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How turkey trots became a Thanksgiving tradition

Thanksgiving is now the most popular race day in America.

A turkey trot in Laguna Beach, California.
LA Times/Getty Images

One late November day in 1899, John Coleman decided he’d had enough of the race he was running in Buffalo, New York. According to local lore, he hopped into a wagon and finished that way instead. Officials found out he cheated and subsequently disqualified Buffalo’s team, giving a victory to their rivals from nearby Rochester.

“We are still living with the guilt, both for this and for losing four Super Bowls,” jokes Geoffrey Faulkner, the communications director at the Buffalo Niagara YMCA.

Faulkner’s YMCA has the distinction of hosting the oldest continuously running turkey trot in the country, which happens on Thanksgiving morning every year. Faulkner notes proudly that Buffalo’s 8K race is older than the Boston Marathon. The first was in 1896, just three years prior to Coleman bringing ignominy upon the chilly town. Only six people ran it. This year, the Buffalo Turkey Trot celebrates its 123rd anniversary, and 14,000 people will run the sold-out race. (To put this in perspective, about 50,000 ran the NYC Marathon this year.) The trot even has a “quarter-century club,” which includes about 300 people who have been running the race for more than 25 years.

Buffalo is far from alone. Turkey trots have become a national tradition on Thanksgiving morning itself, or on the weekends before or after, in communities all over America. It’s the most popular type of road race in the country and draws the participation of whole families. While some races are competitive and offer prize money, most are refreshingly inclusive, require zero training, and are meant to be for fun only. People often dress up in silly costumes. Pie is a common prize.

The starting line at the Buffalo Niagara YMCA Turkey Trot.
Buffalo Niagara YMCA

The boom in turkey trots is due to a recent surge in interest in running and fitness in general, but of course, we can’t forget that Thanksgiving is all about gluttony. A lot of people hope that loping along with a turkey hat on their heads for a few miles will mitigate some of the calories they’ll be consuming a few hours later. And really, what’s more American than eating a huge meal and feeling guilty about it? But the races are now about something closer to what the holiday should represent: family and community.

Why turkey trots are so popular

When a national brand tries to capitalize on something, it’s a probably a good sign that it’s pretty trendy. This year, Michelob Ultra, the 95-calorie beer that has been trying to align itself with fitness culture, announced a promotion: If you post a picture of yourself running a turkey trot on social media and tag it #WillRunForBeer, the brand will send you a coupon for free beer.

Think that’s random? Then here’s some interesting news out of Wisconsin: According to an article in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel this month, the most Googled term in that state last November was “turkey trots.” While Wisconsin is not necessarily a surrogate for the whole country, turkey trots are very much front of mind.

“In 2017, there were more than 1 million finishers at over 1,000 [turkey trot] events. That trend is expected to continue this Thanksgiving,” says Rich Harshbarger, the CEO at Running USA, a nonprofit running industry group. That’s up from about 680,000 in 2011. A few years ago, Thanksgiving surpassed the Fourth of July as the most popular day to run a race. In Buffalo, the number of participants has doubled in the past 20 years, up from about 6,000 in the mid-1990s.

Jeff Dengate, the “runner-in-chief” at Runner’s World magazine, says the popularity of turkey trots over the past few years correlates with an increased interest in races in general and a surge in new runners taking up the sport over the past decade. In the past year, though, interest in some formal road races, especially trendier ones like mud runs, has waned. One of the reasons may be that some races became too expensive, as per an article in the New York Times last year.

But as Dengate notes of turkey trots, “A lot of them are very cheap.” Entry fees are commonly in the $30 to $40 range, and this usually includes a commemorative T-shirt and all the selfies with people wearing pilgrim hats that you could hope for. The New York City Half Marathon for 2019 costs $145, for comparison.

Then there’s the motivation of knowing you’re going to eat a week’s worth of carbs in one hour. Depending on how much alcohol you drink, a typical Thanksgiving dinner can pack in 3,000 to 4,500 calories. Normal daily caloric intake needs, depending on your age, weight, activity level, and a slew of other factors, are usually 1,800 to 2,400 for the whole day.

But most turkey trots are in the 3- to 5-mile distance category — not nearly enough to burn off your dinner.

“We’re totally lying to ourselves. If you run a 5K [3.1 miles], you’re probably going to burn 300 to 500 calories,” says Dengate. “The math doesn’t work there. You’re definitely not burning off what you’re going to eat, but it makes us feel good for a day.”

Feeling good should probably be your prime motivator, not eating an extra helping of pecan pie. After all, there’s the “runner’s high” phenomenon, that feeling of well-being some people get after exercising. You’ll need all that goodwill to buoy you for the angry political argument you’ll inevitably have with your problematic uncle at dinner.

