The 12k Lilac Bloomsday Run started with an offhand comment to a reporter. In 1976, local runner Don Kardong mentioned in a newspaper interview that he thought a run through the heart of the city would be a great thing for Spokane.
Kardong had just competed in the Olympic Marathon. “I thought the opportunity was here, given the renovation of downtown and the park for Expo ’74,” recalls Kardong.
Not long after the article was published, Kardong rode in an elevator with then Mayor David Rogers, who mentioned the article and encouraged Kardong to pursue the idea.
The Spokane Jaycees adopted the race as a project, and the first Bloomday run took place on May 1, 1977. Organizers hoped they would get 300 participants. They ended up with 1,200. After that, the number of runners grew by about 5,000 each year until the mid 1980s. The biggest event on record took place in 1996 with 61,298 participants.
“If you had told me there would be an event with 50,000 runners and that I’d be in charge of it, I would have said that was ludicrous,” laughs Kardong.
Bloomsday 2016 marks the 40th race. Carol Hunter, a board member of the Lilac Bloomsday Association for 20 years, is proud of the race’s continued success. “I think that’s due to the personality of Spokane. An event of this size takes thousands of volunteers. They truly love it and want to see it succeed.”
Overall, the race requires about 5,000 volunteers, starting with the 13-member working board that oversees different aspects of the race. Under each board member are several committee heads, totaling 70 to 80 committees.
Carol Hunter is also proud of some of the things about the race that haven’t changed. For one thing, Bloomsday is still an affordable race. The board works hard to keep the cost under $20.
The organizers have also managed to keep the design of the T-shirt a surprise each year. And the T-shirt is and given exclusively to people who finish the race, unlike a number of races that hand out the T-shirt with the entry packet.
Each year, the race brings about 50,000 people to the downtown core, 40 percent of whom come from outside Spokane County.
Kardong notes that support from the City, DSP and downtown businesses has been crucial to the event’s success. “That was true when we launched Bloomsday, and it’s been true every year since then.”
The effect on downtown Spokane is significant. It’s estimated that the race’s economic impact is $13 million. That includes participants’ hotel stays, restaurant dining, entertainment, shopping at downtown retailers.
For Kardong, it isn’t just numbers that are impressive—it’s the way the race has affected people’s lives. Runners have told him that training for Bloomsday helped them kick an addiction, or it helped them heal from a serious illness. For a lot of families, it serves as a reunion. They might not be able go get together for holidays, but every year they gather for Bloomsday.
Kardong believes the way Bloomsday brings people together in the downtown core is magical. “It’s great to have a vibrant setting for our event. It helps generate excitement. I love standing at the start with all those people gathered on the streets of downtown. There’s sort of this shared adrenaline. If you held it anywhere else, it wouldn’t have the same impact.”