Everything these days seems documented and accessible. Thanks to technology, the fact that Honus Wagner only went 6 for 27 for the Pittsburg Pirates in 1903 versus the Boston Americans is only a point-and-click away. The NFL’s leading rusher in 1949? Lyrics to the 1955 Kingsmen hit “Louie Louie?” With a smartphone, you can settle almost any debate in seconds.
Then there’s the history of local running – perhaps the last category of minutiae primarily retained in the great oral tradition and passionately debated in small circles of running folklorists.
Staging its 30th run in the past 32 years, Saturday’s New Hope Turkey Run in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest bills itself as, arguably, the oldest annual running race in the area. The race benefits the New Hope Improvement Association (NHIA).
“Somebody else may say they were doing their race before this,” race director Walter Fowler said, “but it’s the oldest I know of. We missed 1996 after Hurricane Fran and 2001 due to the ice storm...”
“Well, I think the Run for the Donuts has been around for almost as long,” Carolina Godiva Track Club runner Jim Clabuesch mused shortly after finishing second in Saturday’s 4-mile trail run. “Godiva started in 1976, and the Donut Run had to have started about the same time.”
“Well, the first Donut Run was definitely before 1985,” said fellow Godiva runner Owen Astrachan, happening upon the debate, “but it hasn’t missed any other years. Oh, and the Hard Climb Hill Run has been around almost as long too.”
No one seemed qualified to say the race was not the longest running in the area, however. Take that, Google.
Fowler explained that times were provided to runners as they finished and recorded only so as to award the top finishers, which included overall winner Brian Tajlili (25:51), second-place finisher Jim Clabuesch (25:42), and third-place runner Christian Johnson (26:57).
“It was a nice day…but it was a tough course – it was pretty hilly,” Tajlili said. “You come back and cross a creek, and then you have to come up a (tough) hill.”
Among the women, it was N.C. State graduate student Lara Brydon-Corton (28:42) in first, with Rietta Couper (34:13) and Aline Lloyd (35:02) giving chase.
Prizes also went out to the oldest male and female finishers, Vic Lukas and Supatra Campbell, respectively. The youngest male finisher was Kyle Dobso, while the youngest girl to complete the course was Nina Elvin.
But despite generously rewarding a handful of winners, the race truly celebrated a just-for-fun atmosphere.
“We try to emphasize that time doesn’t matter,” said former race director Peter Klopfer, who aided Fowler Saturday. Once an elite marathoner and women’s club track coach at Duke University, Klopfer founded the Carolina Track Club before it merged with Godiva.
“We don’t call it the Turkey race – it’s the Turkey Run,” Fowler said. “It’s a race for some people, but not for everyone, and that’s the way most races are though.”
“Other races tend to become more and more competitive,” Klopfer said. “Now you can’t find a low-key race. What I do to keep it that way is to change the actual race length every year. I know how long it is, but as far as anyone else is concerned, all anyone knows is that it’s ‘roughly’ 4 miles.”
Despite the uncertainty in race distance, almost every one of the 100-plus participants was certain to leave happy, many carrying prizes, gift certificates, or home cooked baked goods.
“It amazes me that there are only just over 100 runners though,” Fowler said, “because it’s one of the richest races I know of.”
Fowler said what truly set the race apart from most other races was the “random draw” for the bulk of the awards, including dozens of baked items made by members of the neighborhood and about that many merchandise awards from businesses in Chapel Hill and Durham. For a registration fee of just $10, factor in the aroma of a fresh-cooked light breakfast awaiting all participants at the New Hope Community Center on Whitfield Road, and it’s one of the best-kept secrets around.
Klopfer said the initial idea of NHIA race organizers was to raise huge amounts of money.
“They had no idea (how),” he said, “so they called three of us from the Carolina Godiva Track Club to act as consultants, and they ended up asking us to take it over. The first thing we told them was that this wasn’t a great way to raise a lot of money.”
Those organizers didn’t have racing experience,” Fowler said, “and (that’s why) there’s a quirky character of the race that continues to this day.”
One of the few changes since the race’s inception is a move earlier into the fall.
“We switched if from a December date around five or six years ago after a couple particularly cold winter race dates,” Fowler said. “We’ve been fairly lucky the past couple years. This is the first year in a while that we’ve had a frost.”
One other change is the flavor brought to the event by the influence of its unofficial matriarch, (Betty) Sue Duncan Whitfield, who died at her home on October 23. Raised on Homestead Road, Chapel Hill, she and her husband – owners of the Hollow Rock County Store on Erwin Road for over 25 years – were the last Whitfields to grace Whitfield Road. She was instrumental both in organizing the New Hope Improvement Association and the Turkey Run. In 2009, she received the Clarence F. Korstian Award in recognition of her exemplary support of Duke Forest.
“This is our first time without her, and it just doesn’t feel the same,” Fowler’s wife Gail Boyarsky said. “She was the former president of the association, and the Whitfields actually donated this land.”
“She set this race up, and we’re just continuing it,” Fowler said. “I think she’d be proud, though, of the way we’re carrying it on.”
Boyarsky said that Sue Whitfield’s father-in-law used to start the race with the report of a shotgun, and then his son (Sue’s husband) Stanford carried on the tradition.
And while running historians may debate the origins of this run, what’s most important isn’t when it started. The New Hope Turkey Run is still running strong, and that an indisputable fact, which is a rarity in itself in the running community.