There’s nothing like a Thanksgiving morning tradition to kick off the holiday.
For some, it’s bundling up and heading for the big parade. Others are all about service — volunteering at a soup kitchen or delivering meals on wheels. Sports fans may be making last minute beer runs in anticipation of all those hours of football joy, and some home chefs will be giving their all to big feast prep.
But in a few Montgomery County burgs, they’re going to be lacing up. Their neighbors will have the lawn chairs out, bells in hand and whistles ready to blow.
Welcome to the Gobble Wobble, the most beloved 5k run (and 2K walk) that side of the city line.
And this is a big one. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Day run. It’s started in 2003 in Abington by the local YMCA to help families who couldn’t afford to pay for programs fees.
The Gobble Wobble has grown to nearly 2,800 runners in three Y communities; the Haverford and Spring Valley Ys started their own routes in recent years. There’s even a virtual wobble where people can freestyle and choose their own course. Hatboro and Abington residents now call the Willow Grove Y home, because the old Abington Y got too small. But Abington residents were adamant about keeping the Gobble Wobble running in their community.
No one ever wanted to give up the tradition.
“What better way to start your Thanksgiving holiday than doing something healthy that’s for the good of the community and gives you a sense of gratitude and appreciation?” said Mary Pat Kessler, a former Y director and avid runner who helped come up with the first Gobble Wobble. “And it’s a reunion. I see people who that may be the only time I’ve seen them in a year. There’s hugs, warmth, and smiles.”
Beth Kenas, the race director, has been with the Gobble Wobble since its beginning.
The first year, she said, she and her family couldn’t make their usual pilgrimage to her hometown of Farrell in southwest Pennsylvania because one of her kids had a sporting event.
As she and some Y colleagues planned a fundraising race for that year, she said she suggested something called the Gobble Wobble, lik was e a race of the same name in her hometown. The name stuck.
The race, and the tradition, took roots and grew.
Gov. Josh Shapiro is slated to be back this Thanksgiving as race starter, Kenas said. A local resident, Shapiro’s been an officiating regular since he was a state representative, and members of his family have run the race, too, said Kenas.
Al Willard is also a Gobble Wobble regular and, given the event, kind of a VIP. Just about every year with a couple of notable exceptions, Willard has been the honorary event turkey.
While the runners are getting ready, Willard, a former Y board chairman, gets the crowd in even more in the mood, decked out in his turkey suit finery.
“I get them rev’d up before the race,” said Willard, whose four kids were active in the Y. “I’m like a cheerleader.”
He’s had lots to work with on those sidelines.
Every year, all along the race route, residents – even those who don’t have any family in the race – come out to join in the festivities. Last year’s Gobble Wobble even inspired a tailgate. Donations of food and snacks every year by area businesses add to the party atmosphere. Some of the runners and race volunteer come dressed as turkeys, or whatever other part of the feast strikes their fancy.
Lots of residents have already set up their lawn chairs along the route way before they even get there.
The reveling spectators are as much a part of the Gobble Wobble as the wobblers.
“They clap and cheer the runners and ring cowbells and blow whistles and just make that part of their kickoff to Thanksgiving,” said Bill Seedes, director of the Willow Grove Y.
Raising over $200,000
Of course, the Gobble Wobble, like Thanksgiving itself, is about more than just having a good time. Seedes said he thinks part of the reason the event has gotten so much support over the years is it is helping members of the community who need it. All the races raise over $200,000.
“Whether it be for childcare, summer camp, swimming, or maybe a senior who’s getting a membership at a discount because they need it to care of their health,” the director said, “I think the vast majority of our neighbors know this race is benefiting our financial assistance program that benefits anybody who needs and want to come to the Y.”
For that reason, Julie Gennaro pays the registration fee for her whole runner family every year no matter how many of them can actually make it. She wants to maximize their support — plus everyone would miss getting their annual Gobble Wobble race shirt.
The first year, Paul, the youngest of Julie and Tom Gennaro’s three kids ran — he was 9 then, now he’s 29 — and the rest of the family came to cheer him on. It became a family affair — Tom and the kids, as serious runners, and Julie as the walker and photo taker. Even as the kids grew up, at least one of the Gennaros has run the Gobble Wobble every year.
And this year is going to be big for the Abington clan as well as their race. The Gennaros’ daughter Ann, their sons Paul and Thom, and their wives, Ailsa Jeffries and Alicia will be home for Thanksgiving and are signed up for the race.
A new family member is also joining the fun this Thanksgiving — Ada Green Gennaro, Thom and Alicia’s 