Thursday, June 20, 2024

With a new look and added precautions, the show goes on for Wrightsville Beach Turkey Trot

Runners surge ahead on the Wrightsville Beach loop during the 2019 Turkey Trot (Port City Daily/Courtesy Go Time, Pierce Productions)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Though new safety measures will give the race a different look, the Wrightsville Beach Turkey Trot is scheduled to take place on Thanksgiving. It will continue its annual mission of raising funds for Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. 

The 5k race begins each year outside Wrightsville Beach Town Hall and meanders through the streets of the beach town and its looped trail. The heavy lifting and planning with new precautions this year largely rested on the shoulders of the local Habitat branch, and those from Go Time, the race timing company.

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The race previously has drawn more than 3,000 participants, but Thursday the number of racers will be capped at 1,000. Runners will be grouped in waves of 50 at the starting line, separated by 15-minute intervals. 

The most recent guidelines from N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office require “mass gatherings” to be limited to groups of 50 or fewer; these gatherings apply to individual groups within a given outdoor space, rather than to a general location like a beach or park, allowing race organizers to stay within regulatory lanes by staggering the start times at the Turkey Trot in groups of 50.

In a typical year, proceeds from the Turkey Trot can surpass $100,000 for Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity — an organization that constructs affordable homes for individuals in the community. Habitat’s windfall from the Turkey Trot has garnered enough funds to allow the organization to sponsor and build an entire additional home, according Coy Rigdon, a Habitat official who serves as the Turkey Trot race director. 

“The Turkey Trot is one of our largest fundraisers of the year, so it’s definitely very important to our operating budget to make sure that we hold this event,” Rigdon said. “Wrightsville Beach has been great to work with. They definitely want to keep a safe community, but they also know how important events like this are to nonprofits like us.” 

Rigdon and Habitat staff coordinated with Go Time — a hub for the local running community that manages hardware for timing road races — to create a plan that would satisfy the current slate of coronavirus-related regulations, which typically limit mass gatherings. 

“The 80 nonprofit organizations that this company serves, their needs go on,” Go Time president Colin Hackman said. “The pandemic doesn’t stop their developmental needs, their fundraising needs.” 

While the pandemic has led to the cancellation and rescheduling of large public events since March, the running community, maintaining that it is a valuable promoter of public health interests, has fought to move forward with major road races while complying with the relevant restrictions, Hackman said. 

“We had to prove to our hospital, to the town of Wrightsville Beach, that we could put on an event like this safely, within the governor’s orders, that wouldn’t allow for large groups to be in the same place at the same time,” Hackman said. “So it changes the dynamic of what racing looks like.” 

Go Time, which manages reservations for the Turkey Trot and other races, has created a new playbook for racing during a pandemic and has been given the blessing of New Hanover Regional Medical Center chief physician Philip Brown, Hackman said. For a previous race in Carolina Beach, Go Time was required to have state health officials sign off on its plan, as the course included land in a state park at the beach town. For that race, state leaders deferred to New Hanover County Public Health, which also signed off on the race plan. 

Hackman maintains the core of his work — promoting the interests of runners and the sport in general — is firmly aligned with the mission of public health officials who spend their days trying to tackle the continued spread of the virus. Michelle Hackman, Go Time’s chief operating officer, said running benefits mental health and boosts the immune system. Both Hackmans said the two separate aims at play — combatting the pandemic and organizing road races for the community, especially those that benefit nonprofits — are serving a common cause. 

“We’re not like commando doing this alone. We’re holding hands with anyone who has a public interest in mind,” Colin Hackman said. “It’s alarming what types of budget deficits there are for the nonprofit organizations that are adversely affected by Covid.”

For the Turkey Trot, race organizers were not required to obtain a green light from the county health department, but their plan was approved by Brown of NHRMC. The Town of Wrightsville Beach does not play a significant role in ironing out the details of the race — a responsibility that rests largely with Habitat for Humanity and Go Time — but race organizers said town officials were satisfied with the revamped proposal for holding the race safely.

Attendees will be asked to wear a mask at all times except when running, and to leave the finish line area immediately after completing the course. 

“I think we’ve known there was a safe way to host it the whole time,” Rigdon said. “It’s just been adjusting to make sure that the groups of people we have out there are always the appropriate amount, and I think that comes into play with the waves.” 

In August, Wrightsville Beach officials fretted over a different race, the YMCA Triathlon, at a Board of Aldermen meeting. 

“We’re struggling with whether this is a mass gathering or not,” town attorney Brian Edes told the board, referencing the race held in September. 

Speaking to town leaders, Edes said the regulations on gathering limits were not crystal clear, and that they left open room for interpretation. 

“You can tell lawyers wrote this, because it’s talking out of both sides of the mouth,” he said. 

The board decided to approve plans for the YMCA triathlon, though Edes cautioned town leaders that moving forward with the race might be in a legal gray area of sorts; an argument could be made that the triathlon was designed to promote health interests, which would exempt it from the gathering limits at the time, but he said at best, it was “a murky area.” 

For the Turkey Trot, town leaders did not hold a similar public discussion on the logistics of how the race would fit into existing state regulations, according to town manager Tim Owens and aldermen Hank Miller. Edes did not respond to an email asking if his comments on the triathlon were similarly at play for the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. 

Hackman said part of his organization’s mission is to win the confidence of the public that these races can be held safely. To his knowledge, he said none of his races had ever been connected to new virus cases through contact tracing. 

“We have proven that we can put on a road race under these constraints,” he said. “This is multi-level, bureaucratic, complicit understanding of our plan, and the faith of those organizations in us to be able to roll it out, and so we’ve done this already.” 

The WB Turkey Trot will take place Thursday, Nov. 26, with the first wave of runners scheduled to start at 7:45 a.m. outside the town hall. Racers will cross the finish line nearby at the Wrightsville Beach park. Spectators are asked to not gather at the start and finish areas. 

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