The conversation was as brief as a seven-story elevator ride, yet long enough to get the idea off the ground.
David Rodgers, Spokane’s mayor at the time, was sharing a City Hall elevator with Don Kardong, fresh off his fourth-place finish in the 1976 Montreal Olympics marathon.
“He had seen an article in The Spokesman-Review about runs taking place around Spokane,” Kardong recounted. “I was quoted in the article and he said to me, ‘Oh, you’re that Olympic runner. I grew up in Boston and I think it would be great for Spokane to have a run.’ “
About five months later on a Sunday afternoon, Spokane’s streets were transformed into a racecourse.
“Had it not been for that elevator ride, history would have been a lot different,” said Kardong, founder and executive director of the Lilac Bloomsday Association.
History shows the race was a success from the date the starting gun first sounded at 1:30 p.m. May 1, 1977. It was founded in the decade when cardiovascular exercise became close to many Americans’ hearts, and running was an inexpensive, convenient way to get fit.
Kardong, who moved to Spokane in 1974 to train and teach school, asked the Spokane Jaycees to help organize a race. Jaycee member Doug Kelley, who helped organize the first race with Kardong, remembers the city liked the idea, but recommended it be held at Joe Albi Stadium.
However, with Rodgers in charge – and with his fondness for the Boston Marathon, run every year on Patriot’s Day – traffic logistics were worked out with the police and fire departments and a downtown race course was designed.
“I look back at 10 years as mayor,” said Rodgers, who lives in Spokane. “Eight to a dozen things stick in my mind, and Bloomsday is one of them.”
Unlike today’s 7.46-mile race, the course was eight miles, give or take a block or two, considering that organizers measured the distance by car. Kardong called the race the “Lilac Bloomsday Run,” combining Spokane’s “Lilac City” moniker with part of Irish author James Joyce’s book “Ulysses.” The novel is about the day in the life of newspaper ad salesman Leopold Bloom. Joyce scholars refer to the day in 1904 he spent wandering the streets of Dublin as “Bloomsday.” However, Lilac Bloomsday organizers didn’t know what to expect out of their eight-mile odyssey.
The course started in front of the Opera House at Riverfront Park, continued over the Maple Street Bridge, weaved its way onto Northwest Boulevard and eventually crossed over the Monroe Street Bridge before finishing back in the park at the clock tower.
The Jaycees anticipated 300 runners would race the first year, advertising on the entry form “exclusive event” and “limited to the first 500.”
About 1,200 signed up. The YMCA on Post Street served as an informal headquarters where results were compiled and racers could use restrooms and showers.
Olympic gold and silver medal marathoner Frank Shorter led the pack, winning in 38 minutes, 26 seconds. Kardong finished third and Joan Ullyot won the women’s division in 53:26.
The tradition of giving Bloomsday T-shirts to the finishers began that first year and has kept some local runners outfitted for the past 29 years. However, one parting gift never made it out of the inaugural year.
When runners crossed the finish line, they were offered hot sandwiches. They didn”t exactly hit the spot for the dehydrated runners.
“We had these little ovens, kind of like what’s at a 7-Eleven, and we were cooking sandwiches,” Kelley said, laughing. “We were so out of sync.”
But Bloomsday hit a chord with Spokane. By the second year, 5,000 people had registered and the Jaycees were no longer the primary organizers. A Bloomsday race association was formed, giving the race more legitimacy. The annual race’s attendance peaked in 1996 with 61,298 before the numbers settled into the mid-40,000s.
“We promoted it as a fast-moving parade,” said Kelley, named the first paid race director in 1982.
Now, it’s marching into its third decade.