In 1927 a few members of the Manchester High School Cross Country team lined up on Thanksgiving morning and ran a five-mile loop before the football games started that afternoon.
It wasn’t about costumes or burning calories. There were less than a dozen runners, and none of them were women. The boys didn’t know they were making history, but that year was the start of what would become one of the most famous road races in the United States.
Today more than 10,000 runners line up to travel the 4.748 miles, including walkers, Olympians, and several runners in their 90s.
“A woman who was 92 won her age group two years ago,” said Dani Kennedy, the social media coordinator for the Manchester Road Race and Bolton High School track coach. “At our lunch afterward, she said to me under her breath that she had to walk part of it. I mean it’s amazing what these people do.”
Despite the unpredictable weather, the streets are always crowded and every runner and walker is allowed to finish, however long it takes. Last year, the course record was broken by Edward Cheserek with a time of 21:16.
“Most people aren’t bringing in the Olympians or encouraging the costumes like we are, most are just trying to put on a small local race so that they don’t have to travel,” Kennedy said. “This is a tremendous tradition for families and runners.”
In the last thirty years, more than 20 local Turkey Trots have started across the state including the Turkey Trot & Dip in Mystic and Run Turkey Run in Hamden. Across the nation more than 1,000 races are held and about a million runners participate.
Racing wasn’t always this popular, however. Until the 1970s only a few hundred runners participated each year ran at Manchester, and few other races were held. Most participants were relatively well-trained athletes and almost none were women.
Today women make up half – if not more – of the runners heading to starting lines across the country. But, it has been less than 60 years since the first woman – Julia Chase from Groton — crossed the finish line in Manchester on Thanksgiving Day.
“The Amateur Athletic Union did not allow women to run races over half a mile or in a race with men. They thought our uterus was going to fall out if we ran too far or something,” said Kennedy, who has run the race 27 times. “The race directors would lose their AAU certification if they let women in.”
But that didn’t stop Chase – at least not the second time. In 1960 she was turned away, but in 1961 she came back and ran the race despite not being allowed to register.
“She let the media know she was going to do it and she was on the front cover of Life the following week,” Kennedy said. “She ran along against all men and paved the way for us. As female runners, we need to think about that.”
Even after Chase finished the race and they began to let women compete, women were not given prizes until the early 1980s.
“It just went to the first finishers and the first age groupers, and those weren’t women,” Kennedy said. “Manchester was one of the first races to give prizes to women.”
For female runners today, this adds a whole new dimension to Thanksgiving.
“I have a lot of gratitude for the women who made me not necessarily think about being a woman runner,” said Sharon Rosenblatt, a Ridgefield resident and soon-to-be member of the Run 169 Towns Society, a club of men and women dedicated running a race in every town in Connecticut. “I’m so grateful to the women who made it so I don’t have to fight to run a race.
Although racing and running has become a huge part of Rosenblatt’s life, Thanksgiving was where it all began and Turkey Trots will always hold a special place in her heart, she said.
“My first race was the Manchester Road Race in 2008, it got me really hooked on running. It was insane. It was like a party,” Rosenblatt said. “Unlike other races, on Thanksgiving a lot of runners are just focused on family and friends. It encapsulates all the goodness in runners’ lives, the gratitude for race directors, other runners, friends and our bodies that can do this sport.”
Running and the holiday meal
For many runners – and those who only run on Thanksgiving – the turkey trot gives them “permission” to eat heaping portions at the holiday dinner.
“I do them for many reasons,” said Carl O’Donnell, a runner and resident of Stratford. “One, pre-burn calories for Thanksgiving dinner, two, I like to run with friends, three, a sense of community, four, give thanks for being physically and mentally able to still run and enjoy it. And last, the endorphins you get from running puts one in a great mood for the holiday with family and friends.”
Many other runners in response to the question “why do they run a Turkey Trot,” respond simply with “Pie!”
For those in recovery from or struggling with an eating disorder, disordered eating or anxiety around body image this response and attitude toward running and eating can be extraordinarily challenging, said psychologist Elizabeth Rathbun, who specializes in eating disorders.
“I was just talking to a client last week because she’s going home this week and feels more pressure start to set in now because it’s a given, you have to do the local turkey trot. It reinforces a certain compulsiveness to exercise and burn calories so you can reward yourself with a big meal,” Rathbun said. “It’s really important in recovery to learn to eat without needing to earn it by working out or reducing calories elsewhere.”