Bloomsday – A Beginner’s Guide
Bloomsday – A Beginner’s Guide
For the second consecutive spring of pandemic-restricted activities, many of our regular activities are cancelled. One of the most impactful for me personally is the loss again of the in-person Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Washington. This has, over many years, been more than a road race for me and my family, it’s been all of the following: a weekend ‘get-away’ vacation with friends, a family gathering (in recent years a regular reunion with our kids), a competitive running event, a long walk, and a mark of the start of spring – given the length of our winters, a great thing for Canadians. The following is a summary I submitted to one of the Spokane papers in 2019:
“My wife and I first made the trip from Calgary to Bloomsday in 1991. We knew about it mainly because the Calgary TV cable company we used at the time included a Spokane channel and the early ‘90s coverage of the race was extensive. We had a blast that year and resolved to come back as often as we could. So started our annual international commemoration of spring on the first weekend of May in Spokane. The trips continued as our family grew by two children during the 90’s, and we found new ways to cover the course with baby backpacks and joggers. Eventually, our oldest, Brad, was old enough to walk the course and I began a regular cycle of running the race and then walking it with Brad (the second loop was always supplemented by ice pop stops and other snacking). Along the way, we’ve been joined by many of our friends and their families (after they come to the race once, they generally join us every year). This year will be our family’s 27th trip to Bloomsday; it wouldn’t be spring without our trip to beautiful Washington. It’s been wonderful watching the city grow and change along with our family.”
The Spokane Inlander- May, 2019.
Without pretending to be anything but a booster of the whole weekend and event, the following are many of the ‘must do’s’ and highlights we’ve enjoyed over the years. Bloomsday, given its size and history, has spawned a lot of its own specific customs; our family has built a set of our own folklore thorough our spring excursions to Washington. The little race that Don Kardong began has grown into an international event. Its still startling and counter-intuitive that a community the size of Spokane can successfully stage a competitive Professional Road Racing circuit race coupled with a community run/walk of 40,000-60,000 people. Their price of entry, in 1991 was $8 – its now ballooned to the princely sum of $25 – still one of the least expensive races I enter in an average year.
Day 1 – Travel / The Flying Irish
- The drive from Calgary takes 7-8 hours. In early years, we would leave early in the morning and push through as, for both economic and work/school reasons, we made the entire weekend a 3-day affair (Friday-Sunday). The past decade, we’ve stretched the outing to 4-5 days to make time to join the Thursday evening ‘Flying Irish Running Club’ run and to relieve ourselves from the grueling race-day drive back.
- The trees and foliage noticeably get increasingly green as we proceed south. The Inland NorthWest is generally about a month ahead of southern Alberta in terms of the noticeable signs of the arrival of spring in May. Given the time of year, much of the trip is along the flooding Moyie River, a foreshadowing of the roar of the Spokane River as it cuts through Riverfront Park and over Spokane Falls in spring.
- A race weekend custom: to break up the drive down, a regular lunch-time picnic on the beach in the sun at City Park in Sandpoint.
- Once we arrive at Spokane, many of the hotels and businesses have the familiar ‘Welcome Bloomies’ signs on display – we’re ‘home’ for our spring getaway.
- Thursday evening features a fun easy run with the Flying Irish club. This is a huge weekly gathering of local runners (more than 200-300, by my very rough estimate) – one of the many aspects of the Bloomsday weekend which is surprisingly over-sized given the population of the Spokane area. This evening also often features post-run adult refreshments of various kinds. The night has a tendency to create stories of many kinds.
Day 2 – The Race Fair
- Spokane has a very large modern Convention Center downtown, where race numbers are distributed in an event that’s the size of any Major Marathon. We always try to pick up our numbers Friday to avoid the Saturday rush; I’m haunted by the memory of a late-nineties trip when, in the chaos of the race fair, I lost my bag containing my race number. After a lot of searching at the various vendor booths we had browsed, an announcement came over the speaker system that someone had found a race number (crisis averted), There are always deals on running shoes and all other things running but the highlights for the we and the kids have always been the donuts, cookies and grilled cheese sandwich samples (carbo-loading the way it should be done).
