An Olympian and a Coach
The Bob Isitt Story
By David Taylor
“This is where Bloomsday began and I ran from here as fast as possible”
– Don Kardong, Olympian
Every story has a starting point, a moment when everything changes and the wheels of some momentous story, or vehicle of history grabs a hold of willing passengers and takes them on a journey of meaning and purpose. Bob Isitt and Don Kardong have been on a journey, parallel to each other, and it came together in a little yellow house (since painted gray) on the corner of Chestnut and College Streets in Spokane, Washington.
Every race begins at the start
Standing in the frigid cold, Shadle Park teacher and Cross Country coach, Bob Isitt mentions, “It is 15 degrees out today!”, but it seemed much colder as the wind slashed against our faces like a distant memory requesting acknowledgement. This story starts at the corner of Chestnut and College is a little gray house, long removed from days of struggle and wishful dreams that had grabbed ahold of life-long friends Bob Isitt and Don Kardong.
“This is where it all began” Isitt chuckles as Kardong responds, “this is where Bloomsday began and I ran from here as fast as possible”. Kardong would go on to qualify for the Olympics in 1976, placing 4th in the Olympic Marathon and shortly thereafter start a community celebration that has since grown to an annual communion of 50,000 runners called Bloomsday. Bob Isitt would go on to become a teacher and coach for Shadle Park High School, assist in training multiple state championship teams in volleyball and finally claiming his own in cross country, just this year, with a team considered to be the best head-to-head squad ever assembled in the state of Washington. It all began in this little humble aged house and has since led to lives spent inspiring youth and a community towards the love and passion of running.
Camp Reed Running Camp
Bob Isitt and Don Kardong first crossed paths while mentoring youth under the tutelage of legend Tracy Walters at the Camp Reed Running Camp. As a tradition, the veterans of the camp would pick out nicknames for the new kids on the block. As a result Don Kardong was nicknamed Dingy, most likely in relation to his funny and calm demeanor which made people laugh and feel welcomed at the same time. Bob was the only runner in the history of the camp to get the name he wanted. He had approached the counselors and stated “call me Rugged Robert”, as a ploy to influence them to choose anything other then that awful name! As they frowned and murmured he countered, “What about Rapid?” to which they agreed.
It was on the first run, out on the country roads that Kardong experienced Isitt in full form, as Dingy recalls “I actually had to yell at him to slow down he was going so fast!”, this coming from an All-American athlete who ran for Stanford. But that was Bob Isitt lost in his passion, a love for trail running established at Whitworth University through tremendous effort and influence of Canadians on the team. “They loved trails and I followed them and in turn found a new way to enjoy running”. They would spend three years together at camp and as Bob states, “became the closest of friends” and Don continues “we would then see each other all the time”. Encounters which increased as Don took a teaching position in Washington as a 6th grade teacher following graduation from Stanford.
Hubba Hubba and Count Chocula
In the summer of 1975 Bob’s roommate took a job back east and he offered the room to Kardong, who seemed a perfect fit. However, Kardong was already renting a place from Tracy Walters. So the plan was for Kardong to head to China on a trip and let Walters know of the pending move when he returned. After all, Kardong states “I expected to have at least a few months to move, you know, but once I’m gone Rapid tells Tracy I’m moving out and Tracy gets confused” he continues, “I get back and Tracy is renting to someone else and I have no time to pack!”. To make matters worse, Bob’s roommate decided to stay through the summer causing Kardong to seek shelter in Walters home at Green Bluff.
Late in the summer Kardong came over to the apartment to talk about the big move in. The apartment had a large set of windows that overlooked a pool and on this given day it happened to be hot with a large group of people trying to beat the heat with the pool. As Kardong tries to tell the story Bob chimes in, “Dingy goes up to the window, covers the whole thing standing with his hands on his hips and looking real macho. So I yell, “Hubba Hubba” and he drops flat to the floor and low crawls all the way out of the house!” As they laugh it is clear that this is a friendship founded in humor. So, later in the fall of 1975 Kardong would move in with Isitt and be roommates for three years.
