At The Races: Lilac Bloomsday Run

By September 26, 2007April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

The Bloom Not Just of Lilacs

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the September 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine

It begins with a fat man wanting to shave, his dressing gown billowing out behind him, intoning in Latin the beginning of the Catholic Mass. It ends with an orgasm and a long-awaited period. It unfolds over the course of one day, covering pedestrian miles. It proffers life as found in a city — a grimy, industrial, toiling city. It shows people in their daily lives, at their worst and best, taking part in the struggles of the quotidian. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” said the author, “and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

When the Modern Library published its list of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century, at the summit was James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was followed by The Great Gatsby, and then, taking the bronze, was another, shorter and more accessible Joycean entry, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To say that Ulysses is not an easy book would be like saying that Everest is not a small mountain. It takes work, this novel. Getting through it has left legions of English majors drained and depleted, gasping for breath and Stephen King. Some approach it with a map and a guide book; some never finish.

Don Kardong read Ulysses when he was an English major at Stanford. On a long training run, Kardong and a friend, also an English major and a Joyce fan, had one of those long, litty conversations, the kind that you have in late-night dorm room huddles. The kind that makes anyone who is not in college roll her eyes and say, “Ah, youth.” They decided, somewhere in the hills above Palo Alto, that running a race was like an odyssey, an epic journey. Ulysses presents the epic journey of ordinary heroes, notably, one Leopold Bloom, on a day — June 16, 1904 — known to geeks the world over as “Bloomsday.” “If I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal,” said Joyce. As Dubliners look east to London, so do Spokaners look west to Seattle: with envy and, if not hatred, something far short of love. It is a city with a tart inferiority complex. Like Dublin, Spokane is bisected by a river where, on the south side, live the fancy people; to the north, the have-nots and have-lesses. Spokane has all of the problems of a big city and all of the problems of a small town. You can get your crime, traffic, and urban blight along with strong doses of provincialism, a paucity of culture and sophistication, and the whiff of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. There is nowhere to shop for shoes.

Spokane was a different place when Ulysses was published. The city hit its stride after the turn of the 20th century. A new city hall was built in 1913. The Davenport Hotel opened the following year and offered air conditioning, fine dining, a telephone network, a radio station and a host of illustrious guests. “Authors Zane Grey and Dashiell Hammett wrote scenes in their works set at this most famous hotel in the West,” trumpet the historians of the place. But in the latter half of the century, the hotel, like the city, became coarse and tatty.

Kardong had returned to his home in the Seattle area after college but before snagging fourth place in marathon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He needed to figure out how and where to live and train. He decided that bad weather on the “West Side” of the state was bad for running, and so, in a reversal of the clichéd direction of American history, went east.

“I like cities,” says Kardong, 58, just on the other side of lean but still leggy, with a tight cap of salt and pepper hair, from behind his big desk at the Lilac Bloomsday Run office, “but don’t like all that tension.” Gesturing toward a window overlooking the Spokane River he says, “There are very few urban centers where you can go three miles and be in wilderness. It’s a great city for running.” He came in 1974 to teach elementary school and to continue training. He’s been here ever since. Kardong has written for Running Times, Runner’s World, and is currently doing a column for Marathon&Beyond. He’s owned a running store and worked for the Spokane Children’s Museum. He’s been president of the Road Runner’s Club of America.

And he created one of the biggest running events in the country. The Lilac Bloomsday 12K started in 1977. The city embraced the run, and, Kardong says, “either by inertia or momentum,” it got to be a big event. This year, with over 40,000 participants, it comes in third among organized races after the Peachtree and Bolder Boulder 10Ks.

Kardong came up with the idea to host a world-class race and the local Jaycees warmed to it. When he suggested that it could be tied in with the Lilac Festival, they were pleased. When he explained the name he liked — and why — they were struck dumb. Even though Kardong knew that Bloomsday was on June 16, he knew too that the date would change each year. Plus, June could be hot. So they agreed on the first Sunday in May and acceded to the Olympian’s suggestion that the event be given a name that works on a number of different levels.

