Thanksgiving Day Road Race History: from November 1986 Pace Setter

by Paul Murray

Thanksgiving Day has long been a popular date for road racing in the Capital District. Coming at the conclusion of the fall cross-country season, high school and college runners are in top shape for a distance run. Bringing together all or the top local talent, it serves as an unofficial championship with the winner getting bragging rights for the coming year.

With a turkey dinner in the oven at home, casual runners look for a convenient way to work up a hearty appetite and dieters want to be able to stuff themselves without feeling guilty. The return of distant friends and relatives gives the holiday race the spirit of a class reunion.

lt is no wonder, then, that the Troy Turkey Trot is one of the most popular road races in the Capital District and that several other Thanksgiving Day races continue to flourish. What most area runners probably don't realize, however, is that the Thanksgiving Day race has been a local tradition for seventy years.

The first Turkey Trot occurred in 1916 when the Troy YMCA sponsored a two mile handicap run. Cohoes resident, William O’Connell, was the winner in 12 minutes.

Finishing fourth in the six man field was Marty McDonagh, a reporter for the Troy Reward. The. following year McDonagh persuaded his paper to support the first annual Bald Mountain Marathon.

The name was a misnomer since its course did not traverse any mountains nor did it cover the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The actual length was 6.6 miles, but in those days any race longer than a mile was considered a “marathon.”

Professor Wilbur C. Batchelor of RPI sent the runners on their way from the YMCA promptly at 10:00 a.m. They traveled along the streets of Troy to Seventeenth Street in Lansingburgh where they turned back towards the finish line in front of City Hall. Fifty-one athletes finished this first big-time road race which was won by Harry Bernstrom, a soldier from the Watervliet Arsenal and a former Cornell trackman, in a time of 41:55.

An estimated 25,000 spectators jammed the course making it difficult for the runners to pass at several points. Helpful railroad engineers averted a possible disaster by delaying their train until the runners had passed and six local motorists donated their automobiles to use in the race.

McDonagh solicited a fund of $50 from local businessmen to purchase trophies for the first three finishers and medals for all other runners. In addition, four teams competed for the team trophy donated by prominent lawyer, John J. Mackerell. The awards were presented two weeks later at a special Marathon Night at Proctor's Theatre.

With strong support from the press and community merchants, the race continued for several years. The size of the field fluctuated depending on weather conditions and the starting time.

In 1918 the race began at 8:00 a.m. due to the objections of clergymen who complained that the race interfered with Thanksgiving Day services in the previous year. Many runners apparently felt that this was too early as only 16 athletes competed. E.K. Campbell was the surprise winner in 43:50.

In 1919 the race's name was changed to the “Victory Marathon.” Sleet and snow slowed the runners, but for the first time the field included athletes from Albany and Schenectady. RPI student, H.L. Humphreys, led the nineteen finishers in 41:47, a scant two seconds ahead of veteran O’Connell.

Snow struck again in 1920 and Albany’s Frankie Hanley didn’t arrive at the starting line until eight minutes after 11. By that time his opponents were more than a mile ahead, but he set out in dogged pursuit of the pack, eventually working his way up to eighth place. His actual time was a minute and a half faster than the 42:09 posted by William O’Connell, the official winner.

High school and college runners were most of the field in the early years. Robert Lawlor of Watervliet High School won the 1921 race, lowering the course record to 40:12 despite snow covered streets. Schenectady's George Chute won easily in 1922. Cole Johnson of Union College streaked to a new course record of 39:30 in 1923 and repeated his triumph the following year as Union runners swept the first six places.

There was no race in 1925, but the next year Lealand Heath, another Union student, lowered the record to 38:42 with 42-year-old William O'Connell capturing second place in a field of just nine runners.

When Marty McDonagh moved across the river to become sports editor of the Albany Times Union, he took the Thanksgiving Day race with him.

In 1927 a group of 75 eager runners lined up across North Pearl Street in front of the YMCA for the initial three mile "modified marathon." Austin Day, star of the RPI cross country team, took the lead at the start and led the entire distance to win in a time of 15:04.

William O’Connell and Frankie Hanley held their own Masters competition finishing 20th and 24th respectively, little more than a minute behind the winner. McDonagh had solicited a variety of merchandise prizes from local businessmen and Day carried home a smoking stand, a varsity crew sweater, a watch and a lumber jacket in addition to the first-place trophy.

