There we were, sloshing through mud, helping each other across streams and calling out warnings of hidden puddles. Looking at the line of people ahead, I imagined we were on a pilgrimage, slowly marching along a narrow, winding trail through a wet and unpredictable forest. The young children and the elderly were given special attention across particularly hazardous crossings, but we were all at risk of a slip or a muddy accident.

Amidst the chaos, shouts of “Happy Thanksgiving” could be heard up and down the path.

When I suggested to my parents that our family should sign up for the Rockford 5k Thanksgiving Trot, I assumed that the biggest challenge would be the physical strain of the actual run. None of us would have guessed that running would be the least of our worries (or priorities) that morning.

My race bib – I was number 423.

Though we are a relatively active family – my dad is a tennis instructor, my mom teaches aquatics classes and my siblings and I play competitive tennis – we had never done an organized race together. This was going to be the year that we got off the couch and worked off our turkey before eating it. The way this turkey trot is structured, each participant guesses his or her finish time for approximately 3.1 miles (5k), and the person who finishes closest to that predicted time wins a pie or a turkey. My sister Caroline and I set our time at 30 minutes, and my brother Anderson guessed 20 minutes. My youngest sister Summer, my dad and my mom planned on walking the course and guessed 40, 44 and 47 minutes, respectively.

The first sign of trouble came before the race even started. It was a rainy morning, and on the way to the site, we made a wrong turn and found ourselves in an unexpected race against time. I guess you could consider it a warm up. At the height of our panic, we passed by a huge pack of turkey trotters already running the first stretch of the course. We pulled into the parking lot five minutes late, pinned on our numbers and started the course. We must have been quite a sight to the 20 or so onlookers – a family of six just getting started with no one else in sight.

The “path,” which was along the perimeter of a grassy field, was marked with small, orange flags that closely resembled an invisible fence for dogs. My first sign that this run was going to be an adventure came a few minutes into the race when some of the volunteers directed us off of what appeared to be the main path and onto an alternative path that ran along the crest of a steep hill. It got even stranger when I realized that the only way to continue on the path was to run down the hill, which was now slippery with rain. Once we reached the bottom of the hill, we had to run near the edge of what looked like a 10-foot drop onto concrete. This led right to the entrance of a forested area where the trail picked up.

To our surprise, we quickly caught up to the end of the pack. But instead of running, people were walking single-file along a narrow and dangerous-looking path through the forest. I had originally been running with Caroline and Anderson, but we now found ourselves at a standstill. This is where my original story picks up. Instead of running, we were now trudging through mud, rain and leaves at a pace slower than a trot. My parents and youngest sister soon caught up with us, and we marched on together, trailing the group of over 600 participants. The rain had steadily been gaining momentum, and it was now pouring, turning the dirt below us into mud. At one point a man helped us down a slope and cheerfully warned us of the tree-limbo and creek-crossing that lay ahead. My dad commented that it felt like we were in boot camp.

About halfway through the forest the path branched off, and there were signs that indicated a “shortcut” and a “running” path. Wanting to get in some more exercise, my siblings and I chose the running path and continued to run for the majority of the remaining course. Although his 20-minute time prediction was unsalvageable, my brother eventually took off and clocked in at 54:50.9 for a 576th place finish and was 633/638 in time predictions. Summer, Caroline and I came in at 587th, 588th and 589th place and my parents finished in 607th and 608th place.

The race was a thumbs-up!

After all of us had crossed the finish line, we took a quick picture and piled into the car, trekking mud, rain and soggy race bibs. We showered at the YMCA and quickly got ready to go fill up on Thanksgiving food.

So what was the result? It turns out that among the six of us my mom made the closest prediction of 47 minutes. I guess the last will be first, right? But even though our experience wasn’t what we expected, it was unarguably very memorable. After it was all said and done, my dad acknowledged the Rockford Turkey Trot as a new Park family tradition. Perhaps future runs will be more predictable. Maybe there will be snow instead of rain. There’s a chance we’ll actually get there on time. But whatever the result, we can look back on our “Turkey Trot Trouble” and remember that this tradition didn’t start with speed or perfect planning – it started with a wrong turn and unexpected adventure.

Feature Photo