Karen Barkstrom — How do you manage 7.46 miles of Bloomsday? One step at a time

Two years ago if anyone would have told me I would be walking in Bloomsday, I would have told them they were crazy. The odds of me walking for 7.5 miles in a timed race were about the same as me winning the Washington State Lottery — but I guess you have to buy a ticket if you want a chance at winning the big bucks.

But here we are, May of 2014 and I have my blue t-shirt to prove that I finished the Spokane challenge.

My grandson, Keegan, planted the seed for Bloomsday way back in November. His dad had run the race three or four times, and Keegan and his parents had walked the route in May, 2013. He thought it would be a great way to celebrate his eighth birthday so he invited his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to walk with him.

When I got the email wanting to know if they could sign me up, I did a little research.

It started in Spokane in 1977 when more than 1,000 runners took place in what was then called “Run With the Stars.” Over the years, the numbers have grown with a high of 61,298 in 1996 and averaging over 40,000.

The course covers 12 kilometers (7.46 miles) and is open to runners, walkers, wheelchairs and strollers.

I was most concerned about the weather — I wasn’t worried if it was chilly and wet — I’m used to being bundled up for my daily walks in Central Park, many times wearing a complete set of rain gear — but I knew it would be hard for me to walk that far if it was too hot.

According to the Bloomsday website, the average high temperature was 63, the average low 40, which sounded perfect to me. The all time high was 81 in 1977 and 1980 and the record low was in 1984 when the temperature at starting time was 36.

As race day approached, I checked the Spokane weather report — it looked like it would be in the low 60s with a chance of rain — perfect.

Mike and I drove over to Spokane on Friday, arriving in time to follow our son Tyler around on the back nine as he played golf at the Downriver course. Saturday was Keegan’s soccer game and official birthday party and Sunday was the main event.

We drove up to Ferris High School and took a shuttle bus to downtown Spokane. That’s when I realized how absolutely organized this event was. When we parked the car, there were a couple hundred folks waiting to board the bus — this could take quite a while I thought to myself. But within 10 minutes we were on the bus.

No one mentioned that we would get dropped off about 10 blocks from the starting point so I decided I was going to count that hike as part of my total mileage for the day!

Downtown Spokane was teeming with folks — runners, walkers, volunteers, those just there to people-watch.

Because Keegan’s Aunt Kate was pushing her son Oliver in a stroller, we were assigned to the last group to take off — the wheelchair racers at 9 a.m., competition runners leaving at 9:10 a.m., followed by not-quite-so-fast runners, leaving at 9:20, then the fast walkers at 9:30, medium walkers at 9:40, slow walkers at 9: 50 and the rest of us about 10.

As we lined up, Tyler pointed out the starting line to me —- a big white banner stretched across Riverside Ave. about 10 blocks from where we were.

After about a 45-minute wait, it was our turn to take off. The first mile or so (after we reached the starting marker) was through downtown Spokane. The sidewalks were full of spectators. At each corner speakers were blaring music and fellows with microphones were encouraging everyone to have a good time and be safe.

There were 14 in our group — all ages from Oliver in the stroller, lots of Generation X-ers, a couple of Millenials and four of us Baby Boomers.

We took off at a pace that was a little faster than what I’m used to walking but I was able to keep up — most of the time. Everyone had been telling me about Doomsday Hill — a 1.01 mile stretch with about a 6.5 percent grade. I wasn’t looking forward to that but when we actually got there, I just slowed down a bit and kept plodding along. The Bloomsday Buzzard, a large “sculpture” that graces the top of the hill, is there every year apparently left over from years ago when a radio station in the area known as The BUZZ started bringing him to the race. Lots of folks stopped and had their picture taken with the bird.

All along the route are musical groups — everything from heavy metal to an accordion band, providing entertainment. Many in our group (decked out in sombreros and large black fake mustaches) kicked up their heels and danced with the band members.

Residents were barbecuing in their yards, some had misting nozzles on their garden hoses to cool off anyone who was over-heating, and most everyone was yelling out encouraging words for us to keep going.

Every half mile or so, volunteers were handing out cups of water, there were several medical stations treating sore muscles, blisters and assorted other ailments. And twice along the route we passed by helicopters, ready to assist anyone who ran into major health issues. (I found that quite assuring.)

We crossed the finish line, picked up our t-shirts and headed back to the bus.

Before we even got home, Tyler was online looking up the race results. The fastest wheelchair racer finished in 27:30 minutes; the fastest runner in 34:11 and I finished in 2:49:23.

I was the 41,108th person to cross the finish line, placed 318th among 340 people the same age, finished 9th among the 9 participants from Aberdeen and my pace per mile was 22:42.

I guess it doesn’t matter how slow I was — I walked Bloomsday at age 66 — something I never thought I’d be able to do.


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