- A key talking point of the race number pick-up is which color (start wave) people are in. The enforced seeding by expected race time was critical in the earlier years of the race before chip timing was implemented as everyone registered started simultaneously (albeit on 3 parallel downtown streets). As of 2012, electronic timing and a single start line was introduced as well as 15-minute ‘wave starts’ which enables more control of the human traffic flow.\
- As I was fortunate enough to be running times during my Forties and early Fifties that allowed me into the Elite start (you can see me starting with the Kenyans in the middle of the start line photo above), I was able to finish in time to join my family who were about to start their walking circuit of the route. This was much better than years like 2000, when I finished and then attempted to find Michelle, Brad and Emma in a baby jogger by circling back against the flow of the crowd on the course. It was close to a miracle that I happened to spot them in the sea of people (this was before cellphones). In recent years, being in the second seed area has allowed the same run/walk double although with the kids now grown, they have less interest in walking the course with me.
- A race weekend custom: checking out the old race T-shirts, from years previous, on the running statues in front of City Hall. It’s best to take this in on Friday night as, sadly, many of them tend to get vandalized or stolen after the first night.
Day 3 – Shopping / Manitou Park
- As Saturday is a ‘free day’, it usually starts with a run on the beautiful Centennial Trail and/or a round of Golf at equally-beautiful Indian Canyon golf course.
- A race weekend custom: picking up fast food at Dick’s and taking it to Manitou Park for a picnic in the sun, feeding the ducks in the pond, and wandering through the Japanese Garden. One year also featured a significant Nerf-gun war spanning a lot of the park between our kids and some friends that had joined the trip.
- For families, in addition to the hotel pool, Riverfront Park is a big draw, particularly:
- The Looff – an old carousel that entertained my kids for hours each year and taught them the meaning of the phrase ‘reach out and grab the brass ring’.
- The Big Wagon – a huge red wagon, complete with a slide down its over-sized handle.
- The Garbage-Eating Goat – a metal goat which inhales any/all garbage placed near its mouth
- Taking in the raging falls – the park has many foot-bridges over the flooding Spokane River. It’s hard not to be in awe of the power of the river as it roars through town.
- For grown-ups, the area has a lot of restaurants and brew-pubs to try.
- And then there’s shopping :
- Aunties Book Store – a local independent bookstore in a great old building; I’ve spent lots of time and dollars wandering its shelves. We actually have a watercolor of the storefront at home we purchased on one of these trips.
- NorthTown & Spokane Valley Malls – more usual shopping but, depending on the relative value of the Canadian dollar in any given year (which has varied between 65 cents and $1.01 over the years), has provided cost-effective hours of entertainment for my wife and kids.
- Gone but not forgotten:
- The Post Falls Outlet Mall was a major draw through the early 90’s and we often had our hotel room in Post Falls to accommodate it, despite this requiring commuting into Spokane for race festivities.
- Downtown running stores – whenever the shoe deals at the race fair disappointed, there were always walking visits to both of the now-defunct downtown sports stores. Runner’s Soul was a great throwback running shop decorated with old race memorabilia, demonstrating its strong connections to the local running scene. There was also Sport Town, the larger store under the downtown parkade which had a very large stock of shoes and clothing (also a great place for Gonzaga Bulldogs merchandise).
- White Elephant – a combination Hunting/Fishing and Toy store. Not a normal combination by Canadian standards but the kids loved the old-style games and toys they regularly stocked. Sadly, this business has been closed also.
- Various other one-off entertainments we’ve enjoyed in various years during the weekend:
- At the Opera House: Diana Krall, High School Musical (the play)
- At the Coliseum: a ‘farewell tour’ Brooks & Dunn concert, the Spokane Empire Arena Football team’s ‘May the 4th be with you’ Star Wars night, the Spokane Chiefs in a 2008 playoff game enroute to their eventual Memorial Cup win.
Day 4 – The Big Event
- The race-day weather has seldom disappointed in the many years we’ve attended with warm sunny days the norm. The worst we’ve encountered in close to 30 race-days was a bit of cloud and very light rain.
- A Race-day custom: my 6:30 am peaceful pre-race Coffee walk of downtown Spokane. While the ostensible goal is to get a coffee, this is really an excuse to take in the early-morning city before the masses get to downtown, have a look at the start-line and the wave corrals, and see some of the rare breed of participants who are serious enough about starting at the front of their corrals that they’re willing to stand in the street for two or more hours to make sure that they are.
- Warming up out and back on the first mile of the course is always a chance to find a last port-a-potty and to see the Kenyans and other elites up close.
- For the colors further back in the field, waiting for your wave to start is a good chance to meet people from all over the US and Canada and to take in the volume of the event.
