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Few growing pains for Turkey Trot

A recent television advertisement showed a start-up company accepting its first orders over the Internet, with its employees celebrating. Then the orders kept coming, and coming, and coming, to the point where those same employees were silenced by the mammoth task ahead.

Tom Donnelly knows that feeling.

The race director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, which will be held for the 112th straight year on Thursday in Buffalo, had a dramatic and unexpected rise in the number of registered runners in the Trot a year ago.

"We went over 8,300 [actually 8,350]. That's a significant raise of over 2,000 in one year," Donnelly said.

The number of finishers went up too: 7,584 in 2006 versus 5,539 in 2005 (and 5,559 in 2004). When the Trot was completed, Donnelly tried in vain to figure out what happened.

"Don Mitchell has a growth chart that looks at how many people are coming over a four-year period. This particular one was the largest spike ever in terms of raw numbers," he said.

"There was something different this time. We obviously had a lot of new customers."

It's a stumper. The obvious starting point for such a search is the weather. While Thanksgiving was a nice day, the numbers were headed well above the 2005 total well before the start of the 2006 race. Many people sign up at least a week ahead of time, meaning that they don't have a good idea about race-day conditions.

"As long as you don't have a disaster, you shouldn't really have any problems in terms of a reaction to weather," Donnelly said.

The Turkey Trot takes registrations online, at no additional fee. Still, no one can be sure if that's led to more "impulse buys" of runners surfing the Internet.

Whatever the reason, the 8-kilometer race size grew by about a third in 2006. Donnelly noticed something was up in the days leading to the race.

"There was a real buzz in the media," he said. "Radio stations were starting to talk about it, and they weren't even participating as sponsors. . . . People began to realize that the race was [at the time] 111 years old. It's a Buffalo gem. It's the oldest race in the world. They might not race during the year, but they run this one."

You can imagine what the burst of applications did to the staff of the race.

"In the last four or five days, we knew the growth was there. Before the weekend [before the race] we were above 6,000," Donnelly said. "The last couple of days the runners kept coming, coming, coming. We had to adjust our supplies, food, bibs, chips. We ordered a thousand T-shirts on the last day. [The supplier] went to Rochester to get them, and printed them in a day."

In response to the sudden increase in participants, part of the race staff went to Utica this summer to see how the Boilermaker race ran its registration. It brought back some new ideas that will be used this week. The number and chip pickup will be streamlined slightly. The starting and finishing chutes will be longer, and the beginning of the race will use all of Delaware Avenue to give people more room to run.

The figure for 2007 looks like it will go up again, although probably not by another 33 percent. How big can the race get? Donnelly thinks the Trot can go as high as 10,000 runners comfortably.

"On supplies and materials, we can react on a dime," Donnelly said. "The number of volunteers is fixed. There are only so many corners to cover. Our police numbers aren't going to change. We'd need more in chip handling in the finish area.

"It's a great party, but we need to have extra medical and security people. You do need someone there in case of a crowd issue. Last year we had 8,300 [at the Convention Center after the race], and it went fine."

Naturally, the bigger the numbers, the larger the total that can be given to the host organization, YMCA Buffalo Niagara.

"Last year we raised $100,000, primarily for the Delaware Y," Donnelly said. "It helps support programs, and makes services accessible to kids and families who otherwise couldn't afford them, like summer camp."


Race calendar

*YMCA Turkey Trot (The Buffalo News Runner of the Year race), 8K, Delaware Avenue YMCA, 2564 Delaware Ave., 9 a.m. Thursday, 875-0457.

*Reindeer Run, 5K, Medaille College, 10 a.m. Dec. 1, 880-2130.


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