Why would a guy like Frank Shorter come all the way from Denver, scratch from the Drake Relays and wear another day of life off his running shoes just to be alone?
If other excuses are too humiliating, it’s best to be merely an average runner because the action is in the back of the pack.
For Shorter, or Herm Atkins or Don Kardong, seeing 1,400 runners packed into Riverfront Park for the Bloomsday run must have been a boost in knowing their sport is catching on at the grass roots.
For us, the enormous pack offered only one assurance: There must be someone out there we can outrun.
Warming up on the lawn beside the Opera House, a fellow Back-of-the-Packer said, “God, look at those guys,” referring to the lean, nimble throng of high school tracksters taking their pre-run laps. “They run this far every day.”
His partner grunted amid a halfhearted attempt to stretch a nervous “They shouldn’t be allowed to run.”
We were stranded in the middle of the mob seconds before the start, supposedly somewhere near the starting line. Jeff was trying to stretch. (Picture 10 in an elevator for 5 and you’ll get an idea how much stretching was accomplished.)
“Pop!” Instinctively we tried to go forward at the sound of the starting gun, only to bounce into bodies until the tide swept us down the street.
It was either the crowd or merely our bodies that were screaming with excitement as we streaked onto Riverside.
As things began to spread out, somewhere near the Elks Club, a few gents were jabbering about Julius Erving’s slam dunk in the first quarter of the NBA playoff game with Boston. “I gave up that game to run in this,” one said, the sweat beading on his forehead only halfway to the first mile mark. “I must be crazy.”
The NBA analysis continued, until one runner said, “I wonder who won.”
A stranger moved up from the rear, hearing his opportunity to break away. “Sixers by six,” he announced.
Satisfied, the group scattered.
The first dropouts came early. While several out-a-air-before-they- were-ready runners gasped at the wayside of the Maple Street Bridge, one running baron shouted, “Enjoy it! enjoy it. For the next hour, the runners own the city.”
The guy probably chases jackrabbits for weekend recreation.
Craig Houston shot past us at the two-mile mark. We had been passed by a lot of people – ankle biters, dimple-kneed ladies, cardiac outpatients – but Houston was in a wheelchair.
He mentioned something about rolling 20 miles recently in a similar event. Our legs didn’t ache so much after that.
At three miles, one joker announced he was going to start his kick.
Children at the Shriner’s Hospital greeted us with youthful enthusiasm. A cheer from a kid in leg braces is enough to surge a charge into any like-to-be runner.
Hoses saved day
Second only to founding this event, Kardong will be remembered as Bloomsday’s Paul Revere; the man who ran through the streets pleading with spectators to get out their water hoses for the masses that followed.
For us, every garden hose was both a finish and the starting line for a new run. Our body coolers were sputtering; the cold water perked us up. We’d hold our hands high, breaking the tape of water, then power on to the next compassionate water donor.
Well into the fourth mile, we nosed down the hill on Pettit Drive. Bouncing along, one fella said, “This is a good chance to catch your wind.”
To that another runner responded, “It’ll be Tuesday before I catch my wind.”
At five miles we were about halfway to the top of Doomsday Hill. “It’s all in the mind, all in the mind,” one self-taught psychologist diagnosed.
It’s a good thing the advice was free. We may have needed our heads examined, but the pain definitely was all in our legs.
Two college pals bumped into each other as they charged through the aid station on Northwest Boulevard. They hadn’t seen each other in six years. After discovering they both lived in Spokane, they made a lunch date, at a massage parlor, maybe.
Approaching the six-mile flag, runners were dismal replicas of the spiffy condition they started in. The heat was heavy, caught between the walls of concrete buildings.
Less than an hour earlier, everyone was parading around the Opera House steps, clean tubesocks stretched neatly up their calves, hair neat, bouncing with each step. Now their socks sagged at their ankles, shirts flopped untucked, hairdos looked like perma-soaked seaweed and nothing was clean.
One gray-haired, sweatsuit sage charged by, his white beard nearly flowing in the wind, one arm outstretched, fist clenched pointing the way to the home stretch. If the other arm had held tablets of stone, he surely would have been Moses a la Bloomsday.
Another oldster tapped our young egos as he breezed by effortlessly, apparently trying to prove you don’t have to be a running buff to finish Bloomsday. Crusty sneakers, a golf shirt that’s been retired to garden work for years and a pair of paisley trunks. In one of his greater moments, when he raised his arms to wave, we saw under his untucked shirttail. A safety pin secured his fly: the guy was wearing his boxer underwear.
Just before we turned into Riverfront Park, one guy had to walk. The heat had taken its toll. His face showed that exhaustion had conquered determination.
As we passed, we noticed an arm stretch out from an abandoned building, like it had done for handouts a hundred times before. A weathered wino, a spray of white whiskers salting his face, patted the tired runner’s shoulder. This time the wino was the giver, and without saying a word, he said, “Buddy, you done good.”
We had forgotten about Doomsday Hill and just about everything else as we tooled into the last few hundred yards. The crowd cheered the Back-of-the-Pack runners with the same enthusiasm they greeted Shorter, Atkins and Kardong.
Even the most radical feminists joined the ranks of cheerleaders who charged us with the drive to pick up the pace to the finish.
A hundred yards from the end, a short woman from Coeur d’Alene, with an 8-inch, 20-year handicap over either of us, pitter-pattered past. Now Bloomsday was proving that women have every bit as much drive for distance running men have. Indeed, 10 years ago you never would have seen so many women in such a race.
But we couldn’t let this lady beat us so easily in front of so many people. Gad, she even had a smile on her face.
Rich asked if he could finish with her. She answered, “Sure,” and went a step further. She grabbed him and hand-in-hand they strode to the eight mile mark. Just at the line, she let him step in front to finish a split second faster.
Camaraderie ran rampant as runners soothed each other on the lawns in the park. Some doused their feet in the river; some inched through the lines for T-shirts and refreshments – probably the most grueling race of the day.
As we left the park after the awards presentations, unchaining our bikes, another runner hustled by and capped the day with what by then was a cliche: “See you next year, buddy.”
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