Sitting around in the midst of a tryptophan- and football-induced coma on Thanksgiving evening, I tweeted, “I think if you drew a line on the road anywhere on Thanksgving, 50 people would line up.” While I was being facetious, there was more than a small grain of truth in that statement. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal chronicled the rise in participation in Thanksgiving Day races, almost universally known as turkey trots, noting that 777,140 runners had finished one of them last year, an increase of 50 percent in two years. That dwarfs the 19 percent rise in entrants in other races, a figure that itself would leave most businesses drooling with envy.
That incredible growth explains why Thanksgiving Day races exhibit what I’ve come to call the “Dunkin’ Donuts business model.” Those orange-and-pink festooned coffee and cruller emporiums seem to spring up everywhere, with a new one popping up in a mall or on a street corner every week. And yet, there’s no dilution in the flow of customers; new franchises don’t seem to siphon away any business from existing locations. It’s as if a new stream of customers seem to spring up wherever an outlet is opened.
That’s pretty much how it is with turkey trots, too. Just in my own neck of the woods, no less than nine Thanksgiving races have come into existence in the last 13 years, and almost every one of them approaches four-figure registration totals with a few editions. “Build it and they will run,” is certainly the mantra and motto of local turkey trots. But what’s more amazing is that this success doesn’t come at the expense of existing events. They continue to thrive and grow, even long established races like the Pequot 5-miler in Southport, which celebrated its 36th running with record fields, or the granddaddy of turkey trots, the Manchester Road Race, which reached its limit of 15,000 to cover the oddball 4.78-mile distance in its 77th year.
But there’s another salient feature of Thanksgiving races that is less salubrious and gets missed among all the glowing growth figures. The fact remains that the vast majority of turkey trotters are once-a-year racers, joining in whatever local race their fancy or location determines, then hanging up their racing shoes (and in some cases, their running shoes altogether) for the next 364 days. Motivated by the impending guilt of sybaritic excess coupled with the chance to take to the roads with family and friends, Thanksgiving races draw a unique crowd, one that is incredibly large yet devoid of loyalty or devotion to more than the running moment at hand.
This is a large, and largely untapped, well of runners who could become regular racers, providing a source of support to local events the year round, rather than one-and-done Holiday Harriers who appear once a year, like Punxatawney Phil, then disappear down their sedentary groundhog den until the fourth Thursday in November rolls around again. Getting them to come out to race on Thanksgiving is obviously not a problem; getting them to come back is another story.