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John Blanchette: As spectacle, expect Bloomsday to stand the test of time even as running world continues to evolve

Bloomsday has been and likely will always be much about fun and spectacle, except for the elite fields which may continue to run faster and faster. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Bloomsday has been and likely will always be much about fun and spectacle, except for the elite fields which may continue to run faster and faster. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Perhaps sometime in the future, Bloomsday will offer its elite field an electric pace car projecting a green beam to follow.

Perhaps a phalanx of runners – including Olympic medalists – will be recruited to bob in and out of the race, half a mile at a time, arrayed in a triangular formation ahead of the leader to supplement the pacing and block the wind. Perhaps waiters on mopeds will swoop in at prescribed times with bottles of refreshment, the mixtures of fluid, caffeine and sugar doctored to spec. Perhaps special footwear for all with personally customized carbon-fiber plates in the foam soles, too.

Perhaps they’ll get rid of that damned Doomsday Hill. And the 40,000 plodders.

Sure they will.

There is spectacle – and Bloomsday is certainly that – and there is stunt, which is often spectacle without the charm. And on the eve of Bloomsday XLI, the buzz among the swift runners imported for Sunday morning’s front-end entertainment was Saturday morning’s – actually, Friday night’s – curiosity of reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge coming up just 26 seconds shy of running a sub-2-hour marathon.

As a science experiment on a Formula One track in the most controlled environment possible.

The culmination of Nike’s Breaking2 project was streamed from Italy as Bloomsday’s best gathered in Spokane and the reaction was, how you say, mixed.

Sometimes even if you polled just a single runner.

“Going in, I felt it was just a big Nike gimmick,” said Portland’s Ryan Vail, who’s run on four USA cross country teams. “But that time was mind-blowing.”

So which is it? Gimmick or grand achievement?

Can’t it be both?

Now, if a running yoda like Bloomsday founder Don Kardong dismissed the notion as “kind of tacky,” it’s not unwise to beware. And this was very much about selling shoes, even as Nike CEO Mark Parker dressed it up as 33,000 small steps for mankind and exploring far-off galaxies of human possibility. Still, it’s not altogether fair to get on big, bad Nike’s case – not after a week that saw Lonzo Ball’s obstreperously entrepreneurial dad start peddling basketball sneakers for $495 a pair.

“How do we advance the sport?” Parker asked Runner’s World. “How do we inspire people to get out and run? You don’t have to be a marathon nerd to appreciate this goal.”

Or a marketing nerd.

Vail, Ben Payne and Matt Williams do their running under the rival Brooks banner, and if they chafed at the all-too-Nike stunt, their appreciation was sincere.

“It’s 26 miles at 4:35 pace,” said Payne. “That’s an unbelievable workout, whether it’s a race or not. One second faster per mile and he’s under 2 hours.”

Echoed Williams, “I could have all the special shoes and fluids and I’m still not going to do that.”

The army of pacers and the controlled conditions insured that this would not be a world record – Nike never sold it as such, and Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02.57 from 2014 still stands. But the guy turning the page from the box scores won’t make that distinction. So while Kipchoge’s run might have snagged a few lumens for the running world, it’s likely to siphon public respect for the racer who runs 2:18 to win his local marathon in the wind or heat without pacers.

Or does that racer start to run faster?

“In 2008 when Sammy Wanjiru won the Olympics, he went out really hard from the gun in hot, humid conditions,” recalled Williams. “Everybody said he’s crazy, he’s going to die. But he held on and won. And times in the marathon have dropped substantially since because it inspired other guys to not hold back. Those things challenge and inspire the rest of us to up our games.”

It doesn’t always inspire broad appeal, however. Kipchoge had to do the real work, but there’s also the feeling that this is a triumph of technology – not that that’s anything new.

“You look at our shoes now and what Bill Rodgers had,” said Vail, “and it would look like we’re cheating.”

Ah, cheating. No, not all scientific progress in sport is savory. Moral outrage and health concerns split the hair that decided that juiced golf balls are OK and juiced golfers aren’t – to the point that Europe’s track and field stewards now want all existing world records dating before 2005 wiped out and a new, drug-tested list established. Baby-and-bathwater analogies seem apt, and Kardong wondered what happens in 10 years when it’s discovered somebody was beating today’s drug tests.

Science is fun, but it’s not always absolute.

“If we put too much into technology to improve our athletics,” cautioned Kenya’s Lineth Chepkurui, a three-time Bloomsday women’s champ who’s back for another run, “we’re not encouraging our younger generation. They’ll grow up thinking that things are only possible with the help of technology.”

Problem is, you can’t turn back the clock. Not when it ticks under 2 hours.

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