The Bloomsday odyssey has been conquered again.
For the 29th year, regular people from Spokane and beyond ran, walked or wheeled the 7.46-mile course – some tackling major obstacles such as physical disabilities, some just trying to better their times. Some 39,941 Bloomies completed the race Sunday, up 246 from last year.
“He’s determined to finish. Let him finish!” Spokane Police Department Explorer Tricia Beck said, shooing off a team of medics running toward her with a stretcher. An older runner was draped across Beck. He had collapsed about 20 feet from the finish line, and she helped him complete the journey.
There were no serious injuries, race officials said Sunday, and the weather cooperated with highs in the low 50s at 9 a.m., reaching the mid-60s by noon.
When race founder Don Kardong mapped out the Bloomsday course so many years ago, and even when he revised it years later, he pieced together a route that mirrored another great journey: the path Ulysses took home in “The Odyssey,” the ancient poem by Homer. The race also is modeled after the James Joyce book “Ulysses,” which follows the excursions of a man named Leopold Bloom – hence the name Bloomsday – during the course of a day. Look carefully and parallels between the three feats abound.
“It’s a journey that you take on one Sunday morning that has a variety of obstacles, challenges and things to be overcome to get back to where you started,” Kardong said late last week. “That’s what happened to Ulysses and Leopold Bloom and that’s what happens to everyone on a Sunday in May.”
Mead High School substitute teacher Dana Rowan stood with students at the starting line and watched the female elite athletes warm up before the race.
“It’s surreal. They’re superhuman almost,” she said of the runners, their bodies as compact as pocket knives. “You don’t see people who look like that every day.”
The Mead students and students from Rogers High School were volunteering for Bloomsday. They collected the warm-up gear of elite athletes in numbered sacks and planned to meet them at the finish line to return the items.
“I’m going to have them sign my shirt,” said Lauren Cooksey, 17.
At the front of the yellow starting group, Pam Scott and Amy Smith of Moses Lake stood in about the same spot they occupied last year. Only last year, the friends wore bathrobes which they stripped off after warming up.
“We didn’t find anything fancy enough this year,” said Scott, who wore a basic sweat suit. “We’ll be back strong next year.”
Bloomies packed the downtown corridor tossing beach balls as they waited for the starting guns to fire. As John Keston sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada,” signaling that the race was about to begin, it was sweat shirts and pants that began to fly. The clothes, which are donated to charity every year, hung on trees like Christmas garlands.
With the gunshots and the wave of a flag by retired race director Karen Heaps, the annual bobbing of the heads began.
Miles two and three
Several dogs, an accordion player dressed like Elvis and other fans greeted runners as the course dipped down toward Latah Creek. For Kardong, crossing the creek symbolizes crossing the river Styx, or the passage to death in “The Odyssey.” Sure enough, just beyond Latah Creek runners encounter three cemeteries.
But mile two was anything but lifeless for runner Gilbert Okari, who broke Bloomsday’s two-mile-mark record Sunday with a time of 8 minutes, 34 seconds. Okari later lost his lead, perhaps indicating the symbolism of the cemeteries after all.
The lead runners were moving so fast near Spokane Falls Community College, they couldn’t grab the cups of water handed out by volunteers.
Also moving fast was the Spokane River. When Kardong designed the course, he wanted to be near water to represent Charybdis, who creates whirlpools by swallowing water in “The Odyssey.” And as runners cross the T.J. Meenach Drive Bridge, they can look to the left and see a dead tree with six branches, reminiscent of the six-headed beast Scylla from the poem, Kardong said.
Kardong calls Doomsday Hill, the dreaded 6.5 percent incline at mile five, the “monster” of Bloomsday. It symbolizes the challenge all Bloomies choose to conquer when they register for the race.
At the top of Doomsday Hill and into the West Central neighborhood, cheering from spectators grew louder Sunday, signaling to Bloomies that their effort was about to be rewarded.
Miles six and seven
The reception roared as runners moved deeper into West Central Spokane. A hose at one house kept Bloomies cool with a continuous arch of water spraying over Broadway Avenue.
Kardong compares the bands and other distractions along the course to the sirens who tempt Ulysses on his journey home.
At the end of both “The Odyssey” and “Ulysses,” the main characters are welcomed home by their wives. To Kardong, the families waiting at the finish line and in Riverfront Park faithfully wait for their heroes, too.
The Freese family of Spokane and the Tri-Cities took the hero aspect of Bloomsday quite literally. They ran dressed as Captain America, Super Girl, Bat Girl and the Flash, among other characters.
“It gets a little warm,” Jana Freese said, looking down at her tights.
Bloomsday poses a unique challenge for runner Bryant McKinley, who, despite being blind, has run the race about 20 times. McKinley holds one end of his cane while his running partner, Greg Wilkinson, leads at the other end.
“He could run faster if he wasn’t towing me along,” McKinley said.
McKinley can’t see the massive crowds, but he can feel them.
“It’s pretty scary, but it’s such a wonderful happening I almost started crying a couple of times,” he said.
Kardong, too, is moved by the race.
“Every year, when I see people out training, I just think of how wonderful it is,” he said.
He remembers the fun he and a friend had plotting the course, looking for parallels to the books along the way, and is proud of the accomplishment so many people make year after year.
“Everyone’s a hero if you complete your journey,” Kardong said.