The Lilac Bloomsday Run: An Epic Journey of Ordinary Heroes

On Sunday, May 1st I raced in the Lilac Bloomsday Run, a 12K that’s been held annually in Spokane, Washington since 1977. The race was created by Don Kardong, who while on a training run with a buddy likened running a race to an odyssey, an epic journey. He charted a course that would be “taxing for modern heroes,” with a length that was challenging but not impossible. Kardong certainly delivered- the 12K is a bit of a strange distance in that it’s tough to duke it out like in the more standard 10K distance, but it’s short enough that you can’t ever really settle in- throw in some rolling hills plus a monster 1.1 mile climb, and you have the Bloomsday Run!

I felt pretty confident leading up to this race. I had a strong half marathon in Corvallis without a taper in my training. Bloomsday was my spring goal race, so I rested a lot more and had much fresher legs going into it. The drive from Portland to Spokane was a pretty epic journey in itself, as I cruised through the Columbia River Gorge then up into the drier, sweeping plains of eastern Washington.

I arrived Friday and had an adorable little house to myself for the weekend via Airbnb. Like a crazy person I brought my own food processor, muffin tins, and ingredients to whip up some pre-race blueberry maca muffins for the morning of the race. I got an awesome night of sleep Friday as it was my first night away in a while from Bo & Juno, who love to wake me up every morning at 5:30AM when they’re ready for breakfast.

Saturday morning I drove to the starting area of the race so I could get in a shakeout run while previewing the course. I got to experience the dramatic downhill of the first mile and the beginning of some the rolling hills later on. Along the road were permanent signs marking the race course, which made it clear how deeply rooted the Bloomsday Run is in Spokane.

As I made my way back toward the beginning of the course, I felt a sudden stab of pain in my back. It seemed like a fluke and I continued to run, but it continued to feel worse and worse. I stopped on the side of the road a few times to bend over and stretch it out, but nothing seemed to help. I ran back up the hill from the first mile of the course, and even just breathing harder seemed to aggravate my back more, so I stopped several times just to catch my breath and ease the pain. What was happening??

Through the afternoon the pain became almost unbearable. I drove back to my little house and tried to stretch, rest, but really I wasn’t sure what to do. I had to keep my spine perfectly straight; otherwise I couldn’t help but yelp out in pain. I had to leave the house eventually to get to the expo and pick up my bib number. The walk from my car into the Spokane Convention Center was excruciating. I arrived at the elite athlete table to pick up my bib. I had a starting number that had me placed right behind the elite men and ahead of the rest of the 40K+ field. The coordinator that helped me asked if I would like to switch my entry to start with the elite women, a women’s-only field that got a 15 minute head start. He said if I could reasonably expect to finish in under 48 minutes that it could be a good option. As a citizen runner, opportunities to run in a world class field don’t exactly come around too often so I accepted! Never mind that I didn’t even know if I would make it to the start line in my current state!

I hobbled around the expo, hoping by some miracle a local massage therapist or chiropractor would be onsite, but no luck. I stopped by a pharmacy on the way home, bought a tube of icy hot to use on my back and some ibuprofen and hoped for the best. By 9pm or so, I felt almost 100% back to normal.

The morning of the race I repeated exactly what I had done for my back the night before and hoped for the best. I jogged the two miles from my place to the start and (knock on wood) felt totally fine. I ran by the entrances to each start corral, which were organized by estimated finish times, until reaching the very first corral where the elite women would start. I ran into Lyndy Davis, Trisha Drobeck (who won the Corvallis Half), and Catherine Watkins of Haute Volée, Oiselle’s team of emerging elite athletes. It was great to see familiar faces at the start and to be in such good company. All around there were news reporters and film crews covering the race. I ran a few strides and did some stretches and in general tried to look I knew what I was doing. The women’s field had international class competition from Kenya, Ethiopia, Japan, and the US. The very top contenders were announced and each runner did a little jog and wave to the crowds. There were only about forty runners in the field. I positioned myself toward the back and thought about the kind of race I wanted to have. I saw myself as the underdog with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. I wanted to show that I belonged there and could mix it up with some of the best.