- A Race-day Custom: shortly before your start, it’s critical to remove whatever throw-away clothing you’ve brought to stay warm in and then throw it as high in the trees that line the street as possible. This forms a strange growing clothing tunnel as the waves progress (the clothing is collected and donated after the race)
- Given the high number of Canadians in the field, both the US and Canadian national anthems are sung before the start gun – a nice touch.
- The Course
- Once the gun fires, there is a bit of chaos as your wave starts as the excited masses surge forward. Its best to submit to whatever pace the mass is going for the first few blocks. In 1998, about a block into the race, someone in front of me fell. With nowhere to go to avoid him, I tried to leap over him but also hit the pavement. As more people started falling on top of me and the view getting darker, I, fortunately, crawled out of the pile and resumed the race, shaken but with no damage other than a bit of road rash.
- Mile #1 – after the initial downtown chaos, is a flat start to the race and, with everyone fresh and excited, a bit of a speedway.
- Mile #2 – is a quad-jarring downhill into the river valley. The main consideration on this is not to get carried away pounding down the asphalt too quickly.
- Mile #3 – as the bottom of the hill is reached, the inevitable uphill climbs begin, including the long and gradual ‘Cemetery Hill’. Although its not as high-profile as Doomsday Hill, if you’ve blown yourself out in the first 2 miles, this is going to be a very quick and painful return to reality for you.
- Mile #4 – the course flattens a bit as you run beside Spokane Community College. There are generally more spectators by the college and, at the half-way point in the race, you start to feel the approaching big hill climb.
- Mile #5 – Doomsday Hill – a long and tough climb that’s all the more evil since you can look up and see the entire climb from the bottom. This hill defines the course so much that the official results now also include each runner’s time to climb Doomsday. At the top, appropriately, a huge Vulture mascot waits and offers high-fives to the runners that have the energy to reciprocate.
- Miles 6 & 7.45 – The race times are now determined on the flat speedway through tree-lined Spokane neighborhoods and down Broadway to the finish. If the hills haven’t depleted you, this can be comfortable sprint to the finish. If they have, then it’s a death-march to be endured. The finish line is on Monroe Street Bridge, so the race ends with a 400m steep downhill dash.
- After the walk over the bridge and a bottle of water, you enter the zone wherein you receive the highly-prized Finisher T-shirt
- A race-day custom: the design and color of the finisher shirt is kept top-secret until after the race officially starts – I’ve always made a point of not wearing the shirt during my second circle of the course so as not to spoil the surprise for the people still out there).
- There is then the grabbing of refreshments or food and milling about Riverside Park in the sun with 30,000 of your closest friends.
- When friends have joined us for the weekend, there is usually a protracted Sunday afternoon post-race debrief and refreshments at the hotel pool. This is followed by the perennial fight for a piece of the limited available Spokane afternoon restaurant space for a late lunch/early dinner.
- Walking the course with the family. Although I love the racing, the walk around the course is always fun and entertaining (and much more comfortable than the racing). This practice started one year when I came down with some sort of illness on Saturday so decided to ‘just’ walk the course with Brad. We both had a great time so the tradition stuck until Brad was old enough to race on his own.
- The Vulture at the top of Doomsday – a draw for every kid and adult on the course.
- The vendors (for those not running the course); I think we often gained weight on these walks. A particular memory is of a family’s lemonade stand on the street around the first corner from Doomsday. At that that point in the walk, any cold drink was like gold.
- The prior-years Finisher T-shirt collection displays around town and on the balconies of apartments during the first mile. This is a race that honors long-time participants.
- The local garage bands around the course. What they may lack in practice or raw talent, they make up in attitude and volume.
- The political/religious group gatherings at the bottom of the hill in Mile #2.
Day 5 – Back to Reality
- In the days we needed to be back at work Monday, we jumped in the car Sunday afternoon and joined what was generally a solid line of cars back to the border – more proof of the large Canadian Bloomsday contingent. Now that we stay over and make the journey on Monday, traffic is largely non-existent and the drive more relaxing in our new T-shirts.
- A few weeks after the race, a pre-internet tradition that continues is the mailed out personal results postcard. If you want a more comprehensive record of the entire race, you can also have the newspaper containing all results mailed to your address. For a favored few, there are also age-group medals, 10-deep, mailed out.
The family after the 2000 run Doomsday Hill – yes, it’s a grind
Brad – sprinting to the finish
Walking the course