If you’ve never seen a city taken over by almost sixty thousand runners, visit downtown Spokane on the first Sunday in May. Since 1977, the Lilac Bloomsday Run has been a major event for the city. Throngs of runners take on the 12-kilometer course, and even more Spokanites line up along the route to cheer on the race. While Bloomsday is clearly a Spokane event (more than half of last year’s entrants called Spokane home,) it is also one of the world’s biggest running events.
This hill on Pettet Drive, late in the course, has been affectionately nicknamed “Doomsday Hill” by runners. Gaining 120 feet of elevation in less than three quarters of a mile, it’s the steepest climb on the course. Once runners reach the top of the hill, the remaining distance runs through the thankfully level roads of West Central to the finish line on the Monroe Street Bridge. 2015’s fastest runner, Lani Rutto of Kenya, powered up the hill in just two minutes and eight seconds, but such elite runners are the exception. A costumed vulture at the top of the hill sums up most runners’ feelings about the climb.
The race began as part of a seventies craze for city running events. After competing in the marathon at the 1976 Olympics, local schoolteacher Don Kardong suggested the idea to a reporter, and it gained momentum quickly. Kardong imagined a run with “more than a hundred” runners, but the first year’s race included more than a thousand. The non-profit event grew throughout the eighties and nineties, reaching its peak of 61,298 registrations in 1996. There are serious competitors who run the race for cash prizes, but most of the growth has come from hobbyists, who run the race just for the challenge of it. David Govedare’s “The Joy of Running Together,” a collection of forty statues of runners next to City Hall, was installed in 1985 to commemorate the event. While the nationwide fad settled, Bloomsday took root.
Lilacs are a long-standing symbol of Spokane, but the name “Bloomsday” also refers to a June 16th celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (even though the event falls on the logistically-simpler first Sunday in May.) Kardong saw a connection between running and heroic epics like Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey, and felt “people are looking around for a chance to be heroic.” The climb up Pettet Drive wasn’t yet part of the course, but Kardon did imagine a nearby hill on Meenach Road as the “monster” of his epic.
Race t-shirts are a staple of Spokane fashion, as well. A new shirt is designed each year, and finishers collect their shirts just past the finish line. A collection of historic Bloomsday tees is a point of pride for locals. The race organization also recognizes more than 90 “perennials” who, like Don Kardong, have run the race every year.