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Racers’ Mecca – for a Day

Some of the elite runners start the race.

Traditions are sometimes hard to come by in our relatively young and forward-looking nation, but some of the most lasting seem to revolve around sports. In Connecticut,  New Haven was recently awash in hoopla over “The Game,” and Manchester has its Thanksgiving Day Road Race. I was at the race this year, watching several family members walk or run the 4.75 mile course.

This was the 73rd running of the race, which now attracts about 14,000 runner, walkers, and “wheelers” (just over 12,000 actually finished the course), including internationally known distance runners. The day was as much about revelry as competition, with some entrants dressed in a variety of costumes – some seasonal, others not. An estimated 20,000-30,000 people lined the streets to cheer on the athletes, with more than a dozen bands playing along the route. This year’s race featured overcast skies but not-too-chilly temperatures, and I was glad to be there.

Dino Man joined several superheroes, life-sized food products (including turkeys), and various guys in drag.

So what’s this have to do about history?

Not a lot. I had planned to work backward, 2009 minus 73, to give a feel of what was going on when the race was first run. Like now, 1936 saw the country enduring tough economic times, with a president who faced charges of his “socialist” policies threatening to ruin the country. Instead, of course, the president, then and now, was using the power of the government to try to stave off total economic (and perhaps political) collapse, not destroy capitalism.

Yeah, that was my idea; then I learned the race was actually first run in 1927. OK, slight shift of gears. “Silent Cal” Coolidge held sway, the ’20s were roaring – for a while still, at least – and following the Babe, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey was a sports fan’s concern, not running or watching a road race.

What else was going on in 1927, before and while a few Manchester guys decided to hold the first race? Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Nature struck hard, with a massive flooding of the Mississippi and a killer tornado hitting St. Louis. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Lizzie “40 Whacks” Borden joined her dismembered parents in the afterlife, and Mae West was busted on an obscenity rap. In the arts. The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” lit up movie screens; Hermann Hesse published Steppenwolf and Virginia Woolf released To the Lighthouse; “Ol’ Man River” was one of the hit tunes. Other notable moments: the 15 millionth Model T rolled off Ford’s assembly lines, the Holland Tunnel linked New York and New Jersey, and the iron lung was developed.

The home stretch

Coming down the home stretch

And in the midst of all those great events and creations, 12 guys plod along the streets of Manchester, while maybe the same size group cheers them on. But within  a few years, 10,000 people filled the streets to watch, so you just never know what a simple idea is going turn into.

The race was suspended mid-Depression and remained shelved until after World War II. The revived race drew about 20 runners in 1945, and by 1954 had 104. Slow growth continued, until the running boom of the 1970s sent the number over 1,000, with thousands more entering within the next ten years. Today, the small city of Manchester, some 56,000 strong, is home to one of the top-25 races in the country.

The best view on Main Street

Since 1945, the Manchester Road Race has survived several major wars and now the Great Recession. With the festivities and ever-strengthening tradition, it’s a safe bet the race will be around for a long time, bringing together friends and family, offering an excuse for pre-noon drinking, and working up appetites for that Tofurkey cooking in the oven.

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