Just after sundown last Thursday, the bridges in Riverfront Park shook under the pounding feet of more than 400 runners who braved a snowy forecast to attend the Flying Irish Running Club’s first run of the season. The 3.2-mile course, which cuts across the Spokane River seven times, was a known favorite but had a new start and finish line, Ripples Riverside Grill.
After six years running a variety of routes from O’Doherty’s Irish Grille each Thursday, the club had outgrown its host. In 2011 the group averaged 375 runners weekly, March through November, with a high of 537 on Aug. 18.
“The continuous growth of the club put a strain on O’Doherty’s and the runners,” explained Grand Poobah Brendan Dowling, who wore lime-green zebra-print tights and the club T-shirt for the season opener March 1. “A lot of people like to stick around after the run. It became unfortunate that people felt they had to leave because it was too crowded or they couldn’t get a spot to sit down. We knew this year it wasn’t going to get easier.”
At Ripples, the Shoreline ballroom holds 250, with additional seating in the lounge, restaurant and riverside patio and about 200 free parking spaces. Club organizers said the move should accommodate continual growth for a couple years.
“We’re looking forward to the community involvement and getting a new group of customers that can enjoy us,” said Jennifer Westby, Ripples restaurant manager. “It’s a very exciting, energetic crowd.”
As a club sponsor, Westby said Ripples will provide T-shirts, food and drink specials including a $5 pasta bar and a $3 beer, as well as monthly drawings for restaurant gift certificates and Red Lion hotel stays.
On Thursday, as a nod to the running club’s Irish tradition, 18 Ripples staff members wore green “O’Ripples” T-shirts while manning three beer stations, a pasta bar and a water table for the hordes of hungry and thirsty runners filling the ballroom.
The party started with Dowling yelling announcements and questions into the microphone over the buzz of conversation. “Are there any virgins?” Several hands shot up, showing who had come for the first time.
“Anyone getting shirted tonight?” he hollered. More runners raised their hands. It’s club tradition that a runner be inducted after logging six runs and telling an Irish joke to the crowd. Statistics are kept each week with sign-in sheets.
“We track everybody all the time,” said Peter Breach, who founded the club at O’Doherty’s in 2006 after getting the idea from a running club in Florida that met at an Irish pub. He approached longtime friend Tim O’Doherty with the idea, choosing Thursday evenings because they’re notoriously slow.
The first run, said Breach, had nine people. “Five of that was my family. …Word of mouth has taken over in growth rate.”
In 2006 the group quickly grew to 30 runners and since then 2,103 runners of all ages and abilities have completed the six-run requirement to qualify for a shirt. But Breach would like to triple the weekly average. “I want 1,000 people,” he said. “I want it to be a rolling street party.”
The self-proclaimed drinking club with a running problem is well on its way.
“We’re all about having fun,” said Dowling, noting they have themed runs throughout the season that include a St. Patrick’s run, cross-dressing night and Halloween run.
For more variety and as a distinction from other running clubs, Breach said the Flying Irish rotates through different routes, rather than running the same thing each week. It started with six different runs but will have up to a dozen in the new location that range from 3 to 4 miles, with some add-on mileage options for runners who prefer to run longer distances.
But no matter the distance or speed, the main goal will still be fun.
“The Flying Irish is about running, but it’s more about the community and the social aspect,” said Dowling, who met his first Spokane friends at the club when he moved here in 2007.
“It’s a good group that looks out for each other. Some of us may be fast or may be slow but we’re all interested in getting out and being healthy and enjoying the beer and socializing. …We’re all about having fun.”