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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Longtime Bloomies preserve their annual traditions as another virtual Bloomsday kicks off

UPDATED: Sat., May 1, 2021

At a quick glance, the second story of this house just off Freya Street might appear like a peculiar place to hang laundry to dry.

But it isn’t laundry day – it’s Bloomsday.

While she hadn’t moved to Spokane in time for the inaugural Bloomsday race 45 years ago, Pepper Ballien began participating the second year and (almost) every year after, collecting the race’s iconic finisher t-shirts in the process.

After moving into the 19th Avenue house about 30 years ago, Ballien began to string her collection of finisher T-shirts in her front yard every year in celebration of Bloomsday.

The race is again virtual instead of in-person this year, but Ballien hasn’t bucked personal tradition. Dozens of shirts form a banner across her house, drawing a second look from passers by.

“I’m glad to just get people in the mood and remind people that it’s actually happening,” Ballien told The Spokesman-Review.

The pandemic hasn’t interfered with the T-shirt tradition, but around a decade or so ago, the shirts were stolen.

The story is still a bit murky, but two weeks after Bloomsday, two paper bags full of Bloomsday shirts appeared outside Ballien’s front door. Almost all of the missing shirts were accounted for, and Ballien has since been able to piece together the remainder from other sources.

Of the more than three dozen she owns, Ballien’s favorite shirt is the 1996 version designed by Ken Spiering. It shows a scattering of paper cups on the street, from the lips of which water has poured out into puddles that read “20,” in honor of the race’s 20th anniversary, and “Bloomsday 96.”

“When you’re doing Bloomsday, they’re giving out water in a number of locations and people just throw their paper cup on the ground and you hear the popping sound of all the many people stepping on the cups and squashing them,” Ballien said. “You don’t hear that noise unless you’re at Bloomsday.”

With Bloomsday turning into Bloomsweek, and racers registering online instead of in line, the right route is the runner’s prerogative.

With the annual Bloomsday road race being held virtually for the second consecutive year due to the coronavirus pandemic, runners can get creative about the path they take, so long as it tallies up to 12 kilometers, between April 30 and May 9.

Last year, Ballien mapped out 7.5 miles in her neighborhood and ran the race alone. This year, Bellien said she will be back on the regular course – albeit backwards – and in the company of a few friends.

She’ll join the throngs of people who plan to run the race this year despite the lack of an in-person event.

As of Thursday, Bloomsday reported more than 20,000 people have registered to run in places as far away as New Zealand.

According to Bloomsday organizers, about 80 perennial runners – the venerated few who have participated every year since the first race in 1977 – plan to run again this year.

They include perennial Bloomie Pete Thompson, who has never missed a race despite a few close calls.

After breaking his leg in a skiing accident on Schweitzer Mountain in 2019 – “I didn’t know that 74-year-old guys aren’t supposed to be going 50 mph and losing it,” Thompson jokes – a team of about a dozen family and friends pushed Thompson along in a wheelchair.

Before that, Thompson admits that he ducked out of the party held after the baptism of his youngest daughter to participate in Bloomsday.

Thompson keeps the adjustments to Bloomsday caused by the pandemic in perspective, calling it a “first-world problem.” He credited Race Director Jon Neill and other organizers with making lemonade out of lemons.

“It’s a very minor disruption and in a sense it’s good because it gives Bloomsday a global reach with people who have emigrated from Spokane but are able to participate,” Thompson said.

That includes several of Thompson’s adult children. His son in Zurich, Switzerland, has put together a group to run the race this year. Shortly before speaking with The Spokesman-Review on Friday, Thompson received a WhatsApp message from his youngest daughter, a former collegiate runner who had just completed Bloomsday in New York.

For the second year in a row, Thompson plans to complete the race on the Children of the Sun Trail. He already has his eye set on his 50th Bloomsday. Hopefully, in 2022, the race will be back to normal.

“It’s the participants, of course, and it’s the volunteers, which is phenomenal to have that many people giving up the time they do, and all the people that are cheering runners on,” Thompson said. “It’s just really fun.”

This article was corrected on May 1, 2021, to reflect that the inaugural Bloomsday race was in 1977, not 1976.

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