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Road Races

The History Of The Turkey Trot

Thanksgiving is the most popular day of the year to run—thanks in large part to the turkey trot.

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The Most Popular Day For Running

If there’s one thing that motivates people to run, it’s free pie—or any dessert, really. That was my reason for running the 2017 Chase Columbus Turkey Trot with more than 8,000 other athletes. It wasn’t just the free Whole Foods pie that brought the crowds, though. The tradition of turkey trots in the U.S. is, to the running world, almost as fundamental as a 4-miler on the Fourth of July.

So why are turkey trots so popular in this country? Well, it all started on a cross-country course in Buffalo, New York, in 1896. The YMCA Buffalo Turkey Trot, now in its 123rd year, began as an 8-kilometer footrace with a whopping six competitors. According to the Buffalo YMCA, the Thanksgiving tradition is the longest consecutively run race in the world. The race is so popular, in fact, that it’s now capped at 14,000 competitors—some of whom travel from different countries just to participate.

While it’s undeniably the most storied turkey trot, the YMCA Buffalo Turkey Trot is far from the only one that takes place on Thanksgiving. In the past 123 years, completing a pre-feast race has become popular for runners and non-runners alike. According to Running USA, Thanksgiving is the most popular running day in the country. On Thanksgiving Day 2016, it reported just shy of one million turkey trot participants—a 6 percent increase from 2015.

The popularity of turkey trots has a lot to do with the meaning of Thanksgiving. As we turn our focus to giving thanks, we’re reminded of the many charities that are in want during this time of year. The winter weather poses additional challenges for those who are living in food deserts, poverty and/or homelessness. That increased need often empties the shelves of local food pantries around late fall and into the winter.

Thanksgiving has become a great sounding board for charities: “As you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, consider those who are less fortunate.” With this message in hand, many of these aid-based organizations have begun sponsoring turkey trots to help raise support as they head into the winter.

But the turkey trot craze isn’t limited to goodwill alone. People like to feel as if they are living generously, but they also like to feel justified to eat that extra piece of pie. According to the Calorie Control Council, the average Thanksgiving dinner delivers more than 4,000 calories. That is a lot more food than most Americans need; no doubt it’s one key reason so many lace up their shoes for a Thanksgiving race.

Even so, the first turkey trot was designed to celebrate community and raise money for youth, family and senior resources at the YMCA. It was a way to bring people together, foster gratitude and promote wellbeing. If you’re running a Thanksgiving Day race this year, I encourage you to approach it the same way. Let the miles be less about the calories burned or the free t-shirt and more about expressing gratitude by enjoying the sport and giving back to others in the process. Let this turkey trot be the one that sets the tone for a thankful holiday season.

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