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Seeing ‘Red’: Bloomsday’s Corporate Cup division has been dominated by an Eastern Washington University team that faces a new challenge this time around

April 28, 2022 Updated Thu., April 28, 2022 at 7:25 p.m.

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review For The Spokesman-Review

Dynasties are distinguished by victories, championships, repetition and years.

For one team in Bloomsday’s Corporate Cup division, that dynasty is also about aging gracefully.

For another former team combatant, it’s about chasing the champs with much younger runners and always coming up short.

Eastern Washington University “Red” will put a 23-year streak of winning the overall Corporate Cup title on the line on Sunday when the annual running road race takes place on the streets of Spokane for the 44th time (46th if you count the past two years of “virtual” Bloomsdays).

The Red squad in 2019 – the last time the Corporate Cup took place – consisted of John Collins (age 35 at the time), Carl Combs (53), David Millet (56), Jeff Corkill (75), and Grant Smith (81). That team has largely remained intact through the years, with Combs, Corkill and Smith running on the team since 1997 when the streak began.

“We’re the most successful athletic team that Eastern has ever produced,” quipped the 84-year-old Smith, who is a professor emeritus in EWU’s English department.

The EWU football program has won a national title and may have something to say about that statement. But Red’s 23-year streak puts it on equal footing with Gonzaga’s renown basketball program, which has advanced to the NCAA Tournament 23 straight seasons.

The Corporate Cup is sort of a race within a race, with those runners representing a business or organization competing for top places and times within 13 age groups for men and women. The first-place finisher in each gains 1,000 points, with subsequent finishers receiving a point total related to the winner’s time and their clocking.

Teams consist of five runners, with three scored and the other two used for tie-breaking purposes. Thus, a perfect score of 3,000 is the goal, and 5,000 a perfect score.

“It is cool when we hit 3,000, and it’s cool when we are all perfect across the board,” said Millet, the director in EWU’s Veterans Resource Center. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

In the case of EWU Red, all five runners won their age groups in 2019, the third time it accomplished that feat during the streak. Their score of 3,000 – the seventh straight year they’ve recorded that mark and 10th time overall – won by four points over a team of EWU female runners.

“What would you equate it to?” asks Millet rhetorically of the streak. “It’s like the Triple Crown (former EWU wide receiver and current Los Angeles Rams star) Cooper Kupp won. It’s that one year where everything lines up and falls into place.”

For a stretch from 2012-18, second place belonged to a team of talented runners that worked for Curt Kinghorn at the Runners Soul in Spokane. Despite stellar times, they could never match the scores of Red’s older runners, who excelled within their age groups.

“They refuse to lose,” said Kinghorn, four years after he last fielded a team. “It seemed they kept getting faster the older they got.”

This year, Red’s streak is in jeopardy. Millet is the lone holdover from 2019 on the squad. Corkill, a former chemistry and biochemistry professor, and Smith have since retired from EWU and are not eligible. Collins moved to Colorado and Combs is suffering from osteoarthritis in his hip. A supervisor for campus technology services, Combs is no longer able to run.

Former Red member Jeff Rahn, 64 and still a professor in EWU’s chemistry department, is back on the team. But Combs’ blistering times through the years – typically in the low 40 minutes – on the 7.45-mile course will be missed.

The three new members are Christopher Kirby, Laurie Morley and Annika Scharosch, who scored a perfect 1,000 for the women’s team in 2019, when she was 37. Now she’s 40, putting her on the lower end of her age bracket.

Unfortunately, Kinghorn can’t take advantage of Red’s turnover because he doesn’t have a team to challenge them anymore. He shuttered his doors downtown in 2019 and quietly retired to a life of volunteering at track meets, running finish lines at road races and working at a golf course.

“It was fun and I had a great time with it,” Kinghorn said. “I absolutely love those guys (Red) and you can’t hate them. They just kept winning and winning and winning.”

•••

From 2012 to 2018, the Runners Soul squad finished second, with a variety of team names that included “Nothing Wrong With Second Place.”

Kinghorn, who was also the former owner of the Human Race runner’s store downtown, had for years hired local runners to sell his shoes and clothing – including at the Bloomsday Trade Show. Who better to help sell running shoes than runners themselves?

“It was more important to sell the right shoes and get people out running,” said Kinghorn, who for many years voiced-over his own radio ads that promoted that pursuit.

He also assisted at the Bloomsday finish line since the 1980s, then added one more undertaking by putting together a Corporate Cup team.

Kinghorn’s teams were victorious nine straight years in the Corporate Cup category for businesses with between three and 24 employees. That was a small pool of runners from which to draw, especially when considering EWU was in the category with more than 1,300 employees.

“They were always scheming against us,” Millet said. “They were trying to figure out ways to outpoint us.”

