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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Bloomsday founder in the final mile of the race

UPDATED: Thu., May 9, 2019, 11:03 a.m.

Retiring Bloomsday Race Director Don Kardong sits near fabled Doomsday Hill on the race course. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Retiring Bloomsday Race Director Don Kardong sits near fabled Doomsday Hill on the race course. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Years ago, as Don Kardong, his wife, Bridgid, and their two daughters stood in line for a “Price is Right” taping in L.A., the producers asked Don what he did.

“When I said I was the race director of a huge event in Spokane, they got really interested,” Kardong recalled. “It didn’t get us on the show, but it was a unique enough occupation that it caught their attention.”

Kardong has attracted attention his whole adult life, from founding one of the world’s most popular runs to competing in the 1976 Olympics, and later as a freelance journalist, museum director and public speaker.

Sunday marks Kardong’s 43rd consecutive Bloomsday, and, at 70, his final one as race director.

During a recent interview, Kardong discussed success, failure and why some people still call him “Dingy.”

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Kardong: In Bellevue. I attended high school at Seattle Prep.

S-R: When did you first run competitively?

Kardong: Back in sixth and seventh grade, during track and field days, I ran a couple of 100-yard races. But it was more of a once-a-year lark.

S-R: Were you fast?

Kardong: I might have been the second-fastest, but one guy in my class was a very good sprinter. He ended up running 9.9 (seconds) for 100 yards and played football at Notre Dame.

S-R: What were your sports?

Kardong: I did Little League baseball and started playing basketball in about third grade.

S-R: What were your interests in high school?

Kardong: I was a good student and found most classes pretty interesting. I was probably best at math but loved English classes.

S-R: Did you have any jobs?

Kardong: I worked a couple of summers at a Bellevue auto dealership as a detail guy, cleaning up cars that came in on trade.

S-R: Did you aspire to a particular career?

Kardong: Only if I could be Arnold Palmer. He had the best job ever, but I didn’t appreciate how good you had to be.

S-R: Where did you attend college?

Kardong: I was fascinated with California – the Beach Boys were high on my list – but I eliminated L.A. schools because of the smog. I wanted to be in the Pac-8, and ended up at Stanford.

S-R: Did your parents have to bribe anyone?

Kardong: (laugh) If they did, they didn’t tell me about it.

S-R: Were you offered a track scholarship?

Kardong: No. I was a good high school runner, but not great, and I didn’t get any offers. I walked on at Stanford starting with cross-country my freshman year, and never did get a scholarship.

S-R: What was your major?

Kardong: Psychology. One reason was it seemed pretty easy. I could take a lot of classes outside the psychology curriculum. I actually took more hours of English than I did psychology.

S-R: What was the highlight of your college running career?

Kardong: At the Pac-8 track meet my senior year, I finished second to Steve Prefontaine in a very close 3-mile race. I also finished third in the national cross-country race the previous fall.

S-R: Then what?

Kardong: When I graduated in ’72, I stayed in the Bay Area and trained for the U.S. Olympic team, which I didn’t make. Then I enrolled at the University of Washington and continued training while working toward an English degree and teaching certificate.

S-R: When you say “training,” how much were you running?

Kardong: The year after Stanford I averaged 140 miles a week. That was probably too many. Eventually, I settled down to around 115 as I set my sights on the ’76 games. By then I had moved to Spokane.

S-R: What brought you here?

Kardong: A Stanford teammate – Steve Jones, who ran for Rogers – invited me to compete in the Spokane Road Race that Herm Caviness, the Ferris coach, put on in the summer, and introduced me to Tracy Walters, the director of YMCA’s Camp Reed. That led to my working as a camp counselor for several years and eventually moving here. By then I had lots of friends from camp and liked the climate better than Seattle’s. It seemed like every time I ran over there I came home soaked.

S-R: Camp Reed counselors all get nicknames. What was yours?

Kardong: Dingy Don.

S-R: What was your first full-time job in Spokane?

