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Charleston's Thanksgiving Day race returns in person to the delight of runners, walkers

Standing in Marion Square well before the race began, sisters Christy Wright and Kellie Leonette could already feel it.

There's a certain energy that comes from a running competition. It's partly from the spectators and their shouts of support. Helping a person cross the finish line, when they thought they would never make it, can provide another jolt.

But for Wright and Leonette, Charleston's annual Thanksgiving Day run was exhilarating for another reason. It was a chance for the women, who live in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to be together again like when they were kids. They'd both picked up running in their 50s, and they didn't care how fast they finished the 3.1-mile race in the city's downtown. It was about going on another adventure together. 

"Our family thinks we're nuts," said Leonette, sporting a hat with a turkey's face on it. "Running keeps us together," Wright added later, while wearing a hat with a turkey's neck and head sticking up in the air. 

Charleston's holiday race also provided others the opportunity to mix camaraderie and a workout on a day often celebrated with football and feasting. After last year's race was held virtually due to concerns about the coronavirus, this year's event was in person again — a return welcomed by the thousands in attendance. The murmur of people talking in groups before the run began was only eclipsed by Christmas music blaring nearby.  

Fun was what led Steve Larson to slip on a full-sized outfit that was part-Halloween, part-Christmas. That, and embarrassing his kids.

The neon green fur of his Santa Grinch costume covered his hands and legs and was accompanied by a red and white Santa hat and jacket. A lime green mask with yellowish, unblinking eyes, made it hard to see how Larson, a high school principal, felt about his choice. 

But Larson said he looked forward to spending time with family during and after the race. He had not practiced running in the get-up, though, and was feeling its effects a half-hour before the first runners took off. 

"I'm already getting a little warm," he said.

Michelle Simmons waited along Meeting Street for that group of runners to clear out. This year's race was the second for Simmons, who planned to walk the route with Janice Malone. It was Malone's first time taking part in the holiday contest. 

Before the day began, Malone wasn't necessarily enthusiastic about the event. But seeing people together, and taking photos with loved ones, made her excited. 

"I'm thankful to be out here, to be able to participate," she said. 

The pandemic, and its deadly effects, were still on the minds of many who took part in the run. Some people wore masks as they stood in crowds. In a pre-race blessing, Bishop Robert Guglielmone, who presides over the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, said he was grateful the spread of the coronavirus was under control enough for people to get together this year. 

But when the racers took off, under a sunny sky, it almost felt like 2019 again. Runners sprinting to take an early lead. People cheering them on. And the thump, thump, thump of shoes on asphalt.  

A little while later, Patrick Spychalski crossed the King Street finish line first, sporting a Villanova University jersey. He is on the school's cross-country and track and field teams. Still breathing hard, the former Wando High School athlete said he enjoyed seeing supporters line the race route, even though his concentration was on putting one foot in front of the other.

"It just feels a lot better to have people out there," he said.  

Nick Meyers finished a few minutes after Spychalski and headed toward nearby Marion Square. He drank from a bottle of water as beads of sweat streamed down his face. 

Meyers said running the race dressed as Uncle Sam — wearing a red and white top hat, blue sport coat and red and white striped pants — was easier than he thought it would be. The crisp morning weather helped. 

"I've never had so many people cheer for me in a race," he said. 

That festival-like atmosphere couldn't be replicated virtually, Meyers added. That, and the competition: The chance to run neck and neck with someone toward a finish line. 

Shortly after, he walked past a stand of boxes filled with granola bars, bananas and apples near the middle of the park. It was time to get a beer. 

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