Thanksgiving weekend is, without question, the most Western New York season of all. Family comes home. Everyone goes out. Wednesday night is the biggest bar night of the year. ¶ And the peak of the action is the Turkey Trot. ¶ After that big Wednesday night out, Buffalonians rise, shine and run from just south of the Delaware Avenue YMCA to Niagara Square to burn off the huge Thanksgiving dinner to come. At 9 a.m., they’re off – not only runners but reindeer, millipedes, Santa Clauses, King Kongs, ancient Romans, Founding Fathers, ears of corn, boxes of crayons, mimes, Grinches, Uncle Sams, skeletons, leprechauns, bananas, Germans in lederhosen and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are 14,000 strong – and that’s just the registered runners. Others join in. As has been the case in recent years, the race is sold out. ¶ Down the avenue they fly, in fine feather, which in this case means Pilgrim bonnets, Indian headdresses, chicken wing costumes and Bills and Sabres paraphernalia. The sea of people pours past the big box stores of North Buffalo under the New York Central Railroad bridge and then around the “S” curves, as Turkey Trotters of yore send silent cheers from Forest Lawn.
Past the old Locker Room, the mansions of Millionaires’ Row, the Saturn Club, the Twentieth Century Club and the Buffalo Club. Five miles, all the way to Niagara Square, where the winner crosses the finish line.
And the best thing about it: It’s easy to predict who comes in first.
Too often, Buffalo has to settle for second place. Not with the Turkey Trot. It is the oldest continuous foot race in the nation. It beats the Boston Marathon by a hair: Ours began in November 1896, theirs six months later.
According to YMCA statistics, the Turkey Trot was not run on pavement until the mid-1900s. Women did not run the race until 1972.
Like any long journey, the Trot has had its travails. In 1944, the winner was 15 years old – probably because many of his elders were away at war. In 2014, some runners had barely dug out from the historic snowstorm that had buried half the city. More poignantly that year, the race began with a moment of silence to honor Tom Donnelly. Donnelly, who had just died suddenly, is credited with building the Turkey Trot into the massive spectacle it is today.
In snow or sunshine, the race goes on. True to the Buffalo spirit, it does not take itself too seriously. The real runners are up front, while the rest schlep merrily along behind.
One year, self-styled Good Samaritans handed out beers, pouring them graciously from cans into cups and holding them out so passing runners could grab them. And speaking of beer, you’ll always find a number of runners downing a few pitchers before the starting gun – just to make this athletic event that much more challenging.
The after-party at the end of the race has a peculiar magic. Runners, walkers and everyone else share beer and triumph. It is a quirk of Thanksgiving weekend that for a brief period, the much-maligned Buffalo Convention Center becomes the center of our city. Two days later, this same space will play host to the World’s Largest Disco.
The disco, featured in the Guinness Book of World Records, is another of the 100 things every Western New Yorker should do at least once. But first things first.
On your mark. Get set. Go!