Grecian athletes at the first Olympic Games more than 2000 years ago were set upon their race courses by the dropping two ropes, which stretched chest- and knee-high across the starting lines.
Most historians contend that the use of a starter’s pistol dates only as far back as horse races among cowboys in the 1800s West.
Dependence on a gun as a starting device has all but disappeared now, due to the advent of better technology and the need for timing to thousandths.
None of that need for precision was evident at this past Saturday morning’s New Hope Turkey Run in Duke Forest, but many can remember a day when gunfire heralded the call to competition off Chapel Hill’s Whitfield Road.
“In the early years, we had old Mr. Whitfield out here with his shotgun,” one-time race director Peter Klopfer recalled, “but by his final year, he was having so much trouble holding up the gun, I was afraid he might shoot a runner.”
“His son Stan took it over for a few years,” current race director Walter Fowler said, “but then we finally did away with the gun.”
Staging its 31st run in the past 33 years, Saturday’s New Hope Turkey Run in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest could bill itself as, arguably, the oldest annual running race in the area. The race benefits the New Hope Improvement Association.
Since its first running in 1981, the event was cancelled only in 1996 due to Hurricane Fran damage to Duke Forest and in 2000 due to an ice storm.
Organizers said little has changed since the days when races were started by a “shotgun start” at the hands of a member of the Whitfield family – the same Whitfields for whom Whitfield Road is named.
“We have it down now. We know pretty much what to do,” Fowler said. “We tried to do a little more publicity this year, but there was also the election. I put up information on the sign in front of the New Hope Fire Station (also a voting site), but the day after, somebody put up election information. The sign was covered in letters.”
One other notable change over the past two years’ runs has been the absence of the run’s unofficial matriarch, (Betty) Sue Duncan Whitfield, who died at her home on Oct. 23 of last year. 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.
Lucille Carroll, 84, who worked in the kitchen in support of the post-race breakfasts since the event’s inception made an appearance this year, however.
“This is my first year back after two or three years (away),” Carroll said. “I’m glad it’s still all working so well, and everybody that comes seems to enjoy it.”
Finding the (approximately) four-mile trail experience particularly enjoyable was overall winner Jim Clabuesch (27:48), who just completed the 18-mile Shut-in Race from Asheville to Mt. Pisgah last weekend.
“It was perfect fall weather,” Clabuesch said.
Following Clabuesch across the finish line in second and third place were Jeff Starmer (28:56) and Josh Lozoff (29:09).
Lozoff complained that someone had “jacked-up” the elevation on some of the run’s hills since the last time he’d run, and spoke of a false-summit on one hill in particular.
“It’s one of those hills where, from the bottom, you think you can see the top,” he said. “So, when you think you’re done, you’re really not.”
Among the women, it was 14-year old Ceara Gannon (29:45) finishing first, with Rietta Couper (30:46) and Kim Donaldson (31:03) giving chase.
“It was kind of easy,” Gannon said. “There were some hard hills, but it didn’t seem like four miles.”
Bill Powers was the oldest male finisher, while Supatra Campbell claimed the prize among women. Alexander Weber, 9, was the youngest male finisher; Emerson Windram, 7, was the youngest female and youngest overall finisher.
Aside from the years in which the race was cancelled, event organizers had trouble remembering any inclement weather for race day.
“After the ice storm we moved the race from December to November,” Fowler said.
“And I can’t remember a nasty day here in a ton of years,” Klopfer added.
Because the course length changes by small increments each year on the whim of race directors, there is no verifiable course record. But what truly sets the race apart may be the “random draw” for the bulk of the awards. There are always 20-30 baked items made by members of the neighborhood and about that many merchandise awards from businesses in Chapel Hill and Durham.
The light breakfast served after the race and during the awards ceremony is given such priority and is so prized among runners, one supposes the event is comprised of a breakfast with a race thrown in for good measure.
“One thing they’ve always known how to do in the New Hope Improvement Association is put on breakfasts,” Fowler said, “and they’ve been doing that since time immemorial. When they started doing this race, they said, ‘Let’s also do a little breakfast.’”
Carolyn Higgin-Botham imagined she’s cooked up thousands of biscuits during her 33-year tenure with the event and other fund-raising breakfasts. Her recipe has not changed over the years, however.
“We always make’em the same,” she said, “because that’s how they like them.”
Stopwatches have ticked off time for the New Hope Improvement Association over the three decades – punctuated by the occasional reports of gunfire. There are times, however, when it looks as if the hands on the clock have stopped, as the good fellowship over a sumptuous breakfast and the sportsmanship shared over the course of an autumn morning in Duke Forest haven’t changed. Beyond the fundraising, beyond finishing first, perhaps that’s what the day is all about.
“I don’t know that there have been any kind of big changes,” said Lucille Carroll, 84, “but old school is not all bad.”