For the first time in my life, I ran in a Turkey Trot race on Thanksgiving. In terms of number of participants, Thanksgiving is actually the biggest race day of the year in the United States, but I’ve never done one before because the timing was never right: In high school and college, it fell at the tail end of the cross country season, usually midweek between championship races, so clearly adding another race to the mix was never a viable option. After college, I ran the NYC Marathon one year and a race in Philadelphia another in November, so again, I didn’t want to add another race. I also used to participate religiously in a community fun run hosted by my high school coach in the years during and shortly after my high school days on Thanksgiving. It was one of my favorite annual traditions and a really great way to catch up with former teammates.
Over the past decade or so, Thanksgiving has become my least favorite day of the year, as those close to me know. I don’t talk openly about the reasons for that because it’s very personal and involves painful memories and other people. That said, it has become a day that I dread for weeks and one that fulfills its expectations of being awful, mostly because my negative attitude towards it extinguishes any chance for it being surprisingly enjoyable. When you’re only prepared to detect the bad or the pain, that’s all you’ll end up seeing. And so, every Thanksgiving for the last decade or so has been a difficult day for me and one that once passed, fills me with a tremendous relief.
I really wanted to change that self-filling negative prophecy this year. I’ve been working diligently to continue the process of self-understanding, self-awareness, and self-improvement over the past year and a half in particular since my autism diagnosis, as a way to strengthen my relationships and be more present for those I love, lift my mood, decrease my physical and emotional pain, and enjoy the gifts in my life more readily. It’s been a rewarding journey, albeit difficult, but it’s undeniably brought me to a better place in every sense.
I considered the options in terms of how I could observe the holiday in a way that would feel fresh, fun, non-threatening, and feasible. That’s when the idea of a short, low-key race came across my mind. I surveyed my options and settled on a 5k about 25 minutes away should my body permit running on the day of the race. In that way, I promised myself not to preregister until the day before so that I wouldn’t risk losing the entry fee and could respect the needs of my body going into the event. Whenever I have a little niggle now or am fending off some sort of physical illness symptom, I restrict all exercise, especially running. Because competitiveness seems to be hardwired in my brain, I felt that keeping a casual, wait-and-see approach to the race would be the wisest course of action to maintain my commitment to not ignoring the signals and needs of my body.
I’ve not been running much at all because it’s very rare that all systems are a go, but I knew I could get through the 5k distance even with my lack of endurance and any sort of speed training. The race was affordable and supported a good cause, so I was hopeful that it would work out.
It did. The morning of the race, I felt mostly fine. This is about as good as it gets with me lately, and the aches and issues that necessitated that modifier were not the type that makes it unhealthy to try running. It was a brisk and windy morning, but I bundled up and headed to the park. After registering and getting the lay of the land, I did a warm up jog to get a feel for the course. I think my one-word review upon arriving back at the car was “horrible,” in terms of the course. It was a lot hillier than I expected and that I’m accustomed to because I purposely stick to flat ground for my brief runs these days to keep the muscle demand for uphills and pounding for downhills to a minimum. More problematic than the terrain was the footing: There were several icy patches and about 1.5 of the 3 miles were on very potholed and cambered roads. The footing was awful! My ankles are more than prone, almost guaranteed, to sprain and give out when in angled, uneven, lumpy, bumpy, or rocky surfaces. The road section of the race was exactly that, but I decided to just take those miles gingerly to ensure deliberately safe foot landing.
I was tight and cold when the race started because I didn’t want to overdo the distance run in a day as this can overstress my body and I wasn’t looking to run particularly fast or break any sort of record. There were so many announcements and pre-race logistics that pushed the start time back, all while I stood still in the 20-degree air. When finally signaled to begin, I ran awkwardly, like a stiff baby deer learning how to use her legs. Lots of high schoolers and youth sprinted ahead as I coaxed my muscles to get me running. Once I got about a mile in, I was moving fluidly and comfortably, enough so that I shifted from a relatively relaxed pace to a more aggressive one. Unlike most races I’ve run, there were no clocks or volunteers at the mile markers giving split times and I don’t wear a watch, so I had no idea what pace I was running. While this is often not the smartest strategy when striving for a certain time, for my purposes of “running somewhat harder while in a community race atmosphere,” it was actually ideal. Given my competitive history, had I received a mile split time, I likely would have been compelled to speed up and start “racing.” I took my time on the sections with poor footing, moving far to the side to give myself a birth around my competitors so that I had the flexibility to move laterally as needed to find the optimal path without cutting in front of another runner.
The race ended nearly as soon as I felt in my “groove,” which was a little disappointing but meant I didn’t feel physically spent or like my body was taxed. According to the results, I was the first female (4th overall with men) and ran 18:59. I felt happy with that result and mostly just thrilled to be out there racing after being told by two orthopedists in the spring that I would never run again given my foot injury. More importantly, I was able to listen to my body, not overexert myself, and experienced no negative after effects. This meant that the rest of the day, I felt fine and was able to actually continue making enjoyable memories: a Thanksgiving miracle.
I’m really happy that I deviated from my usual routine and opened my mind to finding a new way to spend part of the holiday I’ve so long despised. I cling so rigidly to my routines and I’ve worked hard to get my head around accepting the fact that I’ll never be able to run nearly as much as I’d like or in any manner that resembles my earlier years of stellar performances. It’s a daily process to keep a healthy and physically safe perspective on a sport that once so much defined my identity. However, I’m so proud of my ability to keep my aspirations and training in check and just enjoy it for what it is (and that I can do any at all!) in this season of my life. My high school coach was always encouraging me to “stay in the moment,” a notion that frustrated me because of its foreignness and difficulty for me to grasp. With maturity, time, growth, and the bounty of life, health, and personal struggles I’ve endured, I’m finally in a place where I feel this is my credo. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone next Thanksgiving. Ben mused that a turkey trot could be a great new tradition for me. Maybe so, but I can’t look to next year right now. Each day is its own new day with its own set of circumstances for me to face and navigate. I’m still learning how to take care of my body and what exactly is “wrong” with it. Perhaps the brand new psoriatic arthritis diagnosis and treatment I have yet to start will change the picture of my health and my ability to run, or perhaps not. Time will tell, and I’ll let that story unfold naturally and try to avoid the drive to predict what will happen and how I’ll feel. I’ll honor my needs, appreciate the days I feel well, the gift of running when it’s bestowed upon me, and welcome the lessons and growth that come with time, patience, and a commitment to learning and improving myself.