Behind the Scenes of Cincinnati's 110th-Annual Thanksgiving Day Race

Race director Julie Isphording talks about the history and impact of the Thanksgiving Day Race — the only one with Pepto-Bismol available at the finish line

click to enlarge Thanksgiving Day Race - Photo: Provided by the Thanksgiving Day Race
Photo: Provided by the Thanksgiving Day Race
Thanksgiving Day Race

Thanksgiving isn’t just about turkey and football in Cincinnati — it’s about the annual Thanksgiving Day Race, which this year will celebrate its 110th anniversary. One of the oldest races in the country, the event has become a staple in many local Thanksgiving Day plans.

“There’s something traditional about it,” says race director Julie Isphording. “It highlights the topography, people and charities in the city.”

This year’s race begins and ends at Paul Brown Stadium, circling through downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Covington and Newport. While there are serious runners competing to win, Isphording says the event is also focused on providing a fun atmosphere for kids and families. A kids’ fun run will take place at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the main race kicks off.

Isphording has a long resume when it comes to the running world: She competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and won the Los Angeles marathon in 1990. She’s been the race director for the Thanksgiving Day Race for 17 years and has won it 12 times, so she's the perfect person to ask about its history and impact.

CityBeat: Why has the Thanksgiving Day Race endured for so long?

Julie Isphording: Cincinnati is a wonderful place to run, play and live. The people of Cincinnati make it a special tradition on their race day calendar, Thanksgiving Day calendar and family calendar.

CB: Why do you think most people participate in the Thanksgiving Day race?

JI: It’s a place where people congregate before Thanksgiving to do something healthy. For example, the Westrich family of Cincinnati, their father loved the race and he died of cancer last year, and 30 of the family members made shirts and did the run. The race is more like a running party. For me, I’ve been in the Olympics and ran in the Boston and New York City marathon, and this race has always been my favorite race because my family and friends got to be there.

CBAre there any professional marathoners who run in the race like there are in the Flying Pig?

JI: This race is the largest family race in the country. It’s meant for families and for talking. If you can’t talk, you’re running too fast. Only about 130 people are doing it for the competition. I believe running and walking is the happiest place to health because you can do it with people.

CBWhat makes the Thanksgiving Day Race different from other races in the Cincinnati area?

JI: It’s one of the oldest races, it's a Cincinnati tradition and it puts us on a national map. The race is put together beautifully, and it does good things for the health of the individual, corporations/sponsors and the charities. Only good things come from the race — it’s about sharing the goodness.

CBCincinnati is known for its hilly terrain. How does the course compare with other runs? Is it difficult?

JI: Well, there are no flat hills in Cincinnati. Cincinnati has the perfect amount of hills, flats and things to look at. Hills are good because it helps to change strides. Don’t be afraid of the hills; they can help you.

CBThe weather here can obviously be rough on Thanksgiving. How does that affect runners?

JI: The people expect it to be cold, so it’s never a problem. It’s challenging enough to get yourself down there and run. The weather is harder on the volunteers because they are just there and not running.

CBHow has the race changed in the past few years?

JI: The race has changed a lot in terms of security and safety because of the world we live in today. We have increased safety procedures and emergency medical services. The No. 1 thing is the safety and security of every runner on the course. Other ways the race has changed is that we can have results posted the moment you finish and pictures taken when you cross the finish line, and we are the only race with Pepto-Bismol at the finish line.

CBWhen do organizers start preparing for the race each year?

JI: Right now, I’m preparing for next year’s race. It’s a year-long process. I’m thinking about ideas for the next year all the time.

CBWhat should first-timers running the Thanksgiving Day Race know before taking it on?

JI: Don’t forget to breathe!

The 110th annual Thanksgiving Day Race takes place 9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 28 at Paul Brown Stadium. In-person registration is available from 7-8:59 a.m. race day morning. More info:

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