On Thanksgiving Day in the early 1990s, long-distance runner Cathy O'Brien would travel from her home in New Hampshire to her in-laws on Long Island for a traditional holiday feast.
On the way, O'Brien, a two-time Olympian, would make a detour of sorts to run (and later win twice) the Manchester Road Race.
"It worked out well in our family," O'Brien says in a telephone interview. "I would show up at my in-laws with a big bouquet of roses that they gave me, and I'd be really hungry, ready to eat, feeling like I had earned it."
Though her competitive running days are behind her, O'Brien will be in Manchester this Thanksgiving Day as the race's honorary chairperson. O'Brien was the top women finisher in the MRR in 1990 and 1991 and set back-to-back course records. Her 1991 time of 24:06 stood as the course standard for 12 years.
"I'm really excited," she says. "I was thrilled and pleased to come back to a place where I have such fond memories.
O'Brien is just a small piece of the rich history of the race, which is in its 80th year. Thirteen Olympic medalists have run the MRR, and, according to race president Tris Carta, Olympian Taoufik Makhloufi, a silver medalist in the men's 1,500 in Rio, will participate this year.
But there's more to the race than world-class competition. An even bigger group of runners will dress up like it's Halloween and take part in the race as though its a 4.748-mile party. There are 15,000 runner slots, all of which are expected to be filled. The final day for advanced registration is noon Nov. 17. After that date, registration is by walk-in only at a sports and fitness expo at Cone Gym in Bennett Academy on Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A costume contest, sponsored by The Courant, is held before the race. Participants should register in person between 8 and 10 a.m. near the dancing statue on Main Street, where their photos will be taken and published online by Nov. 25. Public voting will run through Dec. 5, and winners will be announced online at ctnow.com on Dec. 5 and in print on Dec. 8 (more details below).
"Every person has their own motive to be there," says Carta. "Some people have proposed there; we get elite runners, teams of multiple generations of people, and the costume people come to have a great time."
"It's got it all," O'Brien agrees. "It's a high-level race in terms of competition, but it also is a great race for everyone to participate in. In terms of its history, I don't know of a better race."
O'Brien said race organizers walked a fine line in attracting elite runners with high purses and outreach, while also making average runners feel welcome.
"They definitely made it worthwhile for elite athletes," she says. "I feel like they catered in a unique way to attracting elite athletes and making it comfortable for them; but they also make it comfortable for people who just want to participate in a road race. It's not easy to get both things. In merging the two, they make you feel connected. … It's not two different races."
An estimated 30,000 spectators, as well as bands and vendors, are expected to line the course, cheering on the participants.
"One of the things, as a runner, with a lot of the longer races, you run by yourself," Carta said. "One reason the Manchester Road Race is so popular is, no matter what the conditions, people go out and cheer [the runners] on. It's unique that way."
To add to the festive atmosphere, this year's race also includes the inaugural Road Race Saturday, which takes place on Nov. 19, and will feature a full program of events in the morning from 7:30 to 10 a.m. and in the evening at 6 p.m. Among the events that day are a sports and fitness expo (starting at 8:30 a.m. at Cone Gym in Bennett Academy), road race check-in (also beginning at 8:30 a.m. at Cone Gym), bagpipe music (9:30 a.m. at Bennett Academy soccer field) and the dinner dance (a ticketed event at 6 p.m. at A Villa Louisa in Bolton).
And while she isn't certain if she will run on Thanksgiving or if she will ride along on the media truck, O'Brien is looking forward to returning to Manchester.
"I'm going to enjoy it more, not focused on it as a traditional runner, but as someone … looking at it in different light and contributing in a different way."
To participate in the Manchester Road Race costume contest, just show up between 8 and 10 a.m. on race day at the tent on Main Street in front of Center Memorial Park by the statue of the three bears to have your photo taken. The public votes online for the winners Nov. 25 to Dec. 4; winners notified Dec. 5. First, second and third place winners will receive $100, $50 and $25 gift cards to local restaurants. Photos of participants will be displayed at CTNOW.com/pictures. Rules here.
The race starts at 10 a.m. Thanksgiving Day in front of St. James Church on Main Street. There are suitable viewing areas along the entire length of the race, but Main Street downtown is the most popular. A free shuttle leaves from Manchester Community College from 7:45 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. Arrive early; the shuttles and downtown area parking fill up fast. Registration and more information at manchesterroadrace.com.