Run like a turkey. It might not be everyone’s goal but come that last Thursday in November, you’ll find people taking to the streets in all manner of races, all loosely grouped under the heading of Turkey Trots.
Here’s something you might not know. Over the years, those races have become THE most popular in America, even overtaking those held on July 4th (where runners can follow or lead a parade) and New Year’s Day (where they can make good on their exercise resolutions).
Seriously, the very biggest. And it has continued, even in 2020, when many participated in virtual runs or maybe logged their miles on treadmills or by making loops on local tracks or trails.
This year, with sports tourism back and bigger than ever, the turkey trot has soared. Well, turkeys don’t soar, exactly, but participation numbers do. (Even in the face of participation in other running events dropping, turkey trots are clapping back, or perhaps gobbling back).
Runner’s World, in 2021, did an in-depth analysis of turkey trots (seriously, this puts academic research to shame) and noted that the roots of these events stretched all the way back to Thanksgiving Day 1896 in Buffalo, New York, when the local YMCA hosted an 8K cross-country race, drawing just six participants, only four of whom crossed the finish line. Undaunted, the Y offered the event a second year, and a third, a fourth – and so on.
And, yes, RW notes, that makes it the oldest continuous footrace in North America. Older, even than San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers, which began in 1912, and even the venerable Boston Marathon, which didn't kick off until 1897.
Put that in your turkey and stuff it.
These days, turkey trots are offered in every single state, and pretty much in every major city across the U.S. Most are offered on Thanksgiving morning while others, such as the 15th annual Coastal Half Marathon, 5K & 1-Mile Fun Run presented by This Is Alabama, take place at various times over the long weekend. Those also get a big boost via their placement on the calendar.
"This is anticipated to be one of the biggest ever in our 15 years of hosting this signature race," said Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events. "We are more than 75 registrations ahead of this time last year, so we are looking forward to a well-attended Thanksgiving weekend race. Additionally, we are bringing back many pre-COVID activities, including inflatables, live music and face painting for participants and families to get fit and have fun together."
But Thanksgiving is the sweet spot, as it were. Running In The USA’s 2022 calendar, which catalogues running events nationwide, lists (get this) four running events the Thursday before Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, the number of runs jumps into four digits.
(In case you’re wondering, that bump doesn’t last; by December, the numbers have subsided, and the closer to Christmas they are, the lower they are).
Over the years, turkey trots have morphed into family-friendly races, featuring people wearing turkey headpieces or tutus (or in some cases, whole-body turkey suits) and leading dogs dressed as turkeys.
And since Thanksgiving is the day Americans typically stuff themselves with 3,000 calories and 229 fat grams worth of turkey, sides and pie (Editor’s note: Totally worth it), 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.
But if Thanksgiving races are a good bet, it’s because an estimated 53.4 million people will be traveling for the holiday, according to Statista, 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.)
Another aspect of turkey trots is charitable giving. Many races encourage runners to bring canned foods to be donated by the race staff to a local food bank. Others benefit such organizations by allocating a portion of each registration fee – and allowing registrants to contribute more if they want to do so.
And just to prove that even though many stores are closed for Thanksgiving, commercialism is alive and well: Fleet Feet and Brooks Running Shoes in 2019 partnered on the launch of a limited edition Turkey Trot-themed running shoe. We can’t find anything like that for 2022 but rest assured, there’s plenty of turkey day-themed running apparel out there.
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.
However, there are plenty of those whose competitive edge will get the best of them. And last year, writer Jacob Sweet brought all that to the fore in an article for The New Yorker, entitled, “My Plan to Dominate My Local Turkey Trot.” The whole thing is hilariously engaging but here is the brilliant finish:
“Pictures of people crossing the finish line together holding hands are great… but there’s not much of that happening in the élite field. This year, I will not be going out with my friends the night before the race and sleeping just four hours on a bedroom floor. I will get to sleep early; I will warm up adequately; I will take off my sweatshirt before the race, even though I will be cold. I will check out the course in trainers, then switch to racing flats bought specifically for the race. On the line, I will scope out my competition, ready for the battle of a lifetime. I will not let a bunch of children trick me into a sprinting start. I will try my best—a best that has never been good enough to win anything—and I will put two years of training to full use. And, if anyone good shows up, I’ll lose. Long live the turkey trot.”