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Bloomsday founder Don Kardong to retire leaving legacy of community involvement

December 8, 2018

You never know where a good idea is going to come from. For some, it’s a moment of inspired brilliance. For others, a total accident.

For still others, it’s a confluence of separate events that come together with some serendipity.

That’s how it happened for Don Kardong, founder and race director of Bloomsday.

Kardong, who turns 70 later this month, founded the event in 1977 and has participated in every race since. He will retire following the May 5 run, Bloomsday officials announced on Friday.

He will be replaced by Jon Neill, a Spokane attorney who has served as elite race coordinator since 2005.

Kardong was preparing for the 1976 Montreal Olympics and ran in the Peachtree Road Race 10K in Atlanta, where he finished first. That’s where the genesis of Bloomsday took place.

The Atlanta race “was the first of what would become a very common thing, which was a large running event in a downtown venue with elite athletes in the front and a lot of citizen runners all the way back,” he said. “I think they had 2,000 people there, and I thought it was an enormous race.”

When he returned home following his fourth-place finish in Montreal, he figured if Atlanta could pull off something of that magnitude, why couldn’t Spokane – which already had a strong running community – do the same?

“I just thought, ‘Wow, we could do this,’” Kardong said. “Downtown had been renovated after Expo ’74, we had a new Riverfront Park, and I said ‘This would fit really well here.’ So it was participating in one of the first big road races in the country that got me thinking we could do the same thing in Spokane.”

As with most bouts of inspiration, Kardong was met with skepticism – but he found that he had an ally in the right place.

“We got the support of Mayor Dave Rogers, who remembered being in Boston as a kid and seeing the Boston Marathon come through his neighborhood. So, man, he was in our corner right from the start. And that really helped.”

And now, more than 40 years later, Bloomsday is an experience that generations of residents throughout the region participate in and cherish.

“It’s been a privilege to be associated with Bloomsday all these years, and to have worked with so many great people who donate their time to make it happen. I may be leaving the race director position, but I plan to continue to be involved after I retire,” said Kardong.

“I’m still in good health, but you never know,” he joked. “I’d like to turn things over while I’m still in good enough health to make the transition. It just seemed like the right time.”

Kardong said people don’t really retire from Bloomsday anyway.

“I think the typical reaction when somebody retires from Bloomsday is they stick around. I think that’s going to be my thing too.

“I hope people don’t start saying to me ‘I thought you were going to leave,’” he joked. “I plan to be around as much as I’m needed.”

Kardong will lead the transition to Neill and most likely continue to be involved as sort of a ‘Race Director Emeritus’ in certain activities and participate in an advisory role. Neill, who started with Bloomsday as a intern while a student at Gonzaga University, will manage the elite runners again for the 2019 race, then turn those responsibilities over to a yet-unnamed board member.

“Jon is very passionate about Bloomsday, he always has been,” Kardong said. “He’s always willing to step in and help wherever he’s needed. I don’t think we could have done any better in terms of finding someone to take over.”

“Don’s vision is going to be carried through for decades and decades, and that is to put on the best 12K road race/walk in the industry and make sure that it remains Spokane’s signature event,” Neill said.

“The thing I’m most proud of is the way the community steps up and helps make it happen,” Kardong said. “The race director can only do so much and try to keep things moving. But you need to have a lot of people doing volunteer jobs, some of which take a lot of time.

“I’m really proud of the way that Spokane will get behind an entity like Bloomsday and just make it happen.”

Last year’s race had 38,187 finishers – the lowest number since 1985 – but Neill isn’t concerned about the health of the event.

“It’s that annual awakening event for our city,” Neill said. “It’s something that all of the citizens and all of the participants cherish, that is there time to get out and experience our beautiful course and experience what Bloomsday has become for many of us is that great family reunion.

“Everybody comes back and everybody enjoys the race together. It’s part of Spokane’s fabric.”

Kardong’s legacy with Bloomsday is undeniable and will be long-lasting within Spokane’s running community.

“Under Don’s leadership the Bloomsday organization has thrived,” Neill said. “He allows all of us to work and collaborate so closely on Bloomsday to thrive and succeed. He has created and organization an organization that is a well-oiled machine.”

“I really think that Bloomsday really changed the culture here in Spokane,” Kardong said. “Other big running events in other cities did the same thing. To be able to have at least one day of the year when you can just run through the city streets with your fellow citizens is something that was brand new. I think that really changed the city.

“The city was changed physically through Expo ’74 and I think Bloomsday was something the helped change the culture. I think it’s impossible at this time to thing of spring in Spokane and not think of Bloomsday. And that’s something I’m very proud of, and I owe it to thousands of volunteers that help make it happen.”

It will be hard to think of Bloomsday and not think of Kardong.

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