In this essay, author Steve Cambria asks “What’s not to love about this enduring Turkey Day classic?”
What makes Thanksgiving morning in Manchester so special, you ask? How about world class runners, high voltage crowds, outrageous costumes, age-old family traditions and 4.748 square miles of unbridled, holiday euphoria—and that’s just for openers!
Old news to the 12,000+ competitors and est. 40,000 spectators on tap for Thursday’s 82nd annual running of The Manchester Road Race. In fact, ask any MRR fan what sets this event apart from all others, and you’re likely to get an earful.
Many will reference the race’s storied past, from its humble beginnings in 1927 when only twelve runners competed, to its curtailment during the Great Depression and WWII years, to 1961 when the first female ran (unofficially), to 1963 when the race went on despite a shell-shocked nation still in mourning over the sudden death of their dashing, young President, to 1974 when the ladies made it official, to 1976 when entries first topped the one thousand mark, to 1995 when the course record was shattered and to 2010, when a record 15,000+ pre-registered.
Some will point to the distinguished list of former champions, such legendary figures as McCluskey, Kelley, Burfoot, Treacy, Hanneck, St. Hilaire and Rudolph, who for twenty-something minutes rode upon the wings of Mercury, their triumphant finish line photos forever etched into the annals of MRR history.
Others will tout the sheer size of the event, a road race that ranks among the Top-25 largest in the country, the appeal of its grandeur and pagentry hard to resist.
Still more will say it’s the feel-good aura of Thanksgiving Day in tandem with the start of the holiday season, or the thousands of high-spirited, casual runners who comprise “the wild bunch,” the heart and soul of this extraordinary event.
And yet, there’s so much more to this race that makes it such an endearing, can’t-miss holiday spectacle. With that in mind, here’s a list of things– some of our favorite things– (sorry, Oprah) that we treasure about The Manchester Road Race:
Race day morning is a blend of excitement, nervous tension and pure chaos. Between suiting-up, stretching and inhaling a light breakfast, the pre-race routine is always a hurried affair. Remember that familiar hiding spot for your registration bib? I’m glad someone does. In our house, by 8:45 The Hunt for Red October is in full swing, and don’t get me started on trying to find those four, matching safety pins!
Driving to the race is half the fun. From passing those imposing hi-way signs flashing “Road Race,” to crawling along in bumper-to bumper traffic where it seems everyone is dressed in running gear, to catching sight of the air traffic circling the course, to joining the vast migration of thousands headed toward the starting line. The exhilaration of knowing something big, something very big is up ahead, is what gets us out of bed on a frosty, November morning.
That first glimpse of Main St. never grows old. A wave of humanity and police presence stretching as far as the eye can see and you’re headed straight for it. It’s what MRR fans wait all year for, and why in the words of Clean Bandit: “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
As large as the event is, for the thousands of spectators who line the 4.748 mile race route– in some spots ten deep– the “City of Village Charm” truly lives up to its moniker. It’s here where every corner, curbside and nook and cranny yield a distinct flavor, a story to tell and as corny as it sounds, where chances are everybody knows your name.
The plethora of costumes on display is a variety show onto itself. From perennial favorites like “Safety Man,” “The Blues Brothers,” “The Red-White-Blue Flagmen,”” The Hanson Brothers,” “The Rolling Cocktail Bar” and “The Christmas Tree,” to the countless iterations of turkeys, pilgrims and superheroes, to the trendy impersonations of political and entertainment VIP’s, the creativity expressed by the hundreds that run the race incognito, is boundless.
When nature calls (and it will) you’ll find yourself stranded in a porta potty line that resembles the Black Friday opening at a big box retailer. Don’t panic, it’s all part of the routine. Enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere; think of it as Mardi-Gras in Manchester, less the humidity, Voodoo and beaded necklaces!
The playing of our National Anthem is a stirring moment. Watching the crowd of 20,000+ fall pin-drop, silent and turn to face the giant flag erected atop Main St. will take your breath away. (Who could ever forget the anthem in 2001, the wounds from 9/11 still oozing? There was no shortage of misty eyes and patriotic fervor that morning! One notch below was the 2014 race, when the PA system cut out and on cue, the massive crowd took over belting out an impromptu, acapella version of our nation’s hymn to the very last measure. “Home of the brave” never sounded so good!)
When that familiar PA announcer shouts “One minute to go!” the din of the crowd will escalate to a roar, and chances are unless you’re rubbing elbows with the elites, you’ll never hear the starting gun. Relax, it’ll be several minutes before you move a muscle and the rubber-necking won’t ease for a good mile and a half.
Ascending the Highland St. hill can prove an agonizing feat, but watching the undulating, mile-long wave of runners in front of, and behind you is an unforgettable sight.
For many, the most critical waypoint is Porter Street. Though your leg muscles will feel like jelly and your core body temp will scream Malaria, breathe easy, the toughest part of the race is now in the rearview mirror.
An uplifting array of both live and recorded music serenades the runners from start to finish. From “God Bless America,” “Start Me Up” to the trombone quartet, bag pipers, golden oldies, classic rock and oom-pah bands, to “Rocky,” “Love Shack” and the crashing gong on East Center St., the sound of music truly comes alive along the streets of Manchester!
Catching sight of the finish line often spurs that one last push to improve your time. Once across, be sure to grab a complimentary water, a race program and enjoy the cool down from the near, five-mile trek.
The long walk back to our cars often brings mixed emotions. Grateful that we finished, mellow from the afterglow of a strenuous workout in the brisk, November air, hungry for a taste of our Thanksgiving feast and delighted in knowing the rest of the day will be spent relaxing with family and friends. But for many, there’s a hint of sadness as well, for now begins the longest wait of all: 365 days and counting till we can enjoy our favorite things about the Manchester Road Race all over again.
Steve Cambria is a local MRR fanatic who God willing, will be lost somewhere in “the wild bunch” on Thanksgiving morning. Fortunately for him, there’s no place he’d rather be.