The Manchester Road Race: A 4.748 Mile Thanksgiving Parade

Manchester, CT: November, 2017

Unlike further inland, the trees of the coastal northeast retain their leaves a bit later – the crunchy, half-shriveled ones that look as if they were photographed in sepia tone and make a scrape when they finally fall onto the pavement and blow across serpentine Connecticut lanes between century old stone walls. Not often do we get tree cover like this at home. We see the golden maple oranges, the deep burgundy reds, and the amber curtains of October, but by Thanksgiving the branches are mostly bare, shedding quickly with the mid-month gales. As a kid, I wondered why Thanksgiving decorations always feature colored leaves and pumpkins, but seeing as the holiday began in New England, it makes sense that the associated adornments would reflect the look of these seaside trees. If instead the pilgrims had broken bread with the Erie in what is now Northern Ohio, Americans everywhere would be hanging up images of squashes in snowbanks.

My mom’s family live up and down the east coast so all of them under one roof is a rarity.  The particular roof under which we would spend Thanksgiving peaked over a large modern home on a leafy turnaround, several miles of windy forested lanes from New Canaan, which is itself several miles of windy forested lanes from Stamford, more outer New York than lower New England in culture. Much of the area has a familiar feel to home, unsurprisingly as Northeast Ohio has a significant historical tie to Connecticut. When white settlement was first opened west of the Appalachians, Connecticut leapfrogged New York and transported pioneers to the Western Reserve, a slice of Northern Ohio that became organized in their hometown image.  Educational institutions like Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve University) and Oberlin College were designed to replicate the Presbyterian schools back east, and the now-suburbs in the rolling glaciated hills east of Cleveland feature the colonial architecture and spired churches that so often are the centerpieces of small New England towns. 

New Canaan’s town center is a fine example – high end shops tucked into attractive blocks of brick and white paneled buildings spreading out in a triangular pattern.  It is set up like a luxury lifestyle center with bookstores and craft candle shops but with centuries old buildings and no parking. It is almost as if it were built specifically for late autumn, the timber-hued leaves quaintly tussled with each other and bounded across the street, making the most of their last stand until spring. All I typically come away with is a cup of coffee as I don’t have a Gilmore checkbook but it is one of the more pleasant places to spend the day before Thanksgiving.

The homes have sprawling and carefully polished acres, some near ancient, some just built, and are nearly universally large. Sports owners, musicians you’ve heard of, and business magnates you haven’t all built or renovated New Canaan homes and the other residents all know which is which is which but they are undiscussed except in private company. Just outside the main square is God’s Acre, a park on a hill between several different white churches with high steeples. The entire town really is quite attractive any time of year, but autumn and gabled New England roofs are what sell postcards.

I woke Thanksgiving morning after an evening of wine and squash, the sport not the gourd, to drive halfway across the tiny Constitution state to run the most famous turkey trot in the country. The Manchester Road race is 4.748 miles long, for no other reason than that is how long it is. More than fifteen thousand runners, about a third of which are costumed, run a trapezoid-shaped loop through a small town outside Hartford with a population not much more than thrice that. The race has attracted Olympians like Bernard Legat and Molly Huddle in recent years, as well as 2017 Chicago Marathon winner Galen Rupp who, during the previous year’s road race dropped from 2nd place to 10th during the final stretch due to a bout of cold weather-induced asthma.  The names this year were a bit less household, but that’s no matter, as I wouldn’t come close to them even if I weren’t destined to spend half the race stuck behind race-walkers and beer drinking Spongebobs.  Lauren and my brother Mike accompanied me on the drive from New Canaan, about an hour, and planned on spending their time walking around the town and finding coffee. I appreciated the early morning company.

It was frigid even in the sun as we walked toward the start of the race along the main street in Manchester, and I began to envy Mike and Lauren and their coffee adventure.  We stood around for a while in the cold, an unfortunate side effect to showing up early, which itself was an unfortunate side effect to reading running blogs that say the traffic is awful.  It probably would have been difficult trying to park a block from the starting line, but considering the entire point was pre-prandial exercise, I saw no reason to attempt that feat of incomprehension.  We parked no more than a half mile from the start and had absolutely no issue. 

The headache that I was supposed to have with parking must have been divinely transposed to the starting corrals  I saw my estimated time on a sign (between 30 and 35 minutes) and began walking in when I was spotted by a man who looked like the original cartoon version of the Mad Hatter except in a trucker cap. 

“Ticket?” asked the Hatter, in a tone that made me realize he had been bouncing people from this pace corral all morning. 

What does he mean, ticket? I thought, looking at my bib.  There was no mention of corral at all.  When I signed up I estimated my finish time at 32 minutes, and when it wasn’t printed on my bib, I figured it didn’t matter. 

“You need a ticket to enter this gate.”

“I was never given any sort of ticket” I replied, still entirely befuddled.  The bibs had come by mail a couple of weeks earlier and there was most assuredly no ticket in the envelope.  I even looked later when I got home.