Kardong continues, “Rapid was the best roommate ever, always had something funny to say and kept me from being too intense. I mean I was basically teaching school and running. Rapid had a bazaar sense of humor, like the cereal deal…count chocula!” They both laugh and he continues, “there was this (Count Chocula) poster that was put in the medicine cabinet to freak the other out and instead of saying anything about it Rapid moves it into my bed so that when I pulled the blankets back there it was, so for weeks, Count Chocula was moving around our house without either of us mentioning it!”
Bloomsday year one
Amidst the humor of two friends sharing memories I ask about Bloomsday, which was founded and began during their time living at the corner of Chestnut and College Street. Kardong states, “It was the summer of the 76’ Olympics and I had gone down to Peachtree which had a couple thousand runners and when I was back in Spokane I made a comment to a newspaper reporter who got excited because of the renovated downtown and new Riverside Park. From there it kind of came about by accident. I was at city hall for some reason and happened to enter an elevator that the Mayor was in and he told me he had heard about a race coming to Spokane and how he had grown up in Boston and wanted to do that same thing in Spokane.” At this point Bob interjects, “so I come home and when I walk through the door Don is sitting at the table, a little yellow beat up table (“that was got at the dump” Kardong states) and I ask Dingy what he is doing and he says he is planning this new race downtown and is going to call it Bloomsday. So I tell him he won’t get more than 100 runners and Dingy tells me he is going to get a thousand!” Kardong states, “we got 1200 that first year!” and Bob continues “ this is not the first time I have been wrong, we were in each others weddings, but my other buddy, who was my best man came up to me one day and starts telling me this idea about a basketball tournament downtown called Hoopfest and I was skeptical about that too, go figure, I am just a realist trying to help my friends see the potential walls so that they can overcome them” and Kardong quickly follows “Whatever Rapid is skeptical about will always work out”.
So that is how Bloomsday came about and for the next few months Bob would try and get every student at the Junior High he was teaching at to attend the race. On race day he would jump in next to Frank Shorter. This is how it worked for Bob and Don, complimenting each other whenever they could to make it happen. When Nike was sending all the shoes that Kardong could wear and more he would give them to Bob who would disperse them to kids in need at the schools. That was who they were and still are. Kardong states, “Rapid was a great runner who didn’t train as much as he should have, one time he ran 5 to 6 weeks and still placed 59th at Bloomsday!” and Bob states, “Dingy would always care more for others, when a kid spoke to him he would turn it around to talk about the kids”.
They helped each other and the race grew by 5000 runners per year for the next 10 years!
Running into Bob Isitt
I first met Bob Isitt at the Tracy Walters Invitational when his girls put together a remarkable team performance, perhaps the best in meet history. A week later I attended the Highlander Invitational and Isitt had the girls in his classroom and was giving a pep talk on staying relaxed and having fun. The girls were hanging out with each other, smiling and laughing and Isitt was full of enthusiasm and energy. I can’t say that I have ever encountered someone with as much passion and his classroom was the shrine to that commitment. For over three decades Bob Isitt has coached cross country and nearly every team photo and outstanding runner adorns the walls of his room. When I asked to take a picture he quickly gathered the girls in front of the Washington State flag.
As I made my way around the room I passed a photo of Isitt running head-to-head with Jim Ryun, and of Isitt running in high school, remarkably, in front of the windows of the classroom which he now occupies. I passed a photo of the start of the first Bloomsday with Isitt, Kardong and Frank Shorter leading the charge. I passed a photo of the famed sub-9 minute two mile by Michael Kiter, who achieved the task in a pair of socks! I passed photo after photo of memories that encompassed a commitment stretching three decades with multiple state champions and coach-of-the-year awards, but something was missing – that pinnacle championship of unity achieved by a team.
