Culture

My Plan to Dominate My Local Turkey Trot


When the state senator Terrence Murphy established a turkey trot, in 2017, in his home district, which spans New York’s Dutchess, Westchester, and Putnam counties, he was trying to raise money for local food banks, not attract the nation’s—or even the area’s—best runners. The ubiquitous Thanksgiving Day races are known not for the athletic prowess of the competitors but for the ridiculous costumes: turkeys, pilgrims, and pumpkin pies. Some runners dress as chefs, wield gigantic costume silverware, and spend the entire race chasing turkeys. Turkey trots are meant to be fun. Often there are bagels.

Instead of preëminent athletes, the former senator got my family. Since 2017, my mom, my little brother, and I have competed three times in Murphy’s Annual Hudson Valley Turkey Trot, in Yorktown Heights, missing only last year’s virtual race. My dad and middle brother stay home, siding with the many Americans who are horrified at the idea of running on a day that celebrates prodigal stuffing consumption and back-to-back-to-back football. “Imagine meeting your soulmate,” a popular meme goes, “and then finding out their family runs 5Ks on holidays.”

The only thing more appalling than participating in a turkey trot, it seems, would be trying to win one. Demolishing the competition is not what turkey trots are about, especially the trot sponsored by Murphy. This year’s five-kilometre race isn’t even timed. “We always try to keep it a ‘fun run,’ ” he patiently explained to me, over the phone. “It’s nothing really competitive.” Instead of prize money, this year’s top three men and women will receive an unidentified “Thanksgiving sweet treat,” according to a statement on the race’s Web site. “Random finishers will also receive a treat.” But, after nearly two years of training with this race in mind, I’m not coming for a fifty-third-place treat. I’m coming to win.

My running career has been unexceptional. The summer before freshman year, I ran a hundred-metre dash in a local race with my friend Cyd, finished a distant second, and felt sick for forty-five minutes. When he invited me on a five-mile run with his track teammate Eric, I fell so far behind that I got lost in an unfamiliar housing development. A classmate’s parent saw me trudging around, picked me up, and drove me to Eric’s house. On the high-school track team, I was known not for my speed but for my sprinting-induced nausea.

Entering my junior year of high school, in 2012, Eric, who had earned All-American honors that winter and spring, convinced me to quit soccer and train all summer for cross country. Eric is blessed with an insatiable work ethic and an inability to comprehend athletic limitations for himself or for others; he believed that we had a chance to qualify for the Nike Cross Nationals, the country’s premier high-school running event. If I trained from June to August, he said, I could be part of the greatest team in Carmel High School history. The opportunity was tantalizing. I ran almost every day of the summer and established myself as the Carmel cross-country team’s seventh man—the varsity team’s final and least important member. (Five athletes score points on a cross-country team, and sixth men break ties; seventh men break ties if someone goes missing.) Eric set multiple course records and qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals as an individual. I trained so hard that I injured my pelvis. A doctor told me to take six weeks off, and when that didn’t help he told me to try it again. When I returned to running, a few weeks of moderate training would leave me with knee tendinitis. This pattern continued through college and until 2019, when months of physical therapy got me out of a seven-year rut.

The timing was fortunate. When lockdowns began last March, Eric, who had broken four minutes in the mile while I was strengthening my glutes, called and asked if I wanted to try breaking five minutes. For years, I’d been rooting for him as he attempted to shatter the sport’s most storied barrier, driving with him to meets across the Northeast to cheer him on and, more often than not, console him when he fell just short. Now he wanted to help me reach a mark he’d eclipsed in eighth grade. Everybody needed something to do, and my pelvis was feeling fine. He said I could break the five-minute mile in three months, just ahead of my twenty-fourth birthday. I said O.K.

My running jumped from every other day to six days a week. I sprinted up hills and ran gruelling interval workouts, refamiliarizing myself with the diverse palette of exhaustion-induced bodily responses. Thanks to the training plans Eric sent me each week, my legs regained and then surpassed the strength I’d possessed as a high-school junior. I ate, stretched, and slept with renewed purpose. I had no idea when or if a vaccine would arrive, but I did know that, during my Friday workout, I’d feel terrible. The predictability was comforting.

When Eric thought I was ready to break his middle-school personal record, I travelled home to Carmel. We warmed up, put on racing spikes, and lined up on the mile marker of our high school’s track. On a high-schooler’s “Go!,” we took off, Eric jogging in front to set the pace and me desperately trying to hold on. Within a lap, I began to wonder, with my legs and lungs burning, how and why I put myself through such pain for something that I was never very good at. I tried not to let down the family, friends, and miscellaneous high-school students observing the spectacle, but my third lap was too slow. I crossed the line in five minutes and five seconds, turned sharply to the left, and fell to the ground. “Looks like it was a ‘just miss,’ ” my little brother Troy said, putting on his best announcer voice as he captured the subdued reactions of each individual attendee on Instagram Live. “Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad.” I ran four seconds faster two weeks later, then came back and missed again.

The results were disappointing but not demoralizing. In most areas of my life, I’d spent years trying to become recognized and appreciated as someone with potential to excel at the highest level. I’d practiced hours of clarinet a day in high school and crammed out as many newspaper articles as I could during college, basing a large chunk of my identity on awards and internship offers. Now here I was, covered in rubber pellets, collapsed on the turf of my high-school track, failing to hit a time that élite marathoners surpass twenty-six times straight. And I felt all right. It’s hard to feel too bad when someone wants you to succeed.