Kardong began running the city, looking for a course for the Lilac Bloomsday Run. Perhaps mostly to amuse himself, he tried to spot markers that might tie into his literary framework. He has described his use of Ulysses as “Joyce Lite”; the connections can be made if you are looking for them and have the right bent. He charted a course that would tax modern day heroes, reminding them of the struggles and exultations of daily existence.

Kardong wanted a length that was challenging, but not impossible. He thought six to eight miles would be good. “Back then,” he said, “people didn’t much care about the actual distance. In the eighties,” he added, “they began to care.” So the course was measured to an exact 12K in 1983.

The race, typical of the time, gave out shirts at the finish rather than the start, a tradition that has, untypically, persisted. Snagging the finisher shirt seems, in fact, to be a big part of the draw. “It requires more volunteers,” Kardong says, “but we figured out early on that people really dug that.” He continued, “The fourth year was a problem — we had people standing in line for longer than it took them to do the race. We were going to scrap it, but the volunteers said, ‘Let’s see if we can get this right.’ They figured it out.”

After years of volunteering, including being on the Board of Directors, Kardong took over as Race Director three years ago. For part of the year, he has an assistant. Everything else gets done by a battalion of unpaid laborers. “It’s a huge source of pride to participants and volunteers. For years, this was the event. Until the Zags came along,” he says, referring to Gonzaga University’s winning basketball team, “you didn’t have a competitive event with a national reputation.” Like the Boilermaker Race in Utica, Kardong says, the race gives the city a civic, psychological boost. Spokane also now hosts Hoopfest, the nation’s largest three-on-three basketball tournament. Kardong says that there are plans afoot to link the two in some fun and creative way.

In addition to attracting world class runners — Frank Shorter won the first edition, Bill Rodgers the second — the event got people out and moving. By 1982, women made up over 41% of the field of 22,210. Just six years later the total swelled to 57,300. The event reached its peak in 1996 with a field of 61,298. Since 1986, women have been in the majority.

Over sixty percent of the finishers are from Spokane County. The Fit for Bloomsday program enrolls kids from 85 elementary schools in the area. They sign up for the 7.4 mile race and so often, do their parents. And siblings. And grandparents. The tee-shirts range in size from Youth Medium to Adult XXL. There’s stern competition in the Corporate Cup division, with the three local universities trying to best each other on the course.

I ran on the Eastern Washington University women’s team, reluctantly. The race is, for me, too big and too short. I wanted to say no — I was out of shape — but I said yes. Yes, I said, yes I will. I figured it would give me a good bead on the city I have agreed to live in, but am struggling to like. We waited for the start in my office building, a block from the Davenport Hotel, which reopened in 2002 to opulent, gilded glory and twenty dollar salads.

We ran from downtown Spokane
, past Greek-inspired buildings, past the newspaper, along the edge of the funky neighborhood called Browne’s Addition. And then, just after the first mile, the city stopped. No more transplanted deciduous trees, no more watered grass — we were in the West, the sere, shrubby, dusty West, overlooking a raging river.

Along the course: grungy garage bands with banners announcing their MySpace addresses; bearded folk with “Impeach Bush” and pleas for economic justice; a country music radio station; the Air National Guard; a habited nun cheering and clapping in front of Sister of the Holy Name; a group wanting to legalize medical marijuana; belly dancers; a Church group blasting Christian music.

After I crossed the line I stopped to chat with one of my graduate students, a reporter for the local paper who was covering the race. We talked about his thesis some, he walked with me back to the start, and I went out for another loop.

The last group hadn’t started yet, and the course was still sardined with people. I elbowed small children out of the way and allowed thoughts to run through my head. Ineluctable modality of the visible came unbidden, a phrase that keeps English majors up at night. Then the music from Kate Bush’s song, “The Sensual World,” her eerie rendition of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the final chapter, the part of the novel that is most of the earth and the flesh and entirely bereft of punctuation until the very end.

I jogged once more through this very particular city, a Dublin of the Inland Northwest, and played in my too-full head the lines that close the book: “and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” The lilacs would, I’d been told, be in full bloom the following week.