Well, I was served a big slice of humble pie just seconds into the race. The field took off like lightning and I followed. I quickly found myself in last place, or close to it. I told myself to just stay relaxed and comfortable down the huge hill in mile 1 that I had previewed the day before. A quick look down to my watch showed I was running at about 6:10 per mile, which was my overall goal pace. As I was on a downhill, that pace was really a bit too comfortable and just not aggressive at all, considering the hills to come. It wasn’t as if I was running a half or full marathon with tons of time to make up for lost seconds. I tried not to let it shake me and continued to work my way through some more rolling hills over the next few miles. I focused mostly on how I felt, without looking down at my watch at all. And I felt good! I began to catch up with some women that seemed to be settling into their race pace. I noticed everyone was following the curves of the road, but I did my own thing and ran the tangents. The entire road was closed after all, and every second counted. I was able to pick off some runners here and there. It was really fun to race against only women and know exactly where I stacked up.

The most fabled part of the course was quickly approaching just beyond mile four- Doomsday Hill and beyond, the 1.1 mile stretch covering 157 feet in elevation gain, equivalent to climbing nearly sixteen flights of stairs. I knew Doomsday was coming and I was ready for it. Going up the hill I tried to stay light on my feet and drove up as efficiently as possible. There were lots of spectators at this part of the course cheering on the runners and that’s definitely when I needed the encouragement the most. As the hill began to level out toward the top, some women that had just been specks in the distance before were suddenly within reach. My quads were screaming, but as the top of a hill always presents the perfect opportunity for passing, I seized the moment and passed two women “with authority,” one of the best lessons I took away from way back in high school cross country.

From that point to the end of the race, I was in a bit of a no-woman’s land. The next runners ahead of me must have been a quarter mile up and I couldn’t bridge the gap. I ran as hard as I could, afraid that the women I had passed after Doomsday would catch me again, but I felt as if I were running through quicksand. It was about a mile long straight shot to the final turn toward the finish, and it felt like an eternity. I kept watching desperately for the women ahead of me to make the final turn, but they just went on and on and I followed in their footsteps. I glanced down at my watch for the first time in ages and read that I was at about 6:26 pace, a pace that would normally feel like no big deal.


At last I made the turn around the final corner followed by a plunging downhill to the finish line, and could see the watch ticking up. I was well off of my “A” goal of 46 minutes, but I tried to salvage every second I could and crossed the line in 47:32. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I was very glad to have finished in under 48:00, the cut off time for qualifying to run in the elite field. I belonged, even if just barely! I was greeted with hugs and high fives by the Haute Volée runners, who all ran incredibly well with times ranging from 43:00-45:00. Catherine placed 2nd master behind Blake Russell! I ran into a past teammate Marla from Portland Running Co, who ran a PR and was one the women off in the distance that I had been chasing in that long final stretch. Marla ran an incredibly gutsy race and I only wished I had tried to stick with her in the beginning.

We all made our way through the finish shoot and toward the area where volunteers were handing out the famous Bloomsday finisher shirts, which you can only receive after finishing the race- that’s a tradition I’m into! They hold a t-shirt design contest every year so the graphic changes every time. Marla said she had participated in Bloomsday every year since I think 1995 and had enough t-shirts to make a quilt.

As far as my back, that was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. It felt fine on race day and it hasn’t bothered me since. I’m summing it up to a random fluke! Maybe it cramped up because I had been sitting in a car for five hours the day before. I do know that from now on I’m taking icy hot and ibuprofen with me everywhere I travel!

I loved the Bloomsday Run. It was every ounce as challenging as it was made out to be, which just makes it all the more alluring. I can’t wait to go back next year (and hopefully many years after) and try, try again!

4 responses to “The Lilac Bloomsday Run: An Epic Journey of Ordinary Heroes”

  1. Leslie @ TriathleteTreats Avatar

    Awesome job!!! Now you know what you are up against next year!!! :)

    1. Liz Avatar

      Thanks Leslie!

  2. Jonathan Avatar

    Amazing!! It takes a lot to work through physical pain and possible injury. That time is also incredible (elite!) for going through such and ordeal!!

    Hopefully it doesn’t come back and it’s all resolved and you’ll be hobble free! I can’t wait to get injury free. It’s as if I keep drawing the short straw recently. 😂
    I hope I can catch you guys touring again soon in SF as I just missed RAC playing on a boat! Keep up the fantastic runs!!

    Great St. Lucia article as well, looked like such a fantastic night!

    1. Liz Avatar

      Thanks so much! So sorry you’ve had to deal with being injured, take care of yourself! Thanks about the St. Lucia article, love those guys. Hope we’ll be back in SF on tour soon. I’ll be there in December for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K!


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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