In 1928 McDonagh changed the rules so no runner could win more than one merchandise prize. The winner this year was Albany's Johnny DeGloria, who had run his first race just twelve months earlier when he finished in 36th place. DeGloria went on to become the capital Area's premier long distance runner, finishing ninth in the 1933 Boston Marathon.

In 1929 the American Legion decided to revive the Troy Thanksgiving race and for the next six years local runners had their choice of two holiday races. The Albany race was more popular, averaging about 50 runners, while the longer Troy event drew around 25 entrants per year.

Schenectady’s Ruben Harrison followed a police motorcycle escort to set a new record of 14:51 in winning the 1929 Albany race The team competition was very tight with the CBA squad edging Schenectady High School by a single point. The Troy race was won by Arthur "Frenchie" Roberts of Cohoes in a time of 41:49.

Former Cornell runner, Orson Beamon of Glens Falls was the 1930 Albany victor with a time of 15:00. In Troy, Arnold Gianetti and Arthur Loguidice, RPI cross-country teammates, tied for first place in 39:55.

Gilbert Schiller established a new Albany course record in 1931 as Schenectady high school runners dominated the race. The Schenectady Amateur Sport Association team composed of Nott Terrace athletes finished-first and Mont Pleasant placed second. Gianetti repeated his winning performance in Troy and RPI runners also took third, fourth and fifth places.

The 1932 Albany event featured a stirring finish as Albert Brown of Amsterdam passed the early leader, Johnny DeGloria, in the last quarter mile. DeGloria's fast early pace helped the winner set a new record of 14:21. The newly formed Albany Mercury Club easily won the team title. Troy High School star, Joe Murphy, won the 6.6 mile race in a new record of 39:00.

The Albany course was changed to 2.5 miles in 1933. The race started at City Hall and finished in Lincoln Park. Herb Boyle of CBA was the first winner at the new distance with a time of 12:15. Emil Sneziak won the 1.5 mile junior race for runners under age 18. In Troy, Joe Murphy, now running for Manhattan College, put on a late surge and repeated as winner in 39:09.

The Albany course was changed again in 1934. The race.still started at City Hall, but the finish line was moved to the new Bleeker Stadium. Schenectady’s Frank Mack put on a stirring stretch drive to edge former CBA star, Joe Rutnick, by one second. In Troy, Amsterdam distance ace, Joe Wood, defeated Joe Murphy in a time of 39:10. Two hours later Wood finished eighth in the Albany race.

Joe Wood repeated his triumph over Joe Murphy in the 1935 Troy race. Despite wet and slippery conditions, he ran a record time of 38:07. No Albany race was held in 1935 or 1936, but the American Legion sponsored a revival in 1937. This time it was a 2.6 mile-race, beginning and ending in Lincoln Park. Joe Martin led the eleven runners to the finish in 17:32.

The AAU staged a 2.5 mile race in Schenectady on Thanksgiving Day of 1938, but it was little more than a dual meet between the Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace cross country teams. Ray Vacca was the winner in 13:37. This was the last pre-war road race held in the Capital District.

The Turkey Trot tradition wasn’t renewed until 1952 when the Schenectady YMCA began its annual Thanksgiving Day Race. In 1964 the Troy race returned and has continued to grow each succeeding year.

When over two thousand hungry runners parade down the streets of Troy this Thanksgiving Day they will be the latest edition in a Capital District tradition which stretches back seven decades. (November 1986)

Ed. Note: in 1896 6 runners were at the starting line. In 2023, there is estimated to be 4,500!

Click here for Race Results for Troy Turkey Trots from 1916 to the present! They are in the Pace Setter Records and Race History.

Buffalo Turkey Trot

Ed. Note: This was not in the above article from the 1986 Pace Setter, but I thought it added a nice note to Turkey Trot History.

The first Turkey Trot was in Buffalo, NY, in 1896, a year before the Boston Marathon was held.  It is noted as the world's longest continuous race that has been held in consecutive years without ever being cancelled.

YMCA Turkey Trot History
Great article on the Buffalo Turkey Trot. Mentions an amusing and insightful occurrence:

The team competition had a rocky start during the 1899 race when John Coleman, a member of the Buffalo Team, was charged with riding part of the race in a wagon. When officials discovered this, the team was disqualified, and the victory went to Rochester.

The Buffalo Turkey Trot is the oldest continuous road race in the world!

Pictures are generated from Bing AI

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