On every Thanksgiving, while many folks are busy preparing stuffing or frantically googling how long it takes for a turkey to defrost,
Others rise early, don a commemorative T-shirt (and perhaps a turkey-shaped hat), and gather for a brisk morning trot.
This is the Turkey Trot, typically a 5 to 10-kilometer run, often organized for charity, that has become a delightful and controversial holiday tradition, akin to the lines on Black Friday and marshmallow toppings on sweet potatoes.
Participants eagerly await the quirky costumes and the collective rush of endorphins; critics ponder the sanity of those willingly sacrificing extra hours of sleep for a chilly morning jog, a unique breed indeed.
A plethora of memes circulate, featuring images of runners clad in festive gear braving inclement weather, poking fun at those who imagine meeting their significant other only to discover their family runs 5 kilometers on holidays.
Since my husband unearthed this terrifying revelation that my predominantly sedentary family was, in reality, filled with “trotters,” he has inundated me with their numerous exploits. But we are not alone—Thanksgiving is prime time for running all year round.
Although estimates vary, approximately 1 million people participate annually. What was once a day centered around feasting now kicks off with what might feel like a rebellious act.
However, this tradition fits snugly into the American inclination towards repentance amidst excess—especially when it comes to food. I began trotting as a child, and every year I dreaded it—not just because of Missouri’s chilly weather.
My parents had to drag me to the starting line, and I could only make it to the finish line when they bribed me with a brand-new magazine somewhere around the first water station.
My aversion stemmed from the discomfort, pain, and strange, syrupy snot that only comes from running in the cold air. I couldn’t shake the feeling that running was a punishment.
Certainly, over an extended period, due to the cultural trends of diet and exercise in the 1990s and early 2000s, I absorbed the notion that engaging in physical activity was not inherently pleasurable.
Instead, it was a means to an end—primarily staying thin and atoning for the meals I consumed.
In recent years, my viewpoint has undergone a transformation. I now see workouts as something that helps me relax, feel physically strong, and enjoy what my capable body can do. I appreciate the added bonus of free swag and fun outfits that come with trots.
Yet, as much as I celebrate with families and kids pinning bibs on their turkey-themed bibs in the pursuit of playful competition, I feel for those who, like me, could have run—liberated from the shackles of toothpicks and the supposed sins of maintaining a body.
Despite the personal information gained through my hard work, sometimes, those who travel around the country in Turkey are promoted to experience things like “earning Thanksgiving dinner,” “burning some calories before the feast,” or “getting rid of guilt as a way.”
The messages imply that due to a dangerous myth, some people are inspired to run on Thanksgiving: that it’s shameful to keep food ready, and we should run to offset our calorie-related sins.
The concept of “deserving” your food can be linked, in certain ways, to the beginning of the 20th century.
During that era, an individual introduced the calorie as a measure to assess food intake, leading to the prominence of calorie restriction as a significant approach to losing weight.
Lulu Hunt Peters, the author of the bestselling 1918 book “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories,” is widely credited with presenting this perspective. She wrote, “You will then eat more. Instead of saying a piece of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.
” Adrian Bitar, a food studies scholar at Cornell University and author of “Diet and the Diseases of Civilization,” told me that gradually people began talking about exercise in the same quantitative way, and more physically demanding workouts like aerobics and jogging started.
As a result, the mentality transformed from “I plan to go for a jog” to “I’m aiming to cover a distance of 2.2 miles, and I anticipate burning around 300 calories.” By 1976, Weight Watchers had incorporated exercise into its weight loss program.
So, it’s no wonder that some people felt the need for some compensatory effort in a day dedicated to indulgence.
Maybe it’s influenced by the conservative values of this nation, but a few of us still appreciate a touch of challenge in our achievements, a sprinkle of exertion in our happiness, and a hint of discipline in our relaxation.
As Bitar stated, “It’s an uneasy tension in American culture where it’s control, excess, control, excess, and the pendulum swings back and forth, and we’re constantly negotiating its balance.”
While the movement towards bodily autonomy is certainly gaining cultural ground, the idea of “earning” or “atonement” for food is still prevalent. For example, even though Weight Watchers has rebranded more as a wellness-focused WW, the program still calculates “Activity Points” and “Food Points”; in its system,
working out either entitles you to more food or helps you compensate for indulging too much. Exercise deserves its due— and we do it too.
Numerous fantastic motivations exist for taking a run on Thanksgiving Day, yet I’ll contend that the notion of “deserving” the feast isn’t among them. If you want to join the tradition that people have been enjoying since 1896, get ready to support local charities. Head to the starting line with a turkey on your head (literally),
glance at your neighbors donned in Lycra and feathers, and envision yourself laughing while pondering if Ben Franklin had this in mind when he called the turkey “a much more respectable bird” compared to the eagle. Run because choosing exercise prior to the annual family feast might alleviate the stress of cooking a grand meal.
Give yourself a break on unobstructed roads and corporate campuses because running (even just a bit) helps people live longer.
Seek out the hunger after the activity that makes everything taste a little better. Or hey, don’t run at all! If turkey trots should be anything, they should be completely optional.
The last time I participated was in 2019, a little over a month after having my cancerous thyroid removed. I let my brand-new prosthetic leg (and recently converted tractor) propel me forward while I flew Katy Perry through my AirPods and marveled at how the body that was recently in jeopardy was now happily functioning.
It wasn’t a punishment, and it wasn’t preparation; it was entirely possible. And as I sat down to savor my symbolic victory pumpkin pie at the finish line, eagerly awaiting to reunite with my five favorite people in the world so we could go home, cook, eat, watch football, argue, laugh,
I felt no less or more deserving of that meal, enjoyment, and comfort I had been eagerly anticipating. I was simply grateful.