Michael Rembolt doesn’t remember it, but his surgeon does.
Midway through an operation on his broken heel, Rembolt, under light anesthesia, asked, “Will I be able to run Bloomsday?”
The surgeon chuckled. Rembolt wasn’t joking.
Here was an incredibly fit man who took up running after watching the first Bloomsday race in 1977, a man whose office is decorated with a picture of himself and his wife, Donna, in running gear.
Not only does the personal injury attorney save every Bloomsday T-shirt, he folds them neatly and hoards them in a special “Bloomsday drawer.” He wouldn’t dream of wearing one.
When the surgeon shook his head “no,” Rembolt, 45, became a man on a mission.
Many runners set goals for themselves: a faster time than last year, a faster time than a friend, making it up Doomsday Hill without stopping. But sometimes, unknown to spectators and the racers alongside them, people have special, more urgent aspirations.
Often they are overcoming health problems - cancer, knee surgery, even organ transplants - and using Bloomsday as a milestone in a long recovery. For others, the race is a family ritual too important to miss.
Rembolt’s heartfelt ambition this year is simply to cross the finish line.
“It’s almost like an addiction,” he says. “It’d be like missing Christmas or something.”
Rembolt’s training routine changed dramatically a month ago at the bottom of a cliff in Hell’s Canyon.
He landed there after slipping on loose rock during a 25-mile run with friends. He’d been pulling a prickly pear cactus needle from his shoe when he lost his balance and tumbled through 100 feet of rocks and thorns.
Rembolt’s left heel was broken, the pad of fat cushioning his heel split.
After a riverboat rescue, three surgeries and a week in the hospital, he’s back in his north Spokane law office, his foot in a cast propped on a pillow.
As he works, he plucks tiny, lingering thorns from his palms.
A sympathetic friend loaned him a racing wheelchair, and Rembolt practices on weekends with his wife running beside him on the Centennial Trail.
Next Sunday, he vows he’ll be among the throngs of Bloomsday racers - if not with his running buddies, then beside the stroller-pushing parents.
“It’ll take me a long time,” Rembolt says, “but I’ll make it.”
Last year, Lynda Schultz and her sister, Donna McDonough, crossed the Bloomsday finish line in two hours and four minutes.
“Next year,” vowed Schultz, “we’re shaving off those four minutes.”
That was a few weeks before the 49-year-old secretary discovered the lump in her breast.
She broke the news to her neighborhood exercise partners a few days later during a four-mile walk near the Wandermere golf course.
“When she told us, we all had tears that day,” says Judy Lux, a longtime friend.
Schultz’s neighbors tracked her well-being by watching her walking patterns. After the mastectomy, she slowed her pace.
“Initially, it’s a death sentence,” says Schultz, an avid quilter who is married and has two children. She was sure she’d walked her last Bloomsday, a day she and her sister from Oregon have spent together for years, laughing and talking - but never stopping - the entire way.
During chemotherapy, Schultz was so exhausted, she abandoned her walking buddies. They didn’t abandon her, bringing meals and a quilt with a guardian angel pattern.
Eventually, Schultz covered her bald head with a wig and joined Lux and the others at the curb.
Come May, she told them, she’d walk Bloomsday, just like always.
Donna McDonough, her sister, wasn’t so sure. “Even some of my friends said, ‘Are you sure she can do that this year?”’
At first, Schultz went just a few blocks, then a few more, until finally she ascended a sloping street to prepare for Doomsday Hill.
“In the beginning,” says Schultz, “one walk zapped my energy for the day.”
Now she’s up to an hour a day, four days a week. Sometimes, she lies down afterward.
When asked about shaving off those extra four minutes, Schultz laughs.
“This year, we’re just going to be so happy to be able to walk it and finish it.”
But her true ambition is revealed on the registration form she filled out.
“Estimated finish time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.”
Shannan Cole, 29, is no whiner. She has walked Bloomsday while pushing a stroller. She’s walked it while pregnant.
Once, she did it six months pregnant and steering a stroller.
“We’ve been pretty much the tail end of it for the last three years,” says Cole, who laughs about finishing somewhere around 51,000th.
But next weekend, for the first time in five years, the stroller is staying behind. Courtney, 3, and Jacob, 5, are attempting to walk the entire course with their parents and grandparents.
They’re not exactly miniature triathletes.
Look at the pigtailed girl peddling her GI Joe bike with the hot pink Barbie seat, and it’s tough to imagine her trudging up Doomsday Hill. Shy, green-eyed Jacob collapses in giggles when asked about his Bloomsday training.
Yet these kids, who live in a quiet neighborhood north of Spokane, aren’t your TV-addicted variety.
“We’ve been working with the kids, trying to get them ready for Bloomsday,” Cole says. “We’ve been doing a little bit of walking and bicycling, trying to keep their muscles up.”
A little bit?
Both kids recently finished a 10-kilometer walk in Germany, Courtney trotting along to keep up.
“We make a race out of it, saying, ‘I betcha we can walk faster than you can,”’ says Cole.
“And we bribe them: At mile four, you can have a special treat. See how far you can walk backwards. That’s always a fun one.”
A week from today, the Cole kids will add two more T-shirts to their pile of “Bloomsday pajamas.”
Jacob has been a registered racer since his first Bloomsday in a stroller at 2 1/2 months old.
“Every night, they wear a different year,” says Cole. “His first Bloomsday shirt went down to his ankles. Now, it’s up to his waist.”
This week, Jacob will count down the days on his calendar. Courtney will “train,” riding up and down, up and down the driveway on her tiny bike.
Cole, meanwhile, isn’t packing away the Bloomsday stroller for good.
She pulls her shirt tight against her stomach. “This year,” she says, “I’m doing it five months pregnant.”
Kenny Hicks never considered running Bloomsday a few years ago.
He spent weekends biking in the hills near Silverton, Idaho, and workdays walking iron beams hundreds of feet in the air.
That was when the 37-year-old steelwork inspector still had his job and the energy for biking.
Then, he still had his own liver.
Next Sunday, Hicks, a father of three, will grab a water bottle and meet an unusual group of friends at the Bloomsday starting line. They all have something in common - at least one organ that once belonged to someone else.
“I’ve set it as a goal,” says Hicks. “I don’t care if it takes me all day to do it.”
Hicks has aimed for one goal after another since learning his hepatitis B led to end-stage liver disease in late 1993.
He spent months away from his kids while waiting for a liver near a California hospital, one of the few that offers transplants for hepatitis patients.
He struggled with damage caused by the disease: internal bleeding, muscles so weak he couldn’t stand in the shower, memory loss so severe he often forgot why he opened the refrigerator.
Late last October, when hope seemed beyond Hicks’ grasp, the beeper he’d worn for months finally sounded. A liver was available.
Since the transplant and a shaky recovery, Hicks has started setting long-term goals, too. Most of all, he wants to live long enough to watch Nathan, 15, Jamie, 9, and Kattie, 6, graduate from high school.
He also envisions elk hunting again near Slate Creek, and riding his mountain bike on daylong treks with friends.
“I want a full, normal life,” says Hicks. “Eventually, it’ll come. It’s a long road back.”
He’ll start on a 7.46-mile stretch of pavement Sunday morning.
MEMO: The profiles ran in a different order in the Idaho edition.