“Well if you have no ticket you need to keep walking that way.”  He pointed up the main street, toward the many thousand strong stretching all the way up the hill and around a corner. Deciding against making a holiday fuss, I walked that way, passing the 35-40 minute group and the 40-45 minute group, each with their own guard asking for these elusive tickets.  Finally I reached a corral, 45-50 minutes, that was open.  I snuck in and stood next to a group of four dressed like the Teletubbies.

It was not a huge deal, I wasn’t attempting to run the race for speed, partly because it was Thanksgiving and partly because I don’t have a benchmark for a four and three quarter mile race, but the race began and I walked under the start banner and then continued walking for several more blocks I got a bit restless.  When the purple Teletubby nearly knocked me into the curb trying to stay with his counterparts, I knew needed out.

I found it in the form of another pair of impatient runners, a guy and a girl who looked to be in their early thirties weaving around a group of Santa Clauses in shorts.  I followed them, zigzagging a path like we were evading an alligator.  This was going well until we came upon the first turn and came to an immediate bottleneck where I stood still for a minute or more. Walking would’ve been a blessing at this point and I knew I shouldn’t have been getting so frustrated, but I couldn’t help it.  It was an exercise in restraint not to run through everyone’s yard as we left the commercial center and approached the residential area on the east side. 

Race reviews clichés like great community support, or crowd support for the entire course sneak their way into running publications with so much frequency that they have been rendered as meaningless. The ‘Now, more than ever!’ of running blog comment sections. With the Manchester Road Race, however, the platitude is literal.  Every inch of the course, along both sides, is lined with the celebrating masses.  We ran by house parties loudly blasting Blurred Lines with groups crowding the sidewalk like a college block party.  This imagery was assisted no doubt by the half empty cases of cheap beer between every sixth person or so.  The runners slowed again as if we were approaching a water stop with volunteered hands outstretched, but instead they held with Bud Light cans and thirsty runners were grabbing them. 

I saw the impatient runners again. They hadn’t made it very far and as we approached the one hill on the course they huffed audibly as we once again slowed down for walkers, not out of exhaustion but out of disdain I didn’t want to be like them though; this wasn’t so much a race as a party with a panting parade through the middle.  Why not grab a beer, or actually look around at something other than people to avoid? The neighborhood was pleasant with trees the color of goldenrods, century homes, wide streets, day drunks in Patriots hoodies. 

The crowd began to thin around mile 2.5 and I had, without noticing, started to really open up my pace after a nice warm up in chilly weather. Porter Street was my favorite part of the race, with crowds lining the sidewalk spread out a bit but still packed compared to almost any other running event.  I was finally able to run a straight line, past a marching band and some even older houses as we had reentered the neighborhood surrounding the center of town. It appeared we had passed the last of the free beer, a shame as I had told myself I would grab the next one that was thrust in my direction.

I had entered the last mile when my watch lit up with a notification that I had run my fastest two-mile split, at least my fastest since buying the watch, and moving quickly made the experience that much more pleasant and the November air now felt refreshingly crisp instead of frigid.  As I sprinted around the last corner to descend the hill into town I heard Mike and Lauren, who had her phone out to take a picture but missed, welcoming me back into downtown Manchester. My time was still way off due to the first several miles, so I stopped short, jogged back along the railing about 50 feet and tried again and was blurry again.  The second time I ran backward and practically smacked into the disgruntled weavers from earlier as they were barreling down to the finish line with a sprint and a scowl.  Have a beer, my fellow displaced, speedy friends.

The third try at a photo was a successful one, and my animated slow jog past Lauren and Mike caused a few laughs from those that were standing nearby.  Now free, I rushed to the finish, which was the same as the start, and clocked only about five minutes slower than my goal. 

We didn’t stick around Manchester for too long afterward. The crowd made even getting a cup of coffee prohibitive as Lauren and Mike informed me after their adventure during the thirty-some minutes they had to idle away. The parade was over, both mine through Manchester and the real one in New York, and all that remained was a long day of smelling food baking and asking fruitlessly what I could do to help.

I can never do a good meal justice in prose.  I can think of a hundred ways to describe a tree but only a few to describe food.  The turkey was delicious. Uncle Gabe’s sweet potato casserole was delicious.  The wine was, though my ability to discern was as such a bit lacking, going by the tastes of our hosts, excellent.

Fortunately, this linguistic limitation is but a minor foible because I don’t believe the quality of the meal is the important part of a Thanksgiving experience. It’s the lead up to the meal I have always enjoyed – coffee and the dog show, family close by, sounds of vegetables chopping and football commentators filling the palatial house.  The dinner itself is just a catalyst that causes the rest of the day, and by extension the road race and the entire trip, to happen. It was never my favorite holiday growing up, and it isn’t now, though my understanding of its importance has certainly evolved in adulthood. If poultry, pie, and pinot are needed to bring people together for a few days every other year then I am thankful that it exists.

Lauren and I left Connecticut early on Saturday as we had four hours further to travel than everybody else, and driving away from the eastern seaboard was like leaving November behind. The trees covering the Alleghenies were bare and dormant, pale from frost and reaching naked fingers over the highway and reminding us of the season to come.

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