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How to safely run a turkey trot this year — and 4 alternatives to keep the tradition alive

Turkey trots can be a safe way to create a "sense of normalcy" this year, a public health expert says. Here’s how to do it right.
The popular Thanksgiving day Turkey Trot in Denver.
Experts say that in-person turkey trots still get the green light. The post-race festivities? Not so much.Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post via Getty Images

For the past six years my alarm has rung at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. My father and I don matching turkey trot shirts, bundle up in gloves and hats, and head to our local community park to run a 5K with 1000 of our neighbors.

While the early wake-up call is slightly painful, it always feels great to get outside and squeeze in a workout before heading home to eat and drink the day away. And it’s become a tradition with my dad that I cherish and look forward to every year.

According to Running USA, I’m not alone. In 2018, nearly 1.2 million people registered to run or walk a race on Thanksgiving Day. But this year, like many celebrations, the Thanksgiving tradition will look a bit different. My local turkey trot has gone virtual, issuing digital bibs, providing tools to help you map your own course and allowing runners to complete their race any time this week.

And it seems many race organizers are following suit: The Wheeler Mission Drumstick Dash, The Dallas YMCA Turkey Trot and the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot — three of the nation’s largest Thanksgiving Day running events — all recently made the decision to go completely virtual.

If your local event is still on, it may look different than previous years. The good news? This is one tradition that you can still participate in. “In general these are the types of events and things that we can do around the holiday to give us some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, who has been involved in developing COVID-19 safety protocols for Ohio State University students. “If this is something that you do every year it would be a shame to miss out on it because there is a safe way to do it and it can provide you just a little peace of mind and a little bit of soothing for your soul at a time where it’s going to be challenging to find it where we normally would.”

Here’s everything you need to know to keep the tradition alive (and safe) this year.

Is it safe to participate in an in-person turkey trot?

Like everything we do right now, it’s about weighing the risks. Races take place outdoors, which has been shown to be safer than events held indoors. But that doesn’t mean that the event is completely risk-free.

“With all things COVID-19 recently I’ve been advising people that it’s not so much what you do, it’s how you do it that’s important. Obviously a large in-person race of any kind could be done in a way that’s unsafe, but there’s also definitely a safe way to do it,” said Gonsenhauser. “The outdoor environment is decidedly lower risk than an indoor environment in almost all circumstances. Now that being said, outdoor and densely crowded is still a higher-risk opportunity and that’s where you’re going to want to make sure your mask is on as well.”

Still trotting? Here’s how to do it safely

Many organizers are still offering in-person events with COVID-19 precautions in place, like reduced registration, staggered start times to allow for social distancing, and the cancellation of additional race events like pre-race expos and post-race parties with food and drink vendors.

“For the most part, organizers are very aware of the need to create venues and spaces that people can maintain physical distancing for things like the start and the finish of the race,” said Gonsenhauser. “A lot of that information you should be able to glean from the race organizer’s website. Most of them should be posting the types of precautions you can expect to see. But if you feel like they aren’t doing enough to maintain your security and safety, I would recommend not participating.”

And it’s not just up to event organizers to keep people safe, Gonsenhauser said that each individual can take certain precautions to reduce their risk of spreading or catching COVID-19, including:

  • Mask up and social distance. “You want to make sure that you’re still able to maintain many of the same precautions that we advise in day-to-day … At the start of the race, ensure that you’re masked up and that you’re doing your best to physically distance.”
  • Be aware of your surroundings. “People may have a hard time appreciating that the density of the people around them has grown. Sometimes you’re not necessarily aware of that in an event like a road race. It’s definitely easy to find yourself in a situation where your mask would be beneficial even though you’re outdoors and that’s what people need to be aware of. ”
  • Listen to your gut. “If you show up on race day and you’re greeted with crowded corrals, where people are not physically distancing, and you see inadequate mask utilization, that’s the time to ask yourself if the organizers have put together an event with precautions in mind. If you feel uncomfortable or that the answer to that is no, you may want to think again about participating.”
  • Yes, you can still donate items. “Generally speaking, food donations and food drives are safe. Again, people want to engage in hand sanitization prior to packing the bag and then after delivering the bag. As far as the donation organizers, most of them should have process in place to ensure that they are either allowing some time for those donations to sit or maybe doing some disinfection and wiping down of donated items.”

Do I need to wear a mask when racing?

“It’s really going to be a case-by-case basis. You’re going to have to look at the course and number of participants and how congested the field is,” advised Gonsenhauser. “If it is a pretty low-density field and you have obvious room around you to maintain physical distancing then there really isn’t a need to run with a mask on. If you’re not able to achieve that and it’s a tight, dense field, you’re going to want to keep your mask on.”

But be sure to stash your mask and hand sanitizer in your pocket. "At the end of the race, as you’ve been passed water cups or anything else, you want to make sure that you engage in hand hygiene and then get that mask back on when you get to the finish line and start congregating with people again,” said Gonsenhauser.

4 turkey trot alternatives to keep the tradition alive

What's the safest race to run? A virtual one. “It’s an individual choice, but the virtual option is definitely going to be your lower-risk option and still gives you the enjoyment of participating … and really allows you to make sure you’re tailoring your personal safety decisions to what you feel comfortable with,” said Gonsenhauser.

Here are some alternative plans to consider:

  1. Check your municipal website or Facebook page. Many in-person events are also offering a virtual option for those who want to run the race on their own, and some are going totally virtual this year. Do a little digging and see what the options are available locally in your town.
  2. Host your own mini 5K My father and I still have our standing date (although we voted to move the start time a few hours later). Instead of gathering with others at the park, we’re going to run our own 5K around the neighborhood, socially distanced. “Obviously if you’re participating in a virtual option and you want to get together a group to do it with you, be aware of the precautions that you still need to have in place for a running group,” advised Gonsenhauser. “Social distancing when you’re running can generally allow you to not run with a mask, but you do want to be cognizant of that.”
  3. Join a virtual race. One of the perks of so many races going virtual? You can join an event anywhere in the country. Runner’s World recommended some of their top picks, including the oldest consecutively run footrace in the world and the North Shore Turkey Trot, which comes with a legit swag bag (a zip-up jacket, beanie and medal). Tough Mudder is getting involved with the virtual races this Turkey Day, too. They are offering 3 virtual events (a 5K, 10k and family challenge) for free, where you can form a team and invite friends and family who aren’t able to visit this year to join in.
  4. Download an app. Consider downloading a running/walking app to guide your own 5K. RunKeeper provides an option to join a 5K event virtually, MapMyRun has tons of local 5K courses already mapped out for you in your area, and Peloton is offering two audio-guided turkey trot classes on Thanksgiving Day just to name a few.