Bloomsday founder Don Kardong said the question he gets asked most often is: So, what do you do the rest of the year?
“When you think about it, that’s kind of silly. It’s not like I only work one day the entire year,” he said about his job as director for one of the biggest road races in the world.
Actually, preparations for next year’s Bloomsday Race begin Wednesday when the board, staff and volunteer representatives assemble for the first of several critique meetings.
“Monday morning after the race we are swamped with phone calls and e-mails and that goes on for about three days,” Kardong said last week. “Some e-mails are ‘thank you’ notes, others are about how we screwed up one way or the other, and others suggest how we can make changes next year.”
Since that May Sunday in 1977 when the first Bloomsday took off, Kardong has become synonymous with an event he never thought would grow to the dimensions it has today. It leaves him feeling mostly surprised.
“The reality is it’s not me – it’s the board of directors, it’s the thousands of volunteers. The race is at a point where it doesn’t even need me anymore. If anything happened to me tomorrow, Bloomsday would continue.”
A poster promoting that first Bloomsday hangs in Kardong’s office. “Run with the stars,” it reads, listing Frank Shorter – winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon – among that year’s luminaries. In 1977, 1,400 runners registered and 1,198 finished. Shorter won the race.
“It was huge,” said Kardong. “I mean, at the time if you had a couple of hundred people at a national cross country championship that was a lot of runners. Our timing was just perfect.”
The mid-70s and early ‘80s saw an unprecedented running boom as people became more aware of fitness and the value of aerobic exercise. Within five years Bloomsday had 17,000 entrants. Doug Kelley, an account executive with Avista, was part of the group that put on the first Bloomsday. He worked closely with Kardong the first six years.
“It was never about him,” Kelley said. “He’s incredibly calm and mild, even-keeled, I never saw him get really upset about anything.”
Kelley’s memories from the early years include Kardong’s incredible capacity to eat doughnuts and drink beer – all while staying in incredible shape. “I don’t know how he does that,” Kelley said. “It must be all those training miles he puts in.”
Kardong’s even keel is a clear benefit when putting on a huge event like Bloomsday.
“Things can go wrong,” Kardong said. “I liken it to putting on a wedding for 50,000 people – imagine what that’s like.”
The day itself was actually a mistake.
“We were trying to pick the first weekend of the Lilac Festival week, but somehow I got messed up,” Kardong said. “And by the time we realized we were a week early it was too late to change anything.
“I think it’s worked out great, I mean, imagine what it would be like trying to have Bloomsday and the Lilac Parade on the same weekend.”
On race morning, Kardong, 59, takes care of a few last minute things, gives some interviews, then joins the pack.
He’s run every Bloomsday, one of a shrinking number of “perennials.”
Growing up, Kardong dreamed of being a golf professional, but he said every time he played golf, reality set in. He began running in high school to stay in shape for basketball.
At Stanford, he ran four record-setting years of cross country and three years of track before graduating with a degree in psychology in 1971. In ‘76 Kardong finished fourth in the marathon at the Olympics in Montreal – he missed the bronze by three seconds. He’s a National Distance Running Hall of Fame inductee.
“I’m surprised I still run today, I never thought it was going to be a career. In college, for a while, I thought I was going to be in the medical field.” Instead he continued on to get a teaching degree from the University of Washington and from 1974-‘77 taught English at Loma Vista Elementary School in Spokane.
“It was the perfect schedule, to give me time to train in the afternoon,” Kardong said.
He then opened a running retail store – The Human Race – which he sold in ‘86.
Kardong has published three books and he’s a contributing writer for Runner’s World magazine.
Though his name has always been intertwined with Bloomsday, he’s only had his current job as race director since 2005, when he left a position as executive director of the Children’s Museum of Spokane.
“I’m going to continue to do the race organizing for at least another 10 years, if the board lets me. As for running, I’ll continue to run until I can’t do it anymore.
“There’s no guarantee that you’ll live a long time if you run, but it helps.”