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Monday, July 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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John Blanchette: For 43 years, Bloomsday’s Don Kardong has been Spokane’s Running Man

Bloomsday race director Don Kardong is retiring. Here he stands at the corner of Spokane Falls Blvd. and Post Street with “The Joy of Running Together” statues in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Bloomsday race director Don Kardong is retiring. Here he stands at the corner of Spokane Falls Blvd. and Post Street with “The Joy of Running Together” statues in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Even before Bloomsday was his improbable brainchild and there would be an army of 50,000 to marshal through the streets of Spokane, Don Kardong tested himself on the frontlines of organizational stress.

He coached sixth-grade football.

“It was flag football, but still,” he said. “About two-thirds of the way through the season, one of the kids asked, ‘Mr. Kardong, did you actually ever play football?’ ”

Now, this was not a crossroads that greased his exit from teaching – Kardong likely chuckled just as much in the moment as he did in the retelling. But it’s presumed the question of whether he was ever a runner has never been put to him on Doomsday Hill.

Runner, Don Kardong, runs the rocky trails at Riverside State Park in 1995. Kardong is retiring as race director. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Runner, Don Kardong, runs the rocky trails at Riverside State Park in 1995. Kardong is retiring as race director. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Which is to say, he found his calling when he founded something Spokane could call its own.

Forty-three Bloomsday races later – counting next Sunday – Kardong will retire as race director, his official title since 2004, and toss the keys to his successor, Jon Neill.

Kardong will still volunteer. He will still advise. He will forever be attached to the event as the man who hatched the idea and even the name – to disdainful silence in an early group brainstorming session.

For all the hundreds of hearts and minds that go into the staging of each Bloomsday – to say nothing of the thousands of legs, arms and lungs that sustain the momentum – there is but one face.

“And I guess that part probably won’t change,” he admitted.

Let’s accept it: Kardong and Bloomsday will always be the reciprocal answers in any free association test.

If that’s not fair to the many who invest their souls in staging this civic hug, it’s not necessarily fair to Kardong, either – a multidimensional sort who understands that before there can be purpose there must be a healthy dose of the accidental, or possibly the conspiratorial. Bloomsday proved it, but he learned about it long before.

It was his sophomore year at Seattle Prep, and his basketball coach suggested he run to get in shape for basketball season.

“It took me 20 years to figure out what really happened there,” Kardong said. “The P.E. instructor was the cross country coach and he’d had us all run 2 miles and I’d done pretty well. And I’m sure he went to the basketball coach and said, ‘Why don’t you get this kid to turn out for cross country?’ They figured out I had more talent in running than I did in basketball.”

Bloomsday founder Don Kardong smiles as he is introduced during the Bloomsday kickoff news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Kardong will retire after the 2019 run. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Bloomsday founder Don Kardong smiles as he is introduced during the Bloomsday kickoff news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Kardong will retire after the 2019 run. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

It would take him through a distinguished college career at Stanford University, where he was a regular foil to Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine, and eventually to the 1976 Olympic Games, where he finished fourth in the marathon – 3 seconds from a spot on the medal podium that, for many, would be life’s defining moment.

Kardong’s defining moment, of course, was still to come.

By this time, he had moved to Spokane – another happy accident/conspiracy. His Stanford teammate from Spokane, Steve Jones, had lured him first to run in Herm Caviness’ old Spokane Road Race, and later to work as a counselor at Camp Reed. By the time Kardong was ready to take on teaching, Spokane was the only place he applied, landing a job at the old Loma Vista Elementary a week before classes began. For three years, he taught, coached five sports and trained 140 miles a week.

“That’s when I started drinking coffee,” he laughed.

The birth of Bloomsday has been oft-told: Kardong’s participation in Atlanta’s nascent Peachtree race, floating the idea of a Spokane event to a Spokesman-Review reporter after an American Heart Association fun run at Bowl and Pitcher, the chance encounter in a City Hall elevator with then-Spokane mayor Dave Rodgers, who urged him on – with another passenger, Ron Richardson, offering the help of the Spokane Jaycees.

“I was rooming with Bob Isitt, who was coaching at Shaw then, I think,” Kardong recalled. “I was describing to him what we were trying to do and he said, ‘You won’t get more than 100 people.’ We still laugh about that.”

They printed entry forms that capped the 1977 field at 500. They got 1,400.

“What were we going to do, send the money back?” he said. “We’d figure it out.”

Two years later, 10,070 finished and Kardong told the paper, “It won’t keep growing at the rate it has. I hope it doesn’t.” By 1984, he and his wife Bridgid pushed their 8-month-old daughter Kaitlin in a Baby Jogger behind more than 30,000 starters.

They kept figuring it out – all the way to the crest of 56,156 in 1996 and through the downs and ups beyond.

But something else was happening in the meantime. Kardong had left teaching to open a shoe store in partnership with Rick Riley. He was leading running programs with the YMCA, coaching and making his mark as an engaging magazine writer. He fought the bureaucratic nonsense of the AAU and helped launch professional road racing. People sought him out to jump-start their own visions – “and I learned never to tell them it’s a bad idea,” he said, “because how do you know?”

He had, not by design, become a Pied Piper of sorts – not only of Bloomsday and running, but fitness, health and civic service beyond a single Sunday in May, as his work on the Centennial Trail and other projects suggested.

Don Kardong (right) announced he will retire after the 2019 race. Jon Neill (left) will replace Kardong as Race Director. (SWX)
Don Kardong (right) announced he will retire after the 2019 race. Jon Neill (left) will replace Kardong as Race Director. (SWX)

“There’s a charisma to him – maybe a ‘veil of charisma’ if there’s such a thing,” said his friend and another running Pied Piper, Tracy Walters. “You don’t realize it until you’ve been with him for a while. He has the right idea and cuts right to the necessary thing in a simple, gracious way. Our community is better for who he is.”

He gets paid back when people tell him their own Bloomsday visions have birthed a determination to stay sober or battle cancer, or just brought families together for a weekend that might be easier on the psyche than the traditional holidays. And he muses on the nature of creating things.

“I often wonder about other people who are given credit for having a great vision,” he said, “and if they just had an idea that took off – maybe not to their credit at all.

“It’s like in ‘Lonesome Dove.’ I’d love to talk to (author) Larry McMurtry about that. They had this great vision of taking this cattle herd up to Montana, but also they never would have done it except for the one partner had accidentally shot a guy in Arkansas and was on the run. Was he trying to make that point – that it’s an accidental thing that gets something big started? It certainly was with us.”

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