While malls and merchants are gearing up for Black Friday – which is, after all, only a little more than two weeks away – sports event organizers are getting ready for their big day, Thanksgiving. Not necessarily because of football (although it is regarded as a key component of the big day), but because of running. Specifically, the 5K and even more definitively, the turkey trot.
According to Running USA, Thanksgiving Day maintains its top spot as the sport’s most popular day of the year to race, as a record 961,882 runners crossed a finish line in 2016 – the most recent time the organization captured such data.
And since Thanksgiving is the day Americans typically stuff themselves with 3,000 calories and 229 fat grams worth of turkey, sides and pie, it’s not surprising they feel the need to exonerate themselves in advance by logging a few miles that morning before heading home to watch the parades on TV.
There’s no doubt the turkey trot has increased in popularity. Since tracking began in 2011, turkey trot finisher totals have significantly grown year-over-year. From 2015 to 2016, the number of Thanksgiving Day finishers grew 6 percent, once again eclipsing the 900,000-finisher barrier and coming so close to surpassing the magical one million finisher mark.
“While the sport of running is flattening out in some areas, Thanksgiving is a perfect example of the sport’s ability to bring family and friends together to celebrate through fitness and fun,” said Rich Harshbarger, Running USA CEO. “In many respects, well organized turkey trots are the ideal blueprint for our sport to move forward with locally-run races.”
According to Running in the USA, November typically sees dropping race participation as the month goes on; however, on Thanksgiving Day, there are more 5Ks than at any other time. As the number of finishers grows, so too does the number of events hosted.
Running USA notes that year-over-year growth of Thanksgiving Day races grew 14 percent, with 726 organized races taking place in 2016. (2019 is on track to break that record, with more than 800 races listed by Running in the USA at press time.)
Running USA adds, “In addition, the general geographic reach of the day continues to show Thanksgiving as a national day of running. Of the top ten largest races, nine states are represented, while nine races hosted more than 7,000 finishers in 2016. The Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot, in San Jose, California, once again ranked as the day’s largest race with 12,996 finishers.”
In 2018, there were more than 1,000 races planned for the big day – as opposed to a typical Thursday, when fewer than a dozen were scheduled. (The weekend after Thanksgiving also shows a lull in 5K participation). But if Thanksgiving races are a good bet, it’s because an estimated 46.9 million people will be traveling for the holiday, according to CNN, and many of those will be looking for a way to stay healthy in the towns they’re visiting (so onsite registration for Turkey Trots is always appreciated.)
After all, there are always these numbers:
46 Million: The estimated number of turkeys eaten in the U.S. in 2012 (CNN)
4,500: The number of calories the average person expects to consume on Thanksgiving, and
45: Percentage of those calories that come straight from fat (thank you, ABC News, for both of those incredibly depressing statistics)
And just to prove that even though many stores are closed for Thanksgiving, commercialism will be alive and well: Fleet Feet and Brooks Running Shoes recently partnered on the launch of a limited edition Turkey Trot-themed running shoe. The special edition Ghost 12, dubbed “The Gobbler” by Fleet Feet, launches in-store exclusively at Fleet Feet on Nov. 1, and is one of only a handful of running shoes made to celebrate the popular race day. (It retails for $130, by the way.) A Runner’s World review describes it as having “a bright orange upper meant to represent a turkey feather, with navy accents in the midsole and laces.”
While there are no specific nationwide statistics on the economic impact of Thanksgiving Day sports (just figures on shopping provided by the National Retail Federation), many organizations have been able to parlay the day not just into great revenues from registration fees, but into donations to local food banks and other charities. And in fact, the growing trend of retail establishments that will be closed on Thanksgiving (and in some cases, even Black Friday) clears the way for sports events without fear they will interfere with shopping plans.
While there are plenty of other Thanksgiving tie-ins with sports (tennis, basketball, volleyball, golf, mini-golf, racquetball, soccer, hiking, flag and touch football, softball and more are among the offerings), it’s the 5K that has garnered the most attention and the greatest market share, particularly among the general public.
Of course, for couch spuds, Thanksgiving has long been the day to sit at home and watch others take part in sports. The site, US Sports History, notes that while the NFL currently dominates football on Thanksgiving, when the tradition of playing on the holiday began, it was the college elevens, not pro, that controlled the day. The institutions and myths of both the Thanksgiving holiday and football helped usher in a partnership between the two, that has become as much an American tradition as, well, turkey. And that’s why we have this final statistic, courtesy of the Washington Examiner:
27.2 million: The number of viewers on average who watch each Thanksgiving Day NFL game.