“But it was something like 3,000 against seven,” said Kinghorn of the difference in pools. “I was a small shop and that was a big university.”

In 2018, “Not Everyone’s Injured” put the biggest scare into Red when it also scored 3,000 points. The tie was broken when Collins scored 991 points as EWU’s fourth-place finisher. Kinghorn’s fourth-place runner scored 965, just 27 points from ending the streak.

“That could be just a matter of seconds,” claims Combs of the small differences in points some of the competitions created.

Runners Soul fielded other runner-up teams through the years with the names “Everyone’s Injured,” “Could This Be The Year,” “Just For The Heel Of It,” “Shoe Size Does Matter” and “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes.”

Red was also perfect from 2013-17, edging Kinghorn’s crews by razor-thin margins each of those years, including 2017’s two-point victory.

“I’m not harsh toward them, because there was nothing wrong with second place, just as our team name indicated,” Kinghorn said. “We lost all the time. We also had the name, ‘This could be the year.’ Right, that never happened.”

A constant on all of Kinghorn’s teams during those years was Cyndi Kelly, who consistently won her age group.

“It was a competition, but it wasn’t really a competition, ” Kinghorn said. “There was no way we could win it. We had Cyndi, but we couldn’t come close to covering the age groups EWU Red could.”

“It’s all about the right combination of people,” Combs said. “Doing that together for 23 years is what is most impressive.”

•••

There is some strategy to forming a team, and having runners in the same age group would seem to be an obvious no-no. But over the years, Red has had that issue on several occasions.

Combs and Millet are within three years of each other, and Millet and Rahn are four years apart. That means at various times during the streak they’ve been in the same age group, but only one can score 1,000 points.

Earlier in the streak, Corkill and former member Scott Melville also found themselves in the same age group. The way scoring is based on times of the age group winners, they didn’t want to be too far apart.

“I’m not saying Corkill purposely slowed down, but if he was any faster Scott wouldn’t have scored as many points,” Combs said.

That comment prompted a quick question from Millet about the occasions he and Combs would be in the same age group.

“So why didn’t you slow down for me?”

“Pedal to the metal, man,” Combs responded.

Kinghorn’s issues were multiplied because he had so many young runners.

“We had maybe 12 employees to chose from, and maybe seven of them were in the same age group,” he said.

“If we added up all the times, we kicked (Red’s) butt,” he said. “We were faster, faster, faster, but didn’t score as well, as well, as well.”

Lost in the battles was the fact that competing for an age-group title wasn’t as easy as simply catching the runner ahead of you. Because Bloomsday has some 40,000 people running the streets of Spokane at the same time, it’s impossible to know your finish until later.

“They can be anywhere in the field – you don’t know,” Millet said. “At times, I can recognize faces and people in my age group. After a couple of years, you kind of see some familiar faces, but not too many.”

In essence, runners are simply competing against themselves and crossing fingers. Combs said he and Rahn would often pace each other and find other running buddies to run with and against, but never knew how the scoring would wind up.

“With technology these days, Grant is on his phone right after the damn thing ends,” Millet said. “He’s refreshing, refreshing the results page.”

Smith has been the de facto recruiter for the squad for 40 years. When Smith asks you to be on the Red Corporate Cup team, you jump at the opportunity.

“When Grant said I could be on that team, that kind of changed things for me,” Combs said. “I wasn’t in full running mode, but talk about motivation. It was something to look forward to every year. And to be first all those years competing against Washington State and others, that was the fun part of it.”

“We established a speedy core,” Smith said. “It was a good thing for the morale for people at Eastern. It was something to be proud of and was involvement in the community.”

Recently, Smith has added female runners to his Red team. Scharosch and Morley join Red this year after competing on the women’s team that finished a best second overall in 2019. Eastern’s former president, the late Mary Cullinan, scored 1,000 points that year, as did Scharosch.

Scharosch won her female age group with a time of just over 54 minutes despite running in the Boston Marathon just two weeks earlier.

That will be the case this year as well as she returned to Boston on April 18 for the 50th anniversary of women being allowed to run in the prestigious marathon. She finished in 3:31:47.

“I’m a bit nervous about joining the Red team, I’ll be honest,” she said during a chance gathering with Combs and Millet at the EWU library. “I’m not fast. I would do much better if we ran it three times and had a few more hills.”

“She’s humble, but she’s fast,” Combs said.

“She just wishes that Bloomsday had two loops,” Millet said.

Smith also helps coordinate teams for anybody on campus who wants to be on a Corporate Cup team. This year, the school has five teams, but in other pre-pandemic years it’s been twice that or more. He has a simple message to pass along to participants.

“I tell the Corporate Cup participants to log some miles, but just be healthy and happy.”

