Forty one Years of History; The 25th on Thanksgiving this Year
“The Turkey Trot.” At 40 years old, it’s achieved the status of “household name” in the Tallahassee area. It seems like everyone knows about the race held on Thanksgiving morning every year in SouthWood. And, in fact, it has become a community-wide mega-event, with individuals, multi-generational families, groups of neighbors, and teams of office workers totaling upwards of 6,000 bodies and souls giving thanks and working up their appetites for their holiday dinners.
But for many years, it wasn’t actually on Thanksgiving Day and it was not even called the Turkey Trot. The earliest races, in 1976 and 1977, were called simply “10 milers” at the time. In 1978, the event was named the Turkey Trot, but that name stuck for only four years. It was changed to the “Dean Chenoweth Classic” and then the “Chenoweth/Budweiser” from 1982 through 1989. It was the “First Union Bank 15K/5K” in 1990 and 1991. In 1992, the race, traditionally held on the second or third Saturday in November, moved to Thanksgiving Day, and it’s been the Tallahassee Turkey Trot ever since!
2017 marks the Turkey Trot’s 16th year at SouthWood, and it feels very much like home! But the race took a rather circuitous route getting there. The 10 mile events in 1976 and 1977 were held at Natural Bridge in Woodville, the setting for many of the Gulf Winds Track Club’s (GWTC) early races. From 1978-1983, the Turkey Trot employed three or four different courses, but all started and finished on the Florida State University (FSU) campus. Then the event adopted a hilly, two-loop route from the Civic Center through FSU and back, that lasted through 1991. In 1992, the Turkey Trot moved south to the Leon County Fairgrounds area, running out-and-back along Tram Road and Gaile Avenue. Finally, in 2002, the Turkey Trot arrived in “the Promised Land” around Central Park Lake in SouthWood, with no plans to move again!
Of course, the heart of every race lies with the runners. And over the years, the Turkey Trot has seen a veritable parade of Tallahassee’s all-time greatest: on the men’s stage – Ken Misner, George West, Larry Greene, and Herb Wills; and on the women’s side – Janice Gage/Hochstein, Carla Borovicka, Margaret Coomber, Breeda Dennehy-Willis, and Sarah Docter-Williams.
But two names stand above all others in Turkey Trot running lore: Jessie Close and Jane Johnson. Over a 20 year span, Jessie won six 15K Open and two Masters Titles! And since 1998, Jane has been victorious four times in the 15K Open division and nine times in the Masters…plus once in the Open 10K! Talk about quality AND quantity.
Two “newcomers” have also been staking their claims to “Hall of Fame” status: Sheryl Rosen has won six of the last nine 15K’s, and Chris Lake, six of the last seven. Both will run this year as defending champions and could, by the end of the day, own the most open titles of anyone.
One particular performance deserves special mention: in 1996, 41 year old Phillip Rowan ran 31:49, the second fastest 10K ever at TT, and the highest age-graded performance over any distance in the event’s history!
The runners may be the heart of a race, but there are various support systems crucial to its life and sustenance. The Turkey Trot has been helped greatly by several sponsors over the years. The Tallahassee Democrat originally put the race on the map in 1978, and Chenoweth Distributors carried the event through the eighties. And since 2002, Capital Health Plan (CHP) has provided the perfect fit for an event that promotes healthy living through exercise. CHP, which also supports the Springtime 10K, is the longest running sponsor of Turkey Trot…or any other GWTC event!
Throughout Turkey Trot history, race volunteers have provided its backbone….people like the late Jere Moore, whose Northside Kiwanis have been in charge of Turkey Trot parking for over 20 years, and GWTC’s incomparable Bill Lott and Ray Hanlon, who direct the largest and busiest finish line in Big Bend history! Mary Register first got involved with Turkey Trot in the early 1980’s, through her close ties with the Chenoweth family and business. She played a crucial role in maintaining the Chenoweth connection through the deaths of both Dean and Jenny, and has kept the family’s name alive by helping to develop the Chenoweth Memorial Fund, which has distributed more than $121,000 to local youth running since 1988! And of course the race would come to a stop without the FSU wonder women who support the Refuge House by supporting the race – Cecile Reynaud, Joanne Graf, Alicia Crew, Janet Stoner and Sara Hendry.
For many years, Judy Alexander and Brian Corbin loaded and sorted an entire U-Haul filled with food and clothing donations bound for the Refuge House and The Shelter! These two organizations, along with the Boys & Girls Club of the Big Bend, are also crucial to the event. The help and service they provide to those in need is what inspires the spirit of giving that provides the Turkey Trot with its unique spirit.
And then, there is Rayanne Mitchell’s Lincoln High School crew, who annually tackle the very difficult challenge of getting water to 5,000+ runners, less than 2 miles into the race! In addition, the Tallahassee Community College African Drum and Dance Ensemble turns out each year to inject a shot of rhythm and percussive energy to the runners circling Central Park Lake. The Boys & Girls Club’s Stick Patrol Drum Line has also joined in this effort and fires up the runners as they make the turn onto Merchants Row and run to the finish line. And these are just a very few of the folks who have made the Turkey Trot what it is.
Finally, the position of Race Director is where the event starts and the buck stops, and the Turkey Trot has been blessed with the cream of the crop. Over its 40-year span, the event has had seven race directors, and five of them have been both GWTC presidents and Hall of Fame members! These high quality leaders include Jim Stephens, Mike Eakin, Dot Skofronick, along with David and Mary Jean Yon. Of this stellar group, one person’s vision and innovative changes merit special recognition.
David Yon first directed TT from 1986-1989. He stepped back for a couple of years, but stepped back up without hesitation when the race he loved hit hard times after the 1991 edition. In one sweeping move, he changed the event’s name back to Turkey Trot, moved it to Thanksgiving Day (unprecedented in Tallahassee), and shifted the venue away from the congested FSU area of town. The seeds had been sown for the event’s eventual mega-success.
David also added a 10K and a one mile Turkey Gobbler, creating a “smorgasbord” of running options. He also instituted the option of choosing one’s distance during the race! During its ten years around the Leon County Fairgrounds area, David, with Mary Jean as co-conductor, orchestrated the growth of the event and a voluntary food and donations drive was started. The Shelter and, soon thereafter, Refuge House were adopted as race beneficiaries, and the number of participants slowly grew from under 200 to over 800.
The move to SouthWood in 2002, with 5K, 10K, and 15K courses featuring the picturesque Central Park Lake, was David’s ultimate coup. Through the ensuing years, ideas have kept pouring out of him; these include a Music Fest the Sunday prior to the race to attract folks for pre-registration and packet pick-up, the Kent Vann Award to encourage school participation, and the “Turkey Trot Hero” program to bolster charitable donations. Meanwhile, race day participation has approached 7,000!
Of course, David could not have accomplished all this on his own. Mary Jean has been on board since the beginning and has brought her own touches to the race as well. Whenever she’s seen a need, such as in race day registration or recruiting music groups on the course to entertain the runners, she has made it happen, and has served as an invaluable partner to David in all things Turkey Trot.
David sums it up best when he says “What makes Turkey Trot special to me is that at least one morning a year, despite all of our differences and difficulties, we come together and enjoy one of life’s best activities. Some run hard, while others walk, but all seem to leave with a smile on their face and a happy story in their pocket.”
Amen to that. And long live the Turkey Trot!