We are Older, But Better, But Older
A Fast History of the 112-Year-Old Tradition
Started in 1908, Greater Cincinnati's turkey day run is the sixth oldest race in America, behind only the Boston Marathon and a handful of other nearly century-old events, according to Runner's World Magazine.
The 2021 race is the 112th in its history, interrupted in 1918, when World War I intervened, in 1936, when management problems caused the race to miss a year, and in 2020 when Covid lock downs forced everyone to run virtually.
The event's origins — and the choice of Thanksgiving Day — are a bit hazy even to long-time race organizers. Some say the race was started by the downtown YMCA under the provisions of its charter. Others suggest that a few local runners simply decided to organize a race one year, chose a holiday when most people would be off work and never imagined that it still would be going strong in the 21st century.
Eighteen of the 21 runners entered in 1908 Cincinnati race finished the seven-mile course, led by Lovell Draper of Cincinnati who completed the distance in 37 minutes and 15 seconds, about three minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
More than 111years after those runners raced from the Fort Thomas Gym to the YMCA in downtown Cincinnati, the Western & Southern Thanksgiving Day Race - the oldest road race of any kind in the Midwest - has become an integral part of the holiday season for the thousands who run it annually and the thousands more who cheer them on all along the 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) course.
From its modest beginning, the race has grown steadily over the years, peaking at 17,567 at the 100th anniversary run in 2009.
Another huge milestone is that the race has transitioned from 90 percent male runners to almost a 50/50 percent split. In 2018, women participants outnumbered the men by a modest 15 runners, something that Secret® recognized with gifts to all the female runners that year — a tradition that continues today and encourages women everywhere to challenge themselves and inspire each other.
Although no one knows what the crowds will be post-Covid, everyone hopes that the beautiful, moving celebration will bring back thousands of families and friends. “It has been a long time coming — too long — to be without our wonderful Cincinnati race,” said Dr. Bill Barrett, co-medical director of the Barrett Cancer Center at UC and founder of Cincinnati Cancer Advisors, two of the major charities that will benefit from the run along with the Alzheimer’s Association, Girls on the Run, Urban YoungLife, CancerFree Kids, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful.
Many runners have competed in 20, 30, 40 or more Thanksgiving Day Races, which draw old high school and college track teams back for annual reunions, families who run together and others who apparently feel that a brisk six-mile-plus run is the perfect way to work up a good appetite for that turkey dinner later in the day.
This year, renowned singer, runner, and mom Mary Southworth will be singing the National Anthem, as she has done for 10 straight years. “If you want to witness 12,000 people in perfect silence starring upward toward the American flag flying on top of Great American Tower, race day on Thanksgiving morning is the place you want to be,” said Dr. Barrett.
From the event's first step in 1908 with a few men in skippy shorts, to the misstep in 1924 when the whole race came to a halt for a passing streetcar, to the first women's step in 1970, to an Olympic step — four runners became Olympians — to the heroic step of a 16-year-old who saved a man's life at mile 5, the very old running event is a beautiful and inspiring event for everyone who steps up to the starting line – and finish line!
“Thanksgiving Day in Cincinnati is one of those special days where you’ll remember your friends and family more than your finishing time,” said Dr. Barrett.
This November, take your step! Bring your whole family together downtown on Thanksgiving Day morning — unstuffed, happy, and healthy — and make it your own Cincinnati tradition.