And the Turkey Trot was coming up. In every cross-country race I’d ever run, I considered myself fortunate if I could just see the winner—usually Eric—cross the finish line from half a mile away. Years of following the sport made me aware of my shortcomings, but I knew that I’d out-trained most participants, and certainly my brother Troy. The Turkey Trot had become the only race I ran each year, the clearest way to measure how far I’d come. I wanted to see what I could do. Sure, I couldn’t break five minutes, but I could break the heart of a twelve-year-old who dared keep up with me. When the 2020 in-person race was cancelled, I set my sights for the following year. After a brief break in training, the running, hills, and intervals continued. So did some nausea. Eric qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the fifteen-hundred metres and continued serving as the pro-bono personal trainer for me, a person trying to win a turkey trot. I ran thirty miles a week, then thirty-five, forty, and forty-five. I easily completed workouts that, a year before, had induced severe gastrointestinal stress. Around September, I began to imagine the impossible: What if I could actually win?

The Boston Marathon might be America’s most famous race, but the turkey trot is the country’s oldest continuous one. In 1896, six men lined up to run the Buffalo Y.M.C.A.’s first-annual turkey trot. “Maybe they wanted to burn off the calories before they had their nice, big Thanksgiving feast,” Kathy Romanowski, of Y.M.C.A. Buffalo-Niagara, said, when speculating on the race’s possible origins to WBUR. “I’m not too sure.” Of those six, four finished the eight-kilometre race. One blamed a late breakfast for his inability to do the same.

The idea spread. In 2016, nearly a million people participated in Thanksgiving Day races. Although a select few events, like the Manchester Road Race, in Connecticut, draw some of the country’s top professional distance runners, that is not the norm. It is hard to get amped up when the person beside you is wearing a sweatshirt that says “Huffin’ for the Stuffin’ ” or “Hobble for the Gobble.” With rare exceptions, someone wearing a full turkey suit is not going to lay the hammer down.

For someone who is not very good at running, Thanksgiving Day is the best day all year to win a race of any size. Turkey trots fall at a bad time for high-school or collegiate athletes—right between cross-country and winter track seasons, when they are often taking a break. Because the races are early in the morning in late November, the weather is often extremely cold. And, while trot-related injuries are uncommon, the thought of losing an entire season because someone in an Optimus Prime costume didn’t see where he was going is enough reason to avoid the race. When I reached out to a few runner friends to see if they’d competed in one, most said no. “I hear it’s a big deal if you do, though,” one said.

Regardless of the stakes, Eric urged me to strategize. “It’s always crucial,” he said, at the start of a fifty-minute phone call outlining race possibilities, “to know who the competition is.” Checking the results for 2017, 2018, and 2019 would be key—not just to note the winning times but to spot top-performing teen-agers. “If there were a bunch of sixteen-year-olds in the Top Ten,” he explained, “you might want to check online to see how they’re doing.” Not knowing the exact course could cause my downfall, as would not warming up and stretching beforehand. At the line, I should monitor for confident-looking men and women in track singlets and half-tights, and, at the gun, I should stick to the lead pack without letting an overambitious child push me to my aerobic limit. If I could control my pace for the first mile and remain steady for the second, I could put myself in position to win. “The biggest chance of you losing, to be honest, is if there’s some good high-school kid,” Eric said. “But, then again, if you’re a good high-school kid, you’re probably not gonna run a turkey trot.”

Eric was wrong. In 2017, Darren Schiminski, an implementation engineer at a drone company, won the Annual Hudson Valley Turkey Trot in eighteen minutes and thirty-one seconds—a manageable pace. In 2018, Carter Humphrey, a twenty-five-year-old from Yorktown Heights, fought back from his fourth-place finish the year before and took the crown, in seventeen minutes and forty-seven seconds—tougher, but not out of my league. While scouring pictures from the untimed 2019 race, however, I found something startling: a runner in a Bates College singlet and short shorts crossing the line with two thumbs up, his medium-length hair flying back in the air, his mouth slightly open. The clock to his left displayed his time: fifteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds. I had been so far behind that I had barely registered his victory. My chances of winning faded; someone actually good was likely to show up.

His name was Bart Rust. He had entered the race, like I had two years before, because his mom signed him up. One of the top runners for Bates College’s country team that year, he had finished the season on a rough note, placing two hundred and fortieth out of two hundred and eighty entrants at the Division III cross-country nationals, and sixth on his own team. He took a week off after the season to recover. Terrence Murphy’s Turkey Trot was his first run back.

He arrived early Thanksgiving morning with his mother and sister, grabbed bib No. 1, and went out for his typical two-mile warmup. He thought he had a chance at winning but, having never been the top high-school runner in the area, recognized that he was vulnerable if a real star appeared. Any questions faded when the race began. He passed one mile in five minutes and six seconds and decided to keep his foot on the gas. “The faster you run,” he told me, over Zoom, after I tracked down his collegiate e-mail, “the faster you’re done.” Rust let no one in front of him during the entire race, including the small children who typically excel in the turkey trot’s opening hundred yards. “I may have gotten smoked at a collegiate race,” he said, explaining his mind-set, “but now I can return the favor to a bunch of people who don’t realize the super-high stakes, I suppose.” Running at his turkey-trot pace for about three thousand more metres would have earned him roughly a forty-fifth place finish at nationals. At the Annual Hudson Valley Turkey Trot, that pace made him a legend. Two years later, Murphy still expressed awe at the stunning performance. “I’m a jogger,” Murphy said, on the phone. “That kid was running, man. He was flying.”



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