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Running in a sea of emotions

By most appearances, the annual YMCA Turkey Trot was its usual festive affair Thursday morning. A mix of serious runners trailed by amateurs in silly Thanksgiving costumes streamed down Delaware Avenue under the faintest snowfall.

But there was a noticeable absence felt among the capacity 14,000 participants this year. Longtime race director Tom Donnelly, a stalwart of the Western New York running community, died unexpectedly Nov. 15 of a heart attack at age 61 in his Buffalo home. Thursday’s race – the 119th running – began at 9:01 a.m. with a sea of heads bowed during a solemn moment of silence in memory of Donnelly, who is widely credited with turning the Thanksgiving Day tradition into the massive running event that it is today.

“Tom poured his heart and soul into every aspect of this race,” Anne Reif, the race’s staff director, told downtown-bound runners at the starting line at Delaware and Tacoma avenues in North Buffalo. “His contagious smile, his enthusiasm and his dedication to the sport he loved earned him the utmost respect and admiration of so many. He will be truly missed by all.”

Donnelly was always front and center at one of the city’s defining athletic events, which was founded in 1896 and is the oldest consecutively run public footrace in North America.

“Every year when we got to the starting line he’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Donnelly, the race director,’ ” said Jim Waldron, who worked with Donnelly for 10 years at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. “We’re not going to hear that anymore. It’s just sad, very sad.”

Then Donnelly’s family – his wife, Julie, and their children, Paul, Patrick, Alison Axtman and Rebecca – started the race with two air horns before joining the swarm.

“This is the race he always wanted,” Paul Donnelly said at the post-race party in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. “He made the race he wanted, and his vision grew the race. It’s a spectacular Buffalo event. He was so proud of the event. He was so happy to do it.”

As one of three Donnelly family groups in the Turkey Trot, Paul and Alison, along with spouses Laura and Max, were awarded first place in the family category for their average time of 33:01. Paul Donnelly said that it was the perfect tribute to his dad.

“I’m sure we were all thinking about my dad as we were running,” he said. “I just like to think he’s proud and smiling down and happy that we got the win today.”

In the overall category, Zachary Ahart, 22, of North Tonawanda, won the 8-kilometer race – just under 5 miles – with a time of 24 minutes, 30 seconds, which was 27 seconds faster than second-place finisher Jacob Krolick, 24, of Arcade. Among women, Morgan Burrows, 32, of Corning, placed first with a time of 29:10.

Although Donnelly’s recent death weighed heavily on this year’s Turkey Trot, the usual cast of colorful characters lined up for the morning run before a day spent feasting and relaxing with friends and family. They brought a joviality to the race that organizers said was desperately needed following Donnelly’s death and last week’s historic snowstorm.

Four runners dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles leaped and yelled the characters’ trademark expression “Cowabunga!” as they crossed the start line. Others were dressed as comic book heroes Batman and Robin in a homemade Batmobile propelled by their feet. And there was a trio of three men who boldly challenged Mother Nature’s 29- and 30-degree temperatures by wearing only skintight running shorts and shoes.

But it was turkeys in their various states – live, plucked, cooked – that were naturally by far the most popular costume.

“I’ve been wanting to do it for a couple years,” said Jack Coy of Amherst, who was costumed head-to-toe as the large bird for his first Turkey Trot. “I said this is the only way to do it. You’ve got to run it dressed up.”

His wife, Julie, took a far more subdued approach with a hat featuring a turkey head and its distinctive fleshy wattle. They finished in about 52 minutes, 30 seconds.

“He ran slower for me,” she said.

First and foremost in many runners’ minds, however, was the sudden loss of a man whose name became virtually synonymous with the Turkey Trot.

“Tom was probably the finest man I ever knew,” said Bob Merritt, who was introduced to the Checkers Athletic Club by Donnelly in the mid-1990s.

Other tributes were easy to find along the course and at the finish line in downtown Buffalo.

Many runners, including Don Pembleton, were seen wearing black knit caps stitched with Donnelly’s initials – “TCD” – along with the date of his death and the words “Run on, my friend.” They were designed by Jon Bottoms, Donnelly’s friend from the Buffalo Triathlon Club.

“It didn’t matter how we raced today,” said Pembleton, a friend who collaborated with Donnelly on races for 30 years. “I think a lot of people feel the same way. It was tough to keep a dry face at the start when his family was introduced.”

Tom Donnelly’s older brother, Bill, who gave Tom his first pair of running shoes in 1976, teared up during a slideshow of photos presented before the awards ceremony in the convention center.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “That was Tom. He always had a smile for everyone, and it didn’t matter who you were. If you were a runner, you could be the slowest one out there, and he took the time to talk to you and encourage you.”

Jacob Herstek of Amherst was eager to share a story after finishing the Turkey Trot that friends say is typical of a runner’s first encounter with Donnelly. Herstek lost the medal he received for finishing this year’s Buffalo Half Marathon and sent an email to the race’s general information email address asking for a replacement. Within an hour, he received a reply with an offer to meet on Ellicott Street downtown.

“I didn’t know who it was, I didn’t know who I was meeting,” Herstek said. “I come, I show up, it’s Tom. Never met him before. He goes, ‘Here’s your medal. We’re happy to replace this.’ And then he spent 15 to 20 minutes talking to me about the marathon, about the medal and what my thoughts were on it. It was just a couple days before he passed.”

“It was touching to see the time he spent and how much he actually cared about someone he never knew, never met,” Herstek said. “That he responded so quickly just shows how much the race meant to him and how much running meant to him.”

Runners were still coming to grips with the loss of someone so instrumental, so close to the event he brought tremendous growth to.

“I thought about him a number of times during the race today, especially at the end,” said Amy Fakterowitz of Amherst. “When I crossed the finish line, I just looked up and thought, ‘Oh, wow. I still can’t believe he’s gone.’ I’m almost in shock, still.”

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com