A season of memories
For three months, the state of Washington witnessed perfection in the sport of girls Cross Country. The girls of Shadle Park, led by Bob Isitt, were one of only two teams in the entire Northwest to complete the season undefeated. They ran the best team performance in the history of the Highlander Invitational, toppling team average records previously held by the fabled 1991 Ferris Girls and 1997 East Valley girls, both squads ranked top 11 nationally. They went to the mammoth Mountain West Classic in Montana and ran the greatest head-to-head team performance in the history of the event toppling all the marks of the mythical early 2000's Flathead teams which were led by Footlocker National Champion Zoe Nelson – teams which were in the top 15 nationally for four years. They went to the Washington State Meet and ran the third fastest team time in state meet history, with a performance which ranks as the number one head-to-head girls team performance of all time for the state of Washington. They traveled to Boise, Idaho to take part in the Nike Cross National Northwest Regional and placed a remarkable 3rd in a meet featuring state champion teams from Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, narrowly missing a birth to Nationals. They ran the 8th fastest team time in the history of the Boise course despite competing with a #4 runner who had come down with Mono, so severe in fact that her glands were swollen three times their normal size following the race. This was a team of heart, commitment and passion, a team that embodied the principles of Bob Isitt – a manifestation of 30 years of coaching and mentorship.
Finding a Philosophy
Bob Isitt grew up two blocks from Gerry Lindgren and ran at Rogers High School under Gerry’s coach Tracy Walters. He grew up watching the little Gerry Lindgren and the tall Leon Long run all over Spokane achieving local and national fame. He would go on to place in the top 20 at state both as a Junior and Senior placing remarkably close to Western Washington runner Pat Tyson both years, topping Tyson in 66’ and reversing the role in 67’. He would go on to run at Whitworth University without a clear philosophy on what he was even running for. It was there that he was teamed up with a group of Canadians who diligently sought to get Isitt on the trails as much as possible. It was on the trails of North Spokane chasing the Canadians that Bob Isitt discovered the love of running, breathing, and living. He discovered a “feeling of freedom, independence and self reliance” that he would seek to dedicate his life to. He has told me many times, “I want to give my runners something they will do for 30 or 40 years, I don’t care about what they can do now, but what they will do when they leave”.
“I take the kids out to the trails and we run, and they learn how to run, to feel the air, hear their lungs, their heart, their body move in a very spiritual way”. This is Bob Isitt’s philosophy and has become the mantra of nearly all runners who make their way to the rift valley of American distance running in Spokane, Washington.
Finding a team, discovering Spokane
Coaching is about more then sending kids off on a run... and being a team is something greater than just wearing the same uniform. It is about a commitment to something greater then yourself, making a lasting impact. Both Bob Isitt and Don Kardong have been on a mission to share something special with others and it began at the corner of Chestnut and College Street. It began with two young men dedicating themselves to one community.
Two decades ago Don Kardong and the Bloomsday Foundation began funding the travel of kids to the Footlocker West Championships. According to Don Kardong, “At first it was because of State qualifying limitations which kept 8 of the top 10 teams from going to the state meet, simply because they were from the same league”. Recently the girls of Shadle Park asked to run together one last time due to narrowly missing an opportunity to attend the prestigious Nike Cross National event in Portland, Oregon. If one last opportunity existed, they asked to compete as a team even if separated by races or states. They did this and throughout the entire process of multiple races and events in differing states remained in unbroken contact with each other and their coach. That is commitment. It is said that the measure of a champion is in the ability to stand ready when your moment of opportunity comes and those moments are not when you stand at the peak, but after you have fallen. When the final race was finished and the last tear had been shed, the girls of Shadle Park had fulfilled that commitment to each other and their coach to see it through to the very end, to endure to the very end. They did their best and are the finest of Bob Isitt manifested in one team. This is their story and his legacy, something that will endure beyond 30 or 40 years: friendship.
This is the roll call of Bob Isitt’s 30 year commitment, with humble beginnings and the enduring humility of the heart of a team who wouldn’t quit:
Kendra Weitz would place 1st in the Footlocker Freshman race, running 19:04 on the difficult course winning by 40 seconds, posting the 25th fastest time of the day (out of 681) for any race, topping all runners in the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Races.
Katie Morris would place 45th in the Footlocker seeded race running 19:33, posting the 46th fastest time of the day (out of 681) for any race, topping all runners in the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Races, outside teammate Kendra Weitz.
Shayle Dezzelem and Megan Inman would place 7th (20:21) and 10th (20:31) in the Senior Race, bested by only 30 runners across the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Races combined, and in the top 110 total times of the day (out of 681).
Andrea Nelson would place 27th (out of 199) at Nike Cross Nationals in 18:21.