early races, there was only one chute for runners to finish through, which caused quite a lot of congestion at the end of the race.

So the course changed, as did the starting time. "I still think the best change they made is to run it in the morning," says Peters. "That's just better for everyone involved."

Through all the challenges and changes, the Bloomsday organization, consisting mainly of volunteers, has remained on top of things. The latest major change was to move the finish line to Broadway. River Park Square now stands where the course used to end.

"It's become the major community activity of the year," says Dellwo. "And I've noticed, it seems like even if the number of runners go up, the number of elite runners remain the same. That's great, that means more and more regular people are joining."

But it's the sense of community and camaraderie among the road runners that means the most to Dellwo. "I've run all my life, and for me the thrill is not only in running but also in the social activity," he says. "Bloomsday became the thing we did. Nearly all my kids participated at some point."

Carolyn Bryan is another faithful Bloomie heading out for her 25th run on Sunday. She started running Bloomsday on a challenge from her daughter, who came home saying her friend's mom was doing it, too.

"I had no clue what I was doing. I went to the shoe store and bought what I thought were running shoes," she says. "I mean, they were like boats, I think they weighed, like, two pounds each." She laughs and continues: "I didn't even own a pair of shorts, so I borrowed a pair of my husband's old gym shorts. I'm sure I was a sight, but fortunately no one took my picture."

Bryan's experience of the first Bloomsday was hot, tedious and hard -- but it left her determined. "Once I finished, I thought, 'I'm gonna do this every year as long as I can put one foot in front of the other' -- and I have," she says.

Together with her husband William, Bryan has volunteered countless hours to keep Bloomsday on the road, managing the early Sunday morning check-in stand for out-of-towners for the last 14 years.

"I wouldn't miss Bloomsday for the world," she says.

Dellwo feels the same way: "I've got a disability now, I fell off the roof and hurt my back and my hip last year in January," says Dellwo, who still did Bloomsday that May, with the help of his family and a wheelchair he could use occasionally. "I'm going to be lucky to fast walk it this year. Until two or three years ago, I always ran it, and often got second or third in my age group. This year, I'll walk with one of my daughters -- it'll still be great, just as it always has."

Silver stars

After the first Bloomsday in 1977, a dedicated core of the roughly 1,000 runners who showed up for that first race were never able to kick the Bloomsday habit. On Sunday, these great Bloomies (all 130 of them) plan to make trip number 25 up Doomsday Hill. So here's to perseverance -- and another 25 Bloomsdays:

David G. Albertini * Roger L. Aldrich * Gordon W. Anderson * Marji J. Arnold * Michael R. Arnold * Dick O. Baker * Bob D. Barbero * Rick Barbero * Bernard A. Barnes * Bob S. Bates * Charlie F. Bean * Gary Berg * Max Bischoff * John F. Black * Lori Black * John B. Blessent * Chris L. Boucher * John R. Bowers * Bruce R. Boyden * Lonnie R. Brackins * Robert C. Brewster * Dianne D. Bruhn * Carolyn R. Bryan * Wendell L. Buck * Nan C. Bulish * Richard K. Cadwallader * Jack L. Charbonneau * Douglas F. Clark * George W. Davidson * John R. Day * Robert Dellwo * Lenn J. Dompier * Ronald P. Douglas * Dennis L. Doyle * Dean D. Edwards * Charles R. Erickson * Delbert E. Erickson * Mary H. Fagen * Bobby D. Felton * Carol Fields * Albert C. Finley * Michael P. Fleming * Don L. Franklin * Jon C. Gardner * Daniel R. Gillespie * Lawrence M. Gorton * James A. Grier * Dean D. Haagenson * Roger E. Harman * Terry L. Hemingway * Warren C. Heylman * Ken J. Hill * Arthur A. Hilton * Mike L. Hogue * John H. Howard * Richard C. Howland * Eric Shussey * Gene E. Hyde * Timmy C. Jones * Bill E. Joy * Don Kardong * Brian J. Kenna * Ted R. Kirpes * Martin Kittredge von Klohe * Keith R. Lalonde * Rich Landers * Thomas C. Laselle * Keith D. Law * Kay M. Lengyel * Thomas F. Leonard * Glen A. MacPhee * Robert K. Maudlin * James McArthur * Floyd L. McComas * Bruce H. McDavis * Wilson F. McElroy * Jerry A. McGinn * P. Michael McKeehan * Michael P. McKenna * Joseph P. McManus * Dennis O. McMullen * Ramona Mendoza * Don J. Migliuri * Steven A. Moe * Thornton C. Murphy * Paul R. Nolan * Kris A. Olson-Wood * Daniel Omeara * Joel W. Palmer * James B. Parry * William Peters * Lawrence N. Peterson * Lewis E. Purcell Sr. * Patrick H. Quinn * Sylvia C. Quinn * Maurice L. Ray * Sally A. Rennebohm-Lutz * Laurie Rhodes * Roger R. Risinger * Edward G. Rockwell * Jack C. Rogers * Stephen Romjue * Harold H. Rusch * Steve W. Rusch * Nick J. Savka * Lawrence G. Schrock * Rick S. Serns * Gary L. Sewell * Robert E. Simonson * Jaroslav Skvaril * Bill R. Sleeth Jr. * Jack Snead * Jeffrey M. Snow * Jack Tenold * Peter R. Thompson * Bob Thornton * Bruce Thornton * Walt F. Thorp * Michael K. Tobey * Phil L. Trautman * Lorinda G. Travis * Keith J. Varker * Stephen E. Vigus * Ginny Warden * Gordon C. Watanabe * Ken A. Wendt * Terence R. Whitten * Jack K. Williams * Wayne R. Wilson * Gregory A. Wright.

Bloomsday 2020 @ Spokane

Through Sept. 27
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