She steps off the airplane at Spokane International Airport, and before she gets a chance to give her name, the celebrity treatment starts.
“There’s the star!” one of the Bloomsday chauffeurs shouts.
Colleen De Reuck blushes.
The 32-year-old South African native doesn’t consider herself a star.
“It feels quite good that you’re well-known and well-respected,” De Reuck says. “But I’m just a runner.”
And a winner. The distance runner made her debut at Bloomsday on Sunday, leading the pack of elite women runners from the start to win the $25,000 top prize.
From the time they arrive in Spokane on Friday night, De Reuck and other world-class runners are given movie star treatment.
The Lilac Bloomsday Association pays for their trips, including airfare. They stay at the Red Lion Inn and eat fancy meals, all for free.
At public appearances, they collect money from corporate sponsors just for being seen with the right apparel.
One of the first things De Reuck does after arriving in town is pull off a Reebok jacket in her 13th-floor room.
“I won’t need this now that I’m with Nike,” she says.
She searches her lone travel bag for a Nike jacket before heading down to the ballroom for a reception. She stays just long enough to swallow a few strawberries and pineapple chunks.
It can be a glamorous lifestyle. But De Reuck prefers to keep a low profile. For her, running is a passion first, a profession second.
During brunch Saturday morning, she sits with a group of fellow runners, her friends. Over granola and yogurt, they talk about who’s racing well, who’s showing up for Bloomsday, who’s qualified for the Olympics.
In the middle of breakfast, a TV anchorwoman calls on De Reuck for an interview. She quietly obliges for a quick shoot.
While most of the elite runners and Bloomsday staff gather for a social hour Saturday afternoon, De Reuck trains. She later calls room service for some last-minute carbo-loading - a big plate of pasta.
“She’s not a party kind of girl,” says coach Bobby McGee. “Colleen is much more of a small-town girl.”
De Reuck grew up in Mandini, a small town in the eastern part of Zululand.
She was born to run. Her father, Frank De Reuck, who raced in local South African competitions, got her interested in the sport. He passed away last year, but the running spirit lives in De Reuck and her brothers Henry, 29, and Colin, 35. Their mother, Mada, egged on the kids.
De Reuck ran everywhere. To school. To the post office. To the store to buy potatoes for Mom. It was a game for the former gym teacher and her brothers.
“We lived in a little town that was maybe a kilometer to the shop,” she says. “I would have to sprint to the shop and back” - jaunts that were always timed by her brothers, who competed against her.
More than 15 years later, the game hasn’t really stopped. The childhood races have become her adult lifestyle.
The Bloomsday champion didn’t start racing full-time for prize money until a few years ago. Her career took off on the heels of a social revolution in South Africa - when the antiapartheid ban on that country’s athletes was lifted in 1992.
Since then, she’s traveled extensively to compete in major racing events. Over the past four years, De Reuck has won several South African marathons, and placed ninth in the 1992 Olympics. A week before Bloomsday, she learned she had earned a spot on the South African 10,000-meter team for the Atlanta Games.
De Reuck does a couple of marathons and several road races every year, earning $20,000-$60,000 in prize money.
But De Reuck, who lives in Boulder, Colo., with husband Darren, has cut down on her race schedule since having a daughter, Tasmin, who’s now 1 year old.
The long-distance runner has made a name for herself in South Africa. Fans there beg for autographs, and De Reuck cashes in on appearance money at marathons - $2,000 to $10,000 per race - by such sponsors as Nike, Reebok and New Life (a South African vitamin company).
De Reuck says it’s been hard getting sponsors as a South African athlete living in America.
“I live in America, but I’m not an American athlete, so you’ve really got to go out to companies and really struggle.”
But on Sunday, after being crowned women’s champion, De Reuck is mobbed by young volunteers, who ask her to autograph their Bloomsday T-shirts.
She signs as many as she can before leaving to catch an afternoon flight home. Once again, she is a bit flustered by the attention.
“You’ve gotta have some aims in life,” she says, “and I’ve chosen running.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo