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Spokane's Bloomsday run.

A marathon race in chilly Spokane, Washington? At one time it seemed only a running gag. But now even disbelievers are convinced that the Spokane Bloomsday Run is here to stay. This annual odyssey, held here every May since 1977, is now regarded by many runners as the third most important long-distance run in the United States, right behind the well-publicized 26-mile events run annually in Boston and in New York. Weather notwithstanding, this next fifth of May an estimated 35,000 fitness buffs will compete in the 12-kilometer (7.45 miles) run for prize money, a T-shirt and, most important, personal satisfaction.

"The race has grown beyond our wildest dreams," exults the race director, Sylvia Quinn, a runner herself whose best 12k time is 50 minutes and two seconds. "Every year we think the race is going to peak out, but every year it's turned out that I underestimated the number of people registered."

The "Lilac Bloomsday Run," as it is officially called, began in 1977 as the brainchild of a former Olympic marathoner, Don Kardong, a Spokane resident. In that race a scant 1,400 runners completed, but the numbers have multiplied. Mayor Jim Chase of Spokane likes to repeat a friend's contention: If his city had grown the last eight years the way Bloomsday has blossomed, Spokane would now be the second largest U.S. city, behind New York. Predictions are that the race will see 40,000 or more participants come 1990--not bad for a city of some 170,000 residents.

The name Lilac Bloomsday Run is derived from two events. The "Lilac" part of the name comes from the Spokane Lilac Festival, held every May, one of the largest community celebrations in Washington State. Every upstanding male citizen sports a lilac button in his lapel; every female proudly wears the deliciously scented flower in her hair.

The second part of the race name, says Kardong, was inspired by a scene from the novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. In Joyce' book the protagonist, one Leopold Bloom, wanders through the streets of Dublin, Ireland, in rough approximation of the great Ulysses' wanderings in classic times. "Joyce shows us that ordinary people and heroes are not much different," says Kardong, who adds that ever since, scholars have honored a day in May commemorating Bloom's journey as "Bloomsday."

Most runners who congregate here the first week of May are decidedly nonliterary types. A few boldly insist that "Bloomsday" marks the day when those celebrated lilacs finally show their colors. But Kardong believes that even those who don't know Bloom from bloomers will appreciate the challenge. "The process of preparing for and completing the [Bloomsday] journey will call up an individual's best heroic instincts, leaving him or her a changed person," he claims.

The 12-kilometer course is indeed a challenging run. The first mile is the most frustrating stretch for participants because the thousands of runners remain clustered all the way to the Marne Bridge that spans Hangman Creek. Passing them is like passing a line of semis in a driveway. The next challenge comes in an uphill stretch along Fort George Wright Drive as runners approach the four-mile mark. The most grueling part of the race is the long climb up Pettet Drive from mile five to mile six. Runners have nicknamed the Pettet Drive stretch "Doomsday Hill." The name tells all one needs to know about its difficulty. A few spectators along this path derive pleasure from taunting the straining, sweaty masses while they themselves sip lemonade in their folding chairs.

Throughout the race' brief history, the one bright spot all runners have come to expect is rain-free weather the day of the race. Curiously, Washington State's normally wet spring weather has been a no-show all eight Bloomsdays. Not once has rain dampened the spirits of the running suits of competitors. The closest to a washout that promoters faced was last year's race, when cold air greeted runners at dawn and snows in the mountains to the east and the west prevented many race signees from reaching Spokane by automobile. By the 9 a.m. start, however, the skies over Spokane relented, and cool temperatures (in the high 30s) greatly reduced the number of heat-exhaustion casualties. Consequently, a record total of 30,465 crossed the finish line, in front of City Hall.

An impressive roster of athletes have run for glory in Spokane the past eight Mays. Well-known runners, such as the Kenyan Ibrahim Hussein, Bill Rodgers, Tony Sandoval, Regina Joyce of Ireland, Ric Rojas and Duncan Macdonald, have competed. In addition, at least one celebrity usually strolls into town to watch the spectacle from the sidelines. Last year's visiting celeb was Ben Davidson, the former Oakland Raiders star turned actor, who beamed benevolently as he disbursed $50,000 in prize money.

The race isn't for VIPs, say race officials--it's for everyone. Nearly every state in the Union, including Hawaii, is represented each May, as are dozens of foreign nations. Each year a few one-year-olds participate, as well as hundreds of senior citizens. The most determined "runner" of all may be Emmett Jones, 91, of Sagle, Idaho. He competed in his third Bloomsday event last year.

To inspire the efforts of contestants, the nonprofit Lilac Bloomsday Association gives illustrated T-shirts to all who complete the course. In addition, the Spokesman-Review and the Spokane Chronicle publish the names of all finalists along with their times.

Perhaps the most rewarding sight is the hard-fought wheelchair competition among disabled men and women. Prize money totaling $9,500 was won in 1984 by Sharon Hedrick (women's division), Jim Martinson (men's division) and other handicapped finishers. Also popular with the cheering throngs are special-education students, escorted by Bloomsday volunteers through the entire course. Last year, 17-year-old Caroline Tucker and 19-year-old Steve Taylor, both special-ed students, came home with T-shirts after finishing dead last with three-hour times. Judging by their grins, they couldn't have been happier had they set a new course record.

The race also brings out the clown in people. Last year a young man calling himself Travis McDanger of Spokane ran most of the course in an outlandish gorilla outfit. A teen-age couple made the most of romance by running together in an oversize T-shirt.

Bloomsday is first and foremost an affair for families and friends. Whole six-person families such as Mike Flynn's of Spokane enter the competition even though daddy must wield a balloon-covered stroller from start to finish.

Even non-runners such as the Rev. Ervin G. Roorda, pastor of the local Manito Presbyterian Church, wax enthusiastic when discussing the race. "I see it as an attempt for the whole Spokane community to do something for area fitness and wellness," says Roorda, whose four children have served as unpaid volunteers past Bloomsdays. "It definitely has a positive effect physically and spiritually. It's done a lot for the community morale, esprit de corps and health as well. For a community of our size we are far ahead of the national average in people who are physically fit."

Any family may enter. But for those really out of the money, sponsors of the race recommend that runners take a generous supply of liquids on race day, particularly if the weather is warm. They specifically recommend that an 8- to 12-ounce glass of water be consumed every hour right up to the 9 a.m. starting time. Visors are also recommended on sunny race days.

To enter the 12-kilometer race, contact the Lilac Bloomsday Association (P.O. Box 1511, Spokane, WA 92210) as soon as possible to receive an entry form. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope to receive your brochure. Late registration can be made at the Convention Center Ticket Office on May 3-4.

See you at the finish line?
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Granger, Tom
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1985
Words:1297
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