About 12,000 racers took part in the 2015 Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon events in downtown Atlanta. (Bob Andres)

Runners earn their turkey at half marathon

Story by Haisten Willis.

For most of us, the only Thanksgiving Day race may be the rush to snatch that last piece of pumpkin pie. But runners regularly put in miles before sitting down at the dinner table or in front of the wide-screen TV.

Perhaps there’s no better example of the divide between runners and the rest of the population than the Atlanta Track Club’s Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon. Now in its 36th year, the event sees more than 7,000 competitors show up on a brisk November morning to complete a full 13.1-mile circuit.

“Thanksgiving is a day where family comes together, and that fits with who we are as an organization,” says Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club. “It’s a great way to earn your turkey on Thanksgiving.”

In terms of exposure and number of participants, the Thanksgiving event comes in second on the Track Club’s calendar behind only the July 4 Peachtree Road Race. The November meet includes a 5K, one-mile run and 50-meter dash, but the showcase event is the long race.

The course provides an excellent tour of Atlanta, passing such landmarks as Oakland Cemetery, the 1996 Olympic Rings, Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia State Capitol, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “It’s fun to run under those Olympic rings at the start line and give runners the opportunity to see a good amount of Atlanta,” Kenah says.

Kenah ran his first race at age 6 and featured at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, as a member of the United States track team. He says the difference between training for the 10K distance of the Peachtree and training for a half-marathon is mental as well as physical.

“You need to be more patient in your training with a half-marathon,” he says. “In a half, you have a different approach to fueling your body, doing some carbohydrate loading the night before.”

For regular 5k or 10k runners who lace up their jogging shoes at least three times a week, a good rule of thumb is to train for 15 weeks, running three miles on your longest run the first week and then gradually adding miles until reaching 13.1. Consistent training is key, so it’s often a good idea to run with a partner or group.

The world’s top runners can dust off a half-marathon in about an hour, but an average, properly trained runner can expect it to take about twice that long depending on their level of fitness and preparation.

Maria Infante, an Inman Park resident and human resources manager for SunTrust, had to be convinced she could go the distance in one stretch.

Living in Atlanta, Infante considered running the Peachtree Road Race a bucket list item. She joined a training group through the Atlanta Track Club, completed the Fourth of July race in 2016 and considered taking the next step. Her coach, Amy Begley, quickly displaced her doubts.

“It was a combination of faith in the program and courage from my mentor,” Infante says. “Begley is the one who made me believe in it. She’s like a miracle factory.”

Infante completed the Thanksgiving Half-Marathon in 2016, and found that getting there was at least half the fun. “I truly love the experience of going through the training,” she says.

Infante runs by herself in addition to her journeys with the training group. Typical routes include the Atlanta BeltLine, Midtown, Piedmont Park and sometimes OTP destinations like the Silver Comet Trail. She considers the weather on Thanksgiving to be much better for running than the Fourth of July.

“At some point I’d love to try a full marathon,” she says. “What I’ve learned is, once you have the commitment, you have to put in the work. Anyone who wants to run a race can do it if they find the right program, they bring the right shoes and the right attitude.”

Kenah does not run the race himself due to his administrative duties, but he loves standing at the finish line to watch runners cross.

“You’ve got husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and sons coming across and slapping high-fives,” he says. “You get a real sense of the special vibe Atlanta has for the running community.”

And there’s no better place to catch those runners who’ve earned their turkey.

Insider tip

With over 27,000 members, the Atlanta Track Club is one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated to runners. Membership rates are $35 for an individual, $60 for two people (living in the same household), and $75 for a family of up to two adults and four children. AtlantaTrackClub.org/join-now

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