Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where's M.A.?

I was happily one of 15,000 people on Thanksgiving morning in Manchester, CT, participating in a 74-year-old tradition of running 4.7 miles to usher in the holiday season.

The Manchester Road Race started in 1927 when the captain of the Manchester High School cross-country team was sad that his track season was over in early November, and thought it would be fun if there were a Thanksgiving Day cross-country race for the town. The Manchester recreation director got on board and then the town government, and so a tradition was started.

Today it’s competitors and customs. Generations of families run together, and there’s a contingent of imaginative costumes, including: blue bodied smurfs; suit and sunglassed Blues Brothers; an entire Thanksgiving dinner; a running Christmas tree; and several different groups of men in Hawaiian hulu outfits. Townspeople line most of the route, cheering people on, some blaring some inspiring music, which really does help. Various homegrown bands play for the crowd: rock bands play some mean Leonard Skynard and the Stones; there was a brass quintet; an accordion band; and the St. Patrick's bagpipe band from Glastonbury. The whole atmosphere is incredibly festive.

I was happy with my 63 minutes finish time for 4.7 miles. I had to power-walk up the big hill, but since I’ve been power walking in NY a lot longer than I’ve been trying to run, I didn’t fall too far behind in time.

Manchester, Then & Now
I wasn’t familiar with Manchester before my friends invited me along. I learned it was the site of the first successful professional silk mill in the US, founded by Ralph, Ward, and Frank Cheney in 1838. With the success of Cheney silks, Manchester grew into a quintessential company town. The town has preserved the remnants of the dynasty’s homes and mills, and its archives are an important source of knowledge for the mill production work of New England.

The family ran the company until they were bought out by JP Stevens in 1954. The town never recovered its company town prosperity and it has suffered in the recnt economic downturns. It is sprinkled with antique stores, and I guess it sees some business from the NY to Boston “antique-ing” seekers.

The race begins with the "Star Spangled-Banner," and after “on your marks, get set, go” is proclaimed, the race kicks off to a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” followed by Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

Somewhere amid all this ceremony I heard the announcer say something like “let us remember our neighbors,” and he read a fairly long list of names.

And then a chill went down my spine. I remembered. Manchester. There was a shooting in Manchester in August. A worker at a beer distributor was accused of stealing, and was asked by his boss to resign or be fired. After viewing videotape surveillance they had of him stealing from his route, he signed a resignation. He then asked to go get a drink of water, and he picked up 2 guns he had brought with him in his lunch pail. He shot eight people, and then himself. He had complained to his mother and girlfriend of racist treatment from his employers, though he had never filed a complaint with the union.

The announcer was reading the names of the those who were shot dead. Standing amid 15,000 people it was a poignant reminder how much our lives are affected by our neighbors. There are times when we celebrate together, sometimes even in running shoes. But the fabric of individual life and collective society is always very, very fragile.

Update 11/29: Turns out that Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King was at the race too. Here's his account (h/t my brother):

A good time was had by all at the 74th annual Manchester (Conn.) Road Race in central Connecticut Thanksgiving morning. What a slice of Americana. Ran in memory of my late brother Bob with his widow, Caroline; visiting daughters Laura and Mary Beth; nephew Evan and niece Laila, Bob and Caroline's children; along with their teammates from the South Windsor (Conn.) High cross-country team ... all in bright green "Bob's Team'' T-shirts designed by Laila. A great morning, though it was 29 degrees at the start of the race.

This was one of those leisure 4.8-milers, even with a mile-long winding hill early in the race, with 15 bands playing by the side of the Manchester roadways, and some of the most incredible costumes. Eight guys streamed past at one point in little loincloths and native-American feathers around their heads, wearing nothing else but running shoes. As one of the rock bands played "Fortunate Son'' on a lawn 1.5 miles into it, a guy dressed as one of the Hanson brothers from "Slapshot'' danced on the lawn with a woman dressed from head to toe as a bright red lobster. And so it went. Never had more fun running a race, even though I finished around 11,000th out of 15,000. At least I edged out 90-year-old Betty Hutchinson. Now that would have been embarrassing.