•••

At some point, age and miles catch up with everybody. Combs understands that all too well.

A graduate of Eastern, he started working full time at the school in 1989. It wasn’t until 1997 that Smith asked him to run with the team.

“The Bloomsday course is the mecca,” said Combs, a life-long Inland Northwest resident.

The streak started that season. Eastern’s top three runners had a combined time of 2:03:14 – the best in the 23-year run, according to Smith.

“It’s a highlight for me,” Combs said of his Corporate Cup experience. “I was a kid in 1997 and a pretty good runner, but I only ran about half the year. It wasn’t until 2010 when I got serious about running and ran year-round. That was when I knew I could do better than taking six months off all the time.”

His times improved, and most years he was the fastest runner on the Red squad.

In 2018, he clocked 41:23, but a year later he slowed to 42:57 because of an aching hip.

“It really hurt and I dropped way off,” he said. “After that, I was done. We’re talking done, done. It wasn’t just that I got tired of running. It’s a problem.”

He had X-rays and an MRI, and visited with orthopedic surgeons in Eastern Washington and on the West Side. They told Combs he had a torn labrum and osteoarthritis and said: “You’re done running.”

“Carl could run tuneup races against kids half his age. And win them.” Kinghorn said. “It’s unfortunate he’s not running.”

“Carl’s a medical retiree,” Millet joked while staring at Combs. “That’s what we call it in the military. Temporarily.”

“I’ve had to go through all the withdrawals,” said Combs, who can tolerate some bike riding and hiking. “I had to transition to something else to get my energy out. I like speed and endurance, and to get that adrenaline I now need two wheels.”

The other members of Red were not without ailments during the streak.

Besides Rahn’s troublesome knee, Corkill suffered heat stroke not once, but twice, during Bloomsday.

“Jeff (Rahn) has had a lot of injury problems off and on,” Smith said. “I keep urging him to try not to train to run so fast. Being there and being a part of it is most important.

“It’s kind of the same sort of joke with Corkill and having him twice pass out during the race. We know he is a superstar, but he doesn’t have to burn up.”

“All our knees get cranky,” said Millet, who routinely rides his bike from Spokane to the EWU campus in Cheney. “Running doesn’t bother me, but sometimes biking does. When I get some more miles on my legs biking, I’m good.”

The best example of running through adversity belongs to Smith. In the first three months of 2000, he underwent radiation treatments for prostrate cancer. By early May, he was back helping lead Red to a Corporate Cup victory – it’s fourth straight at the time.

“You never know,” Millet said of the intangibles involved. “All five runners have to be on-point that day.

“Which, as the way biometrics work, sometimes we’re not.”

•••

Smith, despite his cancer battle, is the ageless wonder, running nearly every day in Cheney – even at the age of 84. He ran the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 12. He had run about 15 marathons previously, but none in the last 20-plus years since his 40s and early 50s.

He finished the marathon in just over 6 hours.

“I really do have time to train for it and get some mileage in, and I survived quite well,” he said. “I lost in my age group (80+) by 1 minute to a guy who had just turned 80. I was cursing myself because I had stopped to eat a candy bar.

“I wasn’t there to win, but I’ll win if I can.”

That was the case in 1982, when he and several of his Eastern co-workers went to the postrace awards ceremony on the floating stage in Riverfront Park and witnessed Washington Water Power receiving the award as Bloomsday’s first Corporate Cup champion. In fact, WWP sponsored the award.

“We didn’t even know about it,” he said. “We knew each of the guys on that team, and each of us had beat them. We said, ‘What is this thing?’ I told them I would fill out the paperwork the next year if they promised to run on our team. That started my being the captain of the team.”

Eastern won the next three Corporate Cups from 1983-85, then again in 1993 and 1994. In all, Eastern’s “Red” Corporate Cup team has won 28 cups out of the 38 since 1982 when the competition began.

A team from the City of Spokane won three of the years that EWU didn’t (1988-90) and Washington State won five (1987, 1991-92, 1995-96) prior to EWU starting its current run.

Eastern president H. George Frederickson helped subsidize EWU’s Corporate Cup teams, something EWU presidents have graciously done since from funds raised through the EWU Foundation.

“I continue as captain of EWU teams because of my fervent interest in Bloomsday as a symbol of our Spokane community and its emphasis on wellness and inclusion,” Smith said. “Our Corporate Cup teams show the support of our faculty and staff for the Spokane community and its ideals. That support runs deep and supplies the bench strength for consistent success over many years and with many larger opponents.”

His love for the event, started in 1977, runs deep. But for Smith, Corkill and Combs, there will be a part of Bloomsday in 2022 that will be missing.

“It’s sad we can’t be on the team anymore, but we can still enjoy running and being a part of the running culture in Spokane,” Smith said.

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