Every Thanksgiving, while many people are preparing stuffing or frantically Googling how long turkeys take to defrost, others rise early, don commemorative T-shirts (and maybe turkey-shaped hats), and gather for a chilly morning run.
This is the turkey trot, typically a 5- to 10-kilometer race, perhaps done for charity, which has become a delightfully contentious holiday tradition much like crack-of-dawn Black Friday lines and marshmallow topping on sweet potatoes. Participants look forward to the goofy costumes and collective endorphin rush; detractors consider the type of person who would voluntarily trade the extra holiday sleep for a cold jog that costs money to be a different species entirely. A host of memes, which feature pictures of festively clad runners in miserable weather, mock the race and those who run it with captions such as “Imagine meeting your soulmate and then finding out their family runs 5ks on holidays?” My husband has sent me many iterations of them ever since he was blindsided by the horrifying discovery that my mostly sedentary family was, in fact, full of “trotters.” But we aren’t alone: Thanksgiving is the most popular time to race all year. Though estimates vary, nearly 1 million people participate annually. That a day whose centerpiece is feasting has become one that many start by running might seem like a contradiction. However, the custom actually fits quite snugly into the American tendency to pit excess against repentance—especially when it comes to food.
I started trotting as a child, and I dreaded it each year—not just because of the cold Missouri weather. My parents had to drag me to the starting line, and I’d cross the finish only after they bribed me with a brand-new journal somewhere around the first water station. I resented being freezing and sore and covered in the weird liquified snot that seems to come only from running in the wind. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the race was a punishment. Indeed, for a long time, thanks to the diet and exercise culture of the 1990s and early aughts, I internalized the notion that exercise was not a pleasure in itself but, above all, a means for getting skinnier and counteracting the food I ate. My stance has evolved over the years. Now I see working out as something that helps me calm down, feel strong, and enjoy what my body is capable of. I think of trots similarly, with the added bonus of free swag and fun outfits. Still, as much as I celebrate the families and kids who pin on their bibs in pursuit of playful competition, I ache for the ones who might race as I used to: through gritted teeth, seeking absolution for the perceived sin of having a body.
Despite my hard-won personal enlightenment, turkey trots around the country are still sometimes touted as ways to “earn your Thanksgiving dinner,” “burn some pre-feast calories,” or feel “guilt melt away.” These messages imply that at least some people are motivated to run on Thanksgiving because of a pernicious myth: that eating is shameful rather than sustaining, and that we must run as redress for our caloric sins. This idea of “earning” your food can be, in some ways, traced to the early 20th century. At that time, the calorie became the go-to tool for quantifying how much one ate, and calorie restriction became a predominant weight-loss method. Lulu Hunt Peters, the author of the best-selling 1918 book Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories, is widely credited with introducing this attitude, writing, “Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.” Adrienne Bitar, a food-studies scholar at Cornell University and the author of Diet and the Disease of Civilization, told me that slowly people began to talk about exercise in the same numerical way and started doing more physically demanding workouts, such as aerobics and jogging, as a result. The thinking switched from “I’m gonna go on a run” to “I’m gonna go on a 2.2-mile run and I’m gonna burn 300 calories,” she explained. By 1976, Weight Watchers had incorporated exercise into its weight-loss program.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that a day dedicated to indulgence for some came to feel like it required a bit of compensatory exertion. Perhaps it’s down to this country’s puritanical sensibilities, but some of us still like a little suffering in our success, a little hard work in our happiness, a little rigor in our relaxation. As Bitar noted, “There’s this uneasy tension in American culture where it’s like control, excess, control, excess, and the pendulum swings back and forth and we’re constantly compensating for it.” Although the body-positivity movement has certainly been gaining cultural ground, the idea of food as something to be “earned” or “atoned for” lingers. Even though Weight Watchers, for instance, has rebranded as the more wellness-oriented WW, the program still counts “activity points” and “food points”; in its system, working out earns you the right to eat more or helps you make up for eating too much. Exercise deserves better—and so do we.
There are so many wonderful reasons to race on Thanksgiving Day, but I would argue that “earning” dinner is not one of them. If you want to run, do so to join a tradition people have enjoyed every year since 1896. Lace up to support local charities. Head to the start line with a (cotton) stuffed turkey on your head, observe your neighbors wearing leotards and feathers, and giggle to yourself wondering if this is what Ben Franklin had in mind when he called the turkey “a much more respectable bird” than the eagle. Run because exercise might reduce the stress of cooking a meal for your entire picky family in a preelection year. Wind yourself through blocked-off roads and corporate campuses because running (yes, even just a little bit) has been shown to help people live longer. Trot in pursuit of that post-activity appetite that makes everything taste a little better. Or, heck, don’t run at all! If turkey trots should be anything, they should be completely optional.
I last trotted in 2019, a little more than a month after having my cancerous thyroid removed. I let my brand-new fiancé (and recently converted trotter) run ahead while I blasted Katy Perry through my AirPods and marveled that a body that had so recently been at risk was now joyfully at work. It wasn’t punishment, and it wasn’t preparation; it was simply possible. And as I ate my complimentary pumpkin pie at the finish line, waiting to meet up with my five favorite people in the world so that we could go home to cook and eat and watch football and bicker and laugh, I didn’t feel more deserving of or less guilty about the food, fun, and rest that awaited me. I just felt thankful.
By Adrienne Rose Bitar
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