Sitting alongside his grandmother on a South Hill bluff in the spring of 1988, Jon Neill looked on in wonderment at the throngs of number-clad bodies running in the streets.
Neill, then a freshman at Pullman High School visiting family, was witnessing his first Lilac Bloomsday Run, the genesis of his devotion to one of Spokane’s crown jewels.
A year later, Neill, running shoes in hand, was aboard a Greyhound bus en route to Spokane from the Palouse.
He’s now about to be the face of one of the world’s foremost road races.
“I just knew then that I loved it, and it’s been a big part of my life since,” said Neill, who will take over as Bloomsday race director after Sunday’s 43rd annual race.
Kardong, 70, announced in December that he’ll pass the baton to Neill, who has worked for Bloomsday in a variety of capacities for 25 years, currently as the elite athlete coordinator.
Neill, 45, sat near the lobby of the Patsy Clark Mansion on Tuesday, home of the 20-year lawyer’s firm. He was sporting a new white-and-neon Bloomsday windbreaker jacket in lieu of his normal courthouse attire.
Neill joked that the mansion has recently served as Bloomsday’s satellite office, but soon the Gonzaga and Oregon graduate will retire from law to focus on his forthcoming gig – filling Kardong’s legendary shoes.
“This would be the only job I would do other than practice at this law firm. It’s been a great 20 years,” Neill said. “This is hands down one of the top five running-related professions in the world.”
Twenty-five years ago, Neill was an envelope-stuffing Bloomsday intern happy to be in the same room as Kardong, an icon in distance-running circles.
“It was an opportunity to interact with one of the legends and one of most respected runners, Don,” said Neill, a longtime Bloomsday board member and former president.
“Just to be able to hang out with Don and hear his incredible stories and get closer to the organization – I jumped at that.”
Neill has run in the race about 20 times, he said, his best times dating back to his days at Gonzaga.
He was an All-West Coast Conference and record-setting distance runner for the Bulldogs, who were often required by coaches to run in Bloomsday for training.
He once clocked in at 38 minutes, 53 seconds – a top-30 time in the elite division – as a collegian.
For the past 14 years, Neill has been in charge of overseeing the elite athletes when they travel to Spokane, many of whom are among the best runners in the world.
They’ve come from countries all over the globe, including Kenya, Ethiopia, England, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Mexico and Australia.
Neill said he feels privileged and ready for his next challenge and hopes to continue to elevate the event’s rich tradition.
Kardong believes his pupil is ready.
“The race is in great hands,” he said. “(Neill) has done everything here, started as an intern, been the elite athlete coordinator. He is passionate about Bloomsday.”
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