The Lilac Bloomsday Run is a tradition for Eastern Washingtonians. The yearly 12k footrace is one of the largest that still offers an individual time for each and every of its 50,000 participants. But don't mistake the source of my praise: I love Bloomsday because of the social energy, not so much because of the running. There's something truly remarkable about lining up in a crowd of tens of thousands of people filled with joy and expectation. It may be camaraderie. It may be competitiveness. It may be the chill of the morning in early May. Whatever the case, I can't get enough of it.
My wife, sister, and I participated together this year. None of us had trained. And none of us ran the entire course. Ironically, the vast majority of Bloomsday participants end up walking most of the 7.45 miles. Partially because I don't take the event seriously as a competitive endeavor, and partially because of my natural curiosity, I spent most of the event observing, soaking it up.
I noticed the following this past May:
1. A man literally "carried his cross" in the form of a full size (apparently Styrofoam) painted stage prop slung over his shoulder. As he waited near me in the crowd for the race to begin, many people shook his hand, took pictures with him, or simply openly gawked. At a couple times during my jog, he and I crossed paths. He carried it to the end as far as I could tell.
2. At the end of the race, my wife and I sat on a park bench in downtown Spokane near a large public fountain. Our 4 year old and 1 year old played with gleeful delight in the water. As we lounged in the 75 degree sunshine in the glow of endorphins and community, I felt incredible gratitude. "I can't believe this is our life Paige," I said. It was a perfect moment.
3. The sheer number of street evangelists at this year's event was stunning. I am committed to the mission of the church as much as or more than the next Christian -- but I don't believe that every form 'outreach' deserves the moniker, evangelism. Screaming into a bullhorn invective about intemperance to a bunch of athletes who just ran 12k seemed to me to be the height of both arrogance and social isolation. I observed at least 3 different examples of this behavior.
4. Similarly related to the street evangelists were the anti-abortion protestors standing along the course at about mile-marker 2. While the spirit was similar, the form was more striking. A collection of about a dozen (presumably evangelical) people stood with 6' printed signs on sticks depicting deceased babies apparently aborted very late in pregnancy. The images were gruesome. It formed a stark contrast to the joy of community and health Bloomsday the event celebrates.
5. In another ironic juxtaposition, a small group of a half dozen women jogged wearing human-size, mascot-style, beer cans. I believe they were "Bud Light". Were they paid advertising by the company? Or were they just a little too attached to their drug of choice?
6. An overweight ostensibly transgender woman wearing an ill-fitting tutu and uber short shorts lined up to run along with her Jack-Russell terrier who sat in a doll stroller. Within the throng of awaiting participants, she spent an extended time doing a series of rather exaggerated leg and arm stretches. She was at the event alone (aside from the dog). Although it pleased me that she felt comfortable joining such a public event, I wondered if she was alone in life in general.
7. As I wheezed and heaved, doing my best to string together a one or two mile stretch without stopping to walk, twelve-year-old girls passed me as light and spry as deer frolicking through the wheat fields. Happy for their youth and athleticism, I felt old myself. Likewise, I was passed often by men who easily double my age. While I felt happy for their good health, I myself felt fat. It's amazing how isolating it can feel to exercise alone most of the time -- events like this open the world wide, demonstrating just how big the pond really is.
8. A yearly tradition of the race involves bands. Musicians from all styles, generations, and skill levels line the streets every few hundred yards to serenade athletes in their workouts. I remember punk-rock garage bands, large folk bands, straight ahead rock and roll chick bands, a church choir, obviously talented cover bands, and rather painfully untalented musicians. The demographic mirrored that of Bloomsday runners: as young as pre-teens and as old as codgers. It's a beautiful microcosm of the event as a whole.
9. The nearly eight mile course winds past a cemetery, through neighborhoods, next to schools, and past what feels like rural America. It also passes churches. One of the first along the way featured a gospel choir. The second and third had concession tables selling junk food to the runners. The posture out front of churches didn't strike me as charitable to the Christian image or message. Why would they not choose to give away their treats as a symbol of grace? Couldn't someone within the community of such stunningly large mega-church complexes fund a couple hundred dollars worth of snacks to hand out? Although there were many along the course who sold things, from a runner's perspective, it was churches who began the trend. They were first. Ick!
10. A woman wore a shirt commemorating her husband and his recent passing. He had apparently made a tradition of participating in the race and (perhaps) she had not. Her shirt announced that she was running it for him. Even in the midst of joy and celebration, the spirit of life itself, it was impossible not to be reminded of the other side. Those who surround us are filled with the spectrum that is life. We must strike a balance between becoming frozen by endless accommodation and cold, calculated, pragmatism.
11. For many runners, the camaraderie of the crowd was not what brought community. Rather, hundreds of smaller groups formed tribes amongst the throng. These individuals often wore matching custom t-shirts to indicate the group to whom they belonged. This is not unusual. Yet it was fascinating and interesting.
12. I listened to an audio book during my run, "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi. Once again, it proved to be a profound juxtaposition against the joy, energy, and life that embodies Bloomsday. The book is inspiring and heartbreaking, profound and pragmatic. In some ways, listening to Paul discuss the import of being present in the moment led my mind to wander away from his book and into the feeling of the run.
13. Bloomsday is filled with tradition. The largest hill of the course is nicknamed "Doomsday" and features a huge, 10ft. vulture that spans the roadway at the top of the climb. A t-shirt is given out each year to every finisher and many homes throughout the course decorate their lawns with duds from the past. Runners wear donate-able items for the early-morning cold weight on main street, but when it's time to start the race, they fling them into trees. The salvation army dutifully retrieves the clothing from trees after every runner has begun. These are among others - and reflect the need humans have to make meaning in the world.
As I reflect on many of these observations, I can't help but think about how they reflect the wider world in which we live. While I might be living in the height of joy and gratitude, appreciative for the beautiful gifts I've received, others around me -- perhaps even right next to me -- might also be in the troughs of despair. My world might be consumed with how I might love better while that of the next person might be consumed with how 'the other' deserves judgment and attack. I might be convinced that because of my skill, I am poised for the big time, but once I come to see how talented the pool really is, a true appraisal of myself is inevitable.
Bloomsday is life. And this year it reminded me to be gentle with myself and with others. To be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.
Until next year...