Indianapolis’ largest turkey trot will reduce size but run in person on Thanksgiving Day

By Leah Etling

INDIANAPOLIS – For the Wheeler Mission Drumstick Dash, one of the nation’s largest Thanksgiving Day running events, race day is about much more than a fun run with family.

It’s the largest fundraiser of the year for Wheeler Mission, an Indianapolis homeless shelter and non-profit, typically bringing in about $1 million in support for the mission.

2020 is the 18th year for the race, which hit a peak of nearly 21,000 runners in 2016 and drew nearly 19,000 last year (pictured, below left). It was the nation’s 50th largest timed race in 2018, according to RunSignup’s database, and among the top five largest turkey trots nationwide.

“This event is a community tradition in Indiana and we’re proud to be a part of it,” said Brian Crispin, Director of Marketing and Corporate Engagement for Wheeler Mission. “But this year we not only hope to safely host our event and fundraise, but to provide some hope to all the event producers out there. We want to host a clean, safe event for the community so the running industry can build on that and get back to putting on events.”

Reduced capacity, limited contact

The Drumstick Dash will in fact be taking place on Thanksgiving Day, albeit at a drastically reduced participant volume. The race has permission to run two separate heats, at 8am and 10am, capped at 3,000 participants each for a total of 6,000 runners. That’s almost a 80 percent reduction in runner volume, but the intent is to provide physical distancing space in what is normally a fairly crowded start line area. As in past years, runners have the option of completing either a 4.6 or 2.75 mile course. Runners will have a 30 minute window to leave the start line when they feel comfortable, providing for spacing. And the race will be timed as usual.

“Knowing how things typically land, we have accounted for each person having 12 square feet of space, if everyone was distanced equally. We wanted to make sure that nobody would ever find themselves in a spot where they were surrounded by people and could not move or get out of there,” Crispin said. (Last year’s start is pictured at left, photo courtesy Wheeler Drumstick Dash.)

A key aspect of the plan is to limit points of contact between runners and other runners or spectators, volunteers or vendors. As such, there will be no pre-race concert this year, no water stations on the course, no in-person expo, no packet pickup and no post-race festivities. Packets including race shirts will be sent to every runner at no additional charge. And in-person runners will be handed a grab-and-go snack pack as they depart the finish line area.

There is also a virtual event option for those who prefer to run at home, which has already seen a 300 percent jump in registrations compared to previous years. And a virtual expo, powered by Eventhub, will replace the popular in-person expo experience, as well as offering interactive programming and media for participants. The race’s sponsorship base of 45+ local companies remains strong.

Supporting a life-saving cause

Crispin said that the decision to hold the event this year was motivated not just by the vital funding it brings in for Wheeler Mission, but by past participant enthusiasm. A survey of past runners indicated that more than half would be willing to run the event no matter what, and an additional 45 percent supported a scaled down version with social distance considerations.

Ironically, the need to raise funds for Wheeler Mission has never been more evident than due to the coronavirus and subsequence economic fallout. Indianapolis’ homeless shelter serves between 500 to 900 people per day with shelter, meals and services, and also provides programming for addiction recovery.

That’s how Crispin came to his role at Wheeler Mission. He was first a member of a treatment program for alcohol addiction, earning the job after he’d completed his recovery. “Alcohol and the lifestyle around alcohol almost killed me,” he says. “The Wheeler Mission addiction recovery program literally saved my life.”

Many staff members of the mission’s programs have been aided by its services in various ways. And in addition to the Drumstick Dash, the Mission enjoys significant community support.

“Even if this plays out according to plan, it will be about a quarter of a million dollar hit for the mission. So we are sounding the alarm. Our virtual option is a great filler, if people typically don’t do this race, or live elsewhere, that’s a great way to help. And we’re asking all of our participants to get involved with our Peer to Peer fundraising program to help fill that gap,” said Crispin,

Thankfully, there are some bright spots. “People have been seeing that we’ve been on the front lines of all that’s happened in Indianapolis this year, including the pandemic and social unrest that took place here. Our donations are stronger than they were last year at this time. We’ve been around for 127 years, so our challenge is to tell our story and ask all who can to step up to help.”

Learn more about the Wheeler Mission Drumstick Dash.