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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Q&A: Bloomsday race director Jon Neill discusses missing Spokane’s annual spring reunion weekend

Bloomsday race director Jon Neill unveils the Bloomsday 2020 promotional poster during a news conference on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, at Ronald McDonald House Charities. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Bloomsday race director Jon Neill unveils the Bloomsday 2020 promotional poster during a news conference on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, at Ronald McDonald House Charities. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

If you’re feeling out of sorts today, you aren’t alone. Far from it.

On top of every other crazy thing going on in the world, for the first time in 43 years Bloomsday won’t be run through the streets of Spokane on the first Sunday in May.

Jon Neill, who is in his first year as race director after founder Don Kardong stepped down last year, feels your pain.

Formerly in charge of organizing the professional road race, Neill was gearing up for this year’s big event when the pandemic forced the shutdown of many of our ways of life, including postponing Bloomsday from May 3 until Sept. 20.

Here’s a conversation with Neill, who misses everything associated with the event – including counting boxes of paper cups – with assurances that Bloomsday will return in September stronger than ever.

The Spokesman-Review: So today was supposed to be Bloomsday. How are you handling things?

Neill: You know what’s interesting about this week? It’s been a trip down memory lane. And by that I mean with our volunteers. There’s been so many conversations that we’ve had where ‘Hey, we would have been doing this, we would have been doing that,’ and laughing and sharing fun memories. So it’s been a good week from the standpoint that we’ve been able to regale ourselves in fun memories of Bloomsday. But similarly, there’s also been that unsettling (feeling) things are not the way that they should be. And I can’t put my finger on it. But things aren’t right.

And that’s been the hardest part of this week for so many of us, and we have volunteers that have been doing it for 43 years, and this would have been their 44th. You’re just programmed. It’s instinctual now. And for not being able to gather on Bloomsday weekend and count water cup boxes and inventory T-shirts, clap high-fives and give hugs with friends – that part is the hard part.

S-R: Let’s go back to January before the pandemic hit. How was your transition going from elite event coordinator to race director?

JN: In my new role as race director, Don (Kardong) has left me with an incredibly detailed script and timeline of things to do. And so as I move through the weeks in January and February and through mid-March, I was acquainting myself with all the things that I needed to do as as a race director.

This week it’s been very manageable but also really enjoyable because a lot of the emails that have come through have been heartwarming emails, the tugs-at-the-heart messages about ‘We’re thinking of Bloomsday. We’re thinking of just how much fun we’ve had through the years.’ The humorous emails that I get are the ones where – and this is a consistent email – folks that are saying, ‘Thank you so much for postponing Bloomsday, because now you’ve just given me five more months to train.’

S-R: What’s been the biggest adjustment?

JN: I was just gaining familiarity with all the moving parts. And I think one of the reasons why Don Kardong was such an extraordinary race director is because he was able to plan for and incorporate all those moving parts so easily and into his daily routine. Understanding the promotion and marketing aspects, while making sure that we keep to these timelines of ordering T-shirts, coordinating with the screen printers, coordinating with our design team.

Of course, as Bloomsday elite athlete coordinator, I just had to communicate with athletes and agents and then you know things just start falling into place. As the race director, boy, there’s a lot that happened in that December/January timeframe. And I think next year I’ll be that much more prepared for it.

S-R: How much pressure did you feel to get this thing right?

JN: An extraordinary amount. And I say that in a joking tone. But at the same time, you understand how important and treasured this event is to the organization. And likewise to the community. And it’s making sure that everything goes off without a hitch, because so many people are counting on it. And that was, you know, pressure that I could feel externally – but likewise pressure that you place on yourself. Just because you cherish the event so much and want to make sure that it shines bright.

S-R: How are the preparations going for the rescheduled event in September?

JR: We’re just looking to get direction from city leadership, state leadership, national leadership on what’s going to be allowed here over the summer and certainly as we approach our Sept. 20 Bloomsday. We’re busy adjusting our timeline … so we’re able to do what we ordinarily do in May and transfer that over to September.

S-R: So say September rolls around and public health allows Bloomsday to go off and everybody has a great time. Are you going to be able to turn right around and do it again in five months?

JN: Absolutely. There’s that dedication amongst our organization to be able to do that turnaround. It’s gonna require some careful planning, and there’s gonna be a lot of overlap. We’re going to have to figure out when we can incorporate those meetings and do that type of coordination, so it’s going to require some dexterity, to say the least.

S-R: Is there anything that you want to say directly to the 40,000 or so people who registered for Bloomsday in the spring?

JN: I would say that you will be missed in May, and that we are looking forward to hosting you in September. On behalf of the entire Bloomsday organization, we so appreciate the well wishes and the encouraging messages that have been sent to our to our organization. And when we’re able to do our race in September, we will roll out the red carpet, we’ll freshen up the (Doomsday Hill) vulture suit, and we’ll present the best road race that we’ve ever done.

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