The history of turkey trots

While pretty much everyone agrees that Buffalo’s was the first turkey trot, it’s trickier to pinpoint exactly when the races started to be called that. There’s some indication that actual turkeys did a “turkey trot,” according to a Washington Post article about how turkeys used to get around before reliable refrigeration and trains existed. Farmers used to have “turkey drives,” herding live groups of them 30 miles or more to markets to slaughter and sell.

In Texas in the early 1910s, an entrepreneurial rancher decided to turn the spectacle of hundreds of turkeys walking down the street into an actual parade. He called it a turkey trot, which was also the name of a popular dance at the time. According to Atlas Obscura, some of these turkeys even wore leather booties, a sort of ornithological precursor to Nikes.

So it’s all very meta: A dance named after turkeys became an actual event featuring turkeys running down the street. And now we’re the turkeys.

The Buffalo YMCA Turkey Trot runners in 1911.
Buffalo Niagara YMCA

Trots — the run, not the dance or the turkey transportation method — started to become popular on the East Coast in the early 1900s, then spread through the country, according to Runner’s World. New Orleans started one in 1907. The Manchester Road Race in Connecticut, which is one of the most competitive trots and attracts world-class athletes because of a decent prize money purse, was founded 1927. The winning male and female runners will win $7,000 each, up from $4,000 last year.

Women didn’t run in Buffalo’s turkey trot until 1972, five years after the first woman ran the Boston Marathon and roughly correlating with when women started being allowed to partake in formal road races. Mary Ann Bolles was the first woman to run the trot in Buffalo, and she placed 142 out of 169 finishers. Faulkner says that in 2017, Bolles’s granddaughter brought her family to Buffalo and they all ran the race together.

Turkey trots are more about community than competition

That family and community spirit is really what drives most people to participate in turkey trots now. It provides a low-stress, fun, relatively low-cost way for families to do something together at the holidays besides the Hunger Games–esque capitalist bacchanalia that is Black Friday. It’s truly about hanging out with people and not about anything remotely commercial (unless, of course, you choose to try to get free beer from Michelob).

Winning and competition is not the aim of most participants, and many races don’t give out award money at all. A popular turkey trot in the north suburbs of Chicago advertises that all participants will receive a cozy blanket and a pie, for example.

Running in costumes has become a tradition at many turkey trots, which contributes to the fun vibe. Buffalo hosts a costume contest judged by local celebrities prior to the start of the race. Recent entrants included someone wearing a canoe on his head and a “recliner rolling down the street,” says Faulkner. Group costumes, like human caterpillars or Santa leading his team of reindeer, are also popular.

Dengate of Runner’s World runs his local turkey trot in Lake Placid, New York, every year. At that race, the tradition is to outrun the official mascot, who is dressed as a turkey. The organizers of the race refer to it as “stuffing the turkey.”

“If you beat the turkey, you get a fresh-baked loaf of bread. The turkey can move too — he’s hard to beat. It’s a lot of fun, on top of getting out there and running hard,” Dengate says.

But the inclusive nature is a hallmark of turkey trots. “The majority of these events are family focused,” says Running USA’s Harshbarger. He notes that some turkey trots host shorter races for kids that are equally alliterative, such as a “Drumstick Dash” or a “Mashed Potato Mile.”

“In my experience, there’s always an air of community, charity, and lightness at turkey trots that you don’t really get at any other run or race,” says my sister Sue Pilipauskas, a runner and triathlete who’s run several marathons and one Ironman race. She admits to having worn a turkey hat.

Many turkey trots feature a charity component, such as requiring participants to bring canned goods to donate to needy families in the community. In Buffalo, the turkey trot is the YMCA’s biggest fundraiser of the year. It brings in about $300,000 that goes to after-school programs and summer camp initiatives. Many participants donate beyond the admission fee and bring food to donate at the starting line. More than 400 people volunteer their time, and sponsors donate things like shirts, beverages, and security along the race route.

One high-profile turkey trot may be canceled this year because of the California wildfires. The Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot normally attracts a competitive field of runners and has donated almost $8 million to charities over the years. A note on the site reads, “We are all concerned about the tragic circumstances surrounding the Camp Fire and the corresponding effects on air quality throughout the region.” It notes that it is still hopeful the race can be run.

Other races in nearby towns in Northern California have written similar sentiments on their websites, expressing hope that a change in wind direction and a forecast for some rain would clear out some of the dangerous pollution. The area now has the worst air quality in the world. Some communities that had trots scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving had to cancel.

So even if you don’t move farther than the distance from your couch to the kitchen this Thanksgiving, it’s possible to get into the spirit of turkey trots by donating to a community that needs it.

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