Kardong: Teaching sixth grade at Loma Vista Elementary up by Shadle. But I was still into my running – getting invited to races, including a three-week trip to China – and I felt really guilty when I’d come back and my kids knew less than when I left. Toward the end of my third year at Loma Vista, another local runner, Rick Riley, and I decided to open The Human Race running store, and I left teaching.

S-R: What business experience did you have?

Kardong: None. (laugh) I thought it would be fairly simple – a small store in what was called Second City (a downtown business incubator).

S-R: Do you recall your first sale?

Kardong: No, but I remember that after Rick and I spent a lot of time getting everything just right, my girlfriend at the time came by and said, “It looks like you guys are playing store.” That wasn’t what we wanted to hear.

S-R: Were you successful?

Kardong: Very successful. Interest in running was growing. Bloomsday started in 1977, and we opened that fall. We were the main running store in Spokane for a long time. Rick left after five years, and I had it for another four.

S-R: When did Bloomsday hire its first full-time employee?

Kardong: I think it was our sixth or seventh year. Doug Kelly was race director for a year, then Sylvia Quinn did it for a number of years. Karen Heaps took over in 1992, and when she retired in 2004, I became race director.

S-R: What challenges does Bloomsday face today?

Kardong: Our biggest challenge is keeping our numbers strong. We try to make Bloomsday the best experience possible, but when participation is on a little bit of a downward trend, it impacts the budget. One change we’re looking at is technology that would allow us to accept entries and generate bib numbers and timing tags right up to when the race starts.

S-R: How long did your running career last?

Kardong: I aspired to be a top runner until 1980, when the Olympic boycott really took the wind out of my sails. But even before that I was on the downhill slide of my running career.

S-R: Do elite runners wake up one day and think, “Well, time to start of new chapter of my life”?

Kardong: No, you continue thinking, “If I just did this and that, I could get back on top.” But after you’ve done this and that and you’re farther down the ladder, you realize you’ve had your day.

S-R: What were your most memorable races?

Kardong: Certainly the 1976 Olympics was hard to beat. I ran my personal best in the marathon (2:11:16) and finished fourth in the world. Prior to that I ran a 3-mille race in 12:57.06 down in Eugene. Back then, that was the sixth-fastest time ever by an American.

S-R: What career path did you follow after selling The Human Race in 1986?

Kardong: I started writing more for running magazines and was invited to talk at running banquets around the country. Freelance writing was a full-time job, but it’s a hard way to make a living.

S-R: What led to your directing the Mobius Children’s Museum?

Kardong: Around 2000, magazines started giving less space to freelancers. So when the museum job opened up in 2002, I applied. It involved both a retail operation and education, two areas I was familiar with.

S-R: Was that a good experience?

Kardong: Yes, but fairly stressful. I was constantly looking for sponsors and other ways to increase revenue so the numbers would come out in the black. By 2004, we’d secured space in River Park Square, and that turned out to be a good move.

S-R: Did your college experience help prepare you for your varied careers?

Kardong: I was mostly focused on running. But I took a broad range of classes, and probably used all that knowledge at one time or another – especially when writing.

S-R: How did hours spent training and competing influence your careers?

Kardong: Certainly the attention to detail has served me well. When I tell people I’m a race director, they often ask, “What’s that?” I explain that it’s like organizing the biggest wedding ever.

S-R: What advice do you share with young audiences?

Kardong: I tell them there are five things that apply to life, no matter what their goals. Hard work makes a big difference. So does having a good team. The third thing is knowing you’ll probably fail sometime, and learn to get past it. Patience is important. And, finally, believe in yourself. The only people who believed I was going to do well at the Olympics were myself and my mom. And moms are always in your corner, right?

S-R: What failure did you have to get past?

Kardong: At the end of my college career, the NCAA championships were in Seattle, and all my family and friends were there. I had run well in the Pac-8 meet a few weeks earlier, so I was expected to finish up front with Steve Prefontaine. Instead, I had one of my worst races ever and was ready to quit on the spot. Fortunately, my coach caught up to me on the track and said, “I know you’re devastated, but you can’t judge your career based on one bad race.” Gradually, I got over that failure. Five years later, I made the U.S. Olympic team and had my best race ever.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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