A year ago, Mike Miller was apprehensive about a bitterly frigid start to a Weymouth tradition that he had been entrusted with carrying on.
After 25 years of running the Dreamcatcher Classic Road Race to raise money for scholarships in memory of Julie Rodick, her family turned the Thanksgiving morning road race over to Miller, a social studies teacher and girls cross-country/track coach at Weymouth High.
It only happened to be the year of one of the coldest Thanksgivings in recorded history.
“A lot of towns were canceling or postponing their races,” Miller said. “I was getting asked if we were going to cancel. My answer was: ‘No! If I did, there would be a riot in town.’ ”
So, with the help of many of his cross-country and track runners who showed up by 6 a.m. on the holiday, Miller set up registration tables, put the finishing touches on the course and refreshments, and waited to see how many people were willing to brave the deep freeze.
“I was amazed,” Miller recalled.
“Almost everyone who registered showed up. People on the South Shore are hardcore people. I think a lot of people came to prove a point. They were going to tell people forever that they ran a road race on Thanksgiving when it was 12 degrees out.”
Roughly 800 runners ran the 2018 race that now raises money for scholarships to offset athletic user fees at Weymouth High; he expects up to 1,200 runners for this year’s race.
Julie Glavin, a three-sport captain at Weymouth last year who now runs cross-country and track at Bridgewater State University, was a recipient of one of the scholarships. With two younger siblings also playing sports at the school, it was a big help to her family. She had run the race when she was younger before helping out with the organization last year.
“It is very popular with people throughout the town,” she said. “We didn’t see a big dropoff despite the cold. It looked the same as always. It’s definitely become a tradition. It’s a very family-oriented day. It’s great to see everyone in town come together as one before they go their separate ways to do family time.”
The Dreamcatcher Classic is one of dozens of Thanksgiving road races that have popped up throughout the region in recent years.
The website New England Runner lists 14 in Eastern Mass. and 28 throughout New England scheduled for Thursday morning with some attracting small fields of runners and some – like the Manchester Road Race in Connecticut – boasting more than 10,000 runners each year.
“When we started 18 years ago we had 20 runners,” said Elaine Schiffmann, who organizes the Milton Turkey Trot to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in memory of her late sister, Theresa Singer Haley, who died of cancer at age 35.
“I will never forget that. It was rainy, cold, icy. But people ran, and we had more and more each year. Two years ago, we were up to 600 runners.”
Schiffmann said coffee and treats are donated by local business, and that instead of charging a registration fee, she puts out a hamper where people can toss in whatever donation they choose to give. She said through last year, the Milton Turkey Trot has raised more than $60,000 for cancer research.
“It’s a grass-roots thing where people are very generous,” Schiffmann said. “Some people leave big amounts of money and some people leave small amounts. It doesn’t matter. Every bit counts. People are just crazy about this race and look forward to it.”
Anne Marie Winchester owns South Shore Race Management, which runs up to 50 races each year, including the Running of the Pilgrims 5K in Plymouth. While her Thanksgiving race has the benefit of a course that starts at the birthplace of Thanksgiving near Plymouth Rock, she said the charities are what makes each town’s holiday race so popular.
“Regardless of where you run, when you do run on Thanksgiving you are usually supporting someone who needs it,” said Winchester, whose Running of the Pilgrims 5K race benefits the Wonderfund Toy Drive in Plymouth, the South Shore Community Action Council food services program, and the Plymouth 400 business initiative.
“A lot of them are food pantries. But regardless of which town it is, you are doing something good.”
Winchester noted that while many of the races she directs bring in the dedicated running community, the field for the holiday race has a different look.
“Thanksgiving is the one day of the year when a lot of people run road races who don’t normally run them,” Winchester said. “I’ll look at the registrations and I will know one name from town, but then that person brings their entire family along. You don’t get that at other races through the year.”
That feeling of bringing the community together to give back to community is big reason why Milller said he sought to continue the Weymouth tradition of the Dreamcatcher that the Rodick family started after their daughter died in a car crash in 1993.
“It’s what we’ve done every Thanksgiving morning,” he said. “If I was in town, I would never miss it. That’s where you would go to meet up with friends before you saw your family. People walk away saying that they earned their big Thanksgiving dinner that night. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. It only matters that they believe it.”