Early on often cold, dark Thanksgiving mornings, thousands of runners and walkers set out on the Turkey Trot (www.theparade.org/turkeytrot), and in a way, launch the America's Thanksgiving Parade.
In a couple weeks, more than 18,000 runners and 2,000 walkers will take to the city streets for the Free Press International Marathon (www.freepmarathon.com).
The runs are part of a year-round circuit of events that keep growing in Detroit. Organizers say these events are as much about getting Detroiters in shape as they are about building a community of enthusiasts and getting people connected to the city.
Orgainzer Patricia Ball says that we she first ran the Free Press Marathon in 1982, there were maybe 4,000 runners. She's run it for 11 years and about five times as many people participate.
Success, to her, is not just about the numbers. "My dream is to be able to build a healthy, vital Detroit. … I think that people want to be part of Detroit, and really are a part of Detroit already, and are starting to acknowledge it and looking for ways to be a part of it -- to say this is my community."
Doug Kurtis, an accomplished marathon runner, has managed the Trot for five years and has seen a 15 to 30 percent growth in attendance each year. Once known as the "tradition before the tradition," the Trot is now billed as "the parade before the parade."
Kurtis encourages people to wear holiday costumes and have fun. He places props and inflatable characters from the parade along the course and introduced a 5k walk. Walks add a less competitive, more communal feel to the events.
This year, Kurtis is expecting from 13,000 to 15,000 runners and walkers, many of whom will hang around for the "other" parade. "Events done well have a "spectacle" feeling to them, he says. "They're fun and exciting. People want to be part of it."
There's a buzz about these events and doing them in Detroit that travels with the crowd when they return to their homes, he says. "They walk away and say, 'that was a great event…I liked what I saw.' I get them to come back and tell somebody else," Kurtis says.
Even the numbers of volunteers at these events are growing, he says. "Most (volunteers) find it fun. They get to meet people. It's a community thing. Once they do it, a lot of them get hooked. They come back year after year.
Kurtis also manages the Corktown Race http://downto.host me.com/corktownraces heralding the St. Patrick's Day festivities in March. Participation has tripled in the years he's run the event, primarily because he has tried to make it fun.
"People are kind of leery with what's happening to Detroit… they see all the bad news, but I think they still want to come to Detroit," Kurtis says. "They still care. We're sports fanatics. We want to be part of sporting events, whatever it is. Detroit is still that marquee, that hub … I definitely think there is a communal affect to it."
At the runs, the "sea of humanity" generates a thrill, says Patrick Rorai, who has participated in the marathon, Trot and Corktown races. A member of the Downtown Detroit Runners and Walkers club, Rorai says, "you get people wearing the craziest outfits. You notice people's weird pre-race rituals. You'll see people running together in groups to support a particular cause, and you see people who are there to mock themselves, knowing that they probably won't finish but they're still going to have a good time."
Allison Bieri, new to Detroit, was looking to meet folks. She joined Synergy Detroit, a social network that provides community service opportunities. A riverfront resident and runner, Bieri noticed there wasn't a run on Belle Isle, so she created one.
Run Belle Isle also has grown from 280 people last year to 332 at this year's event. "With Detroit Synergy, we try to get people to discover parts of the city that they might not normally see and promote the good things about the city," Bieri says. "I was running on Belle Isle when I first moved here. Living downtown, there are a lot of places to run. I realized how beautiful it was and how much there is to see. I thought, what a great way to highlight Belle Isle."
"I think there are a lot of people very passionate about this city coming back. They come out and show their support at these events just for that," Bieri says.
Many believe that there's something special in coming to Detroit to sweat together; in doing something for the themselves, they are creating community.