Thanksgiving traditions don't always look like those featured on the cover of a magazine. I came across a Thanksgiving road race when I was looking for ways to fill our holiday. We were newly married and with little extended family, so our day was open and empty.
That year my husband and our dog cheered me along as I ran through the streets of my old college town.
A year later, we loaded our infant daughter into the car, still sleeping, and headed again for the start of the race. A morning without diapers, bottles, and spilled cups of coffee was a treat for me. By the time I crossed the finish line, I felt a sense of peace rare to a new mother.
The routine evolved from there: We'd load our daughter, her stroller, and our dog into the car – along with hot chocolate and doughnuts. When our son was born, he moved inside the stroller and my daughter trotted outside, happily clutching a box of doughnut holes.
Normally I would protest doughnuts for breakfast, but my guilt at not being able to provide an apron-clad grandmother for the holiday deemed the indulgence OK.
They'd all wait at the finish line, the kids swept up in the excitement generated by 8,000 runners. They'd wave excitedly when they spotted me, and I'd smile back at their rosy-cheeked, powdered-sugar-smeared faces, wondering if memories based on junk food and sweaty runners counted as Thanksgiving traditions.
Eventually my daughter and son decided to try the kids' fun run.
The first year, my son approached the start with gusto. At the bang of the starting gun, he tugged my sleeve. "Are you coming, too?"
I looked at his expectant, 5-year-old face. "Sure," I said, and suddenly I was chasing feet that moved much faster than my tired-out-mother trot. About midway, I had difficulty running, but with his little face vivid in my mind, I kept on.
"That was fun!" he burst out at the end. I nodded breathlessly and walked over to attempt my own race.
Over the years I passed many groups of families running on Thanksgiving. I learned to swallow my disappointment when I'd catch snippets of their tradition-laden conversations: "Mom put the turkey in at 3 a.m. again." "Aunt Jane is bringing that great pie." "Carol drove four hours to introduce us to her new boyfriend."
So when my daughter was 10 and decided she was ready to tackle the longer race, I looked forward to the company. We opted for the shorter, 5K route. She began with enthusiasm. She smiled at the long uphill stretch. She wove politely around the clumps of walkers and stroller-pushers. Halfway, though, she abruptly stopped, squinted at me, and asked: "Are we almost done?"
When we made it to the finish, we felt worn and grumpy. So on the ride home, I was surprised to hear her declare, "I want to do the longer race again next year!"
Where once I'd sought to fill the morning with something to do, I now craved morning with nothing on the schedule. I had come to dread getting everyone up and off to the starting line on time.
Although I still worried a bit about having an empty holiday, I figured it would fill with activities as our family's schedule always does.
As fall neared, I didn't mention the race. At Halloween, though, someone pulled out a light-up turkey pin, a prize from an earlier race. My son's first race flickered in my memory. "Did you send in our race stuff?" he asked.
"I thought we'd take a break this year," I said cheerfully.
He blinked at me. "Why?"
I was prepared. "Well, who feels like getting up so early? And those crowds? And remember it was snowing last year, and our feet froze."
"What about the doughnuts?" my daughter asked. "And the free pie at the end?"
"And Duncan," my son added, scratching our dog's back. "He likes it when Dad carries him over that bridge."
We all laughed, thinking of the open-grate footbridge that our 65-pound dog is afraid to walk on.
I felt my resolve softening.
"You want to run?" I asked.
I guess Thanksgiving traditions that evolved from sweat and powdered-sugar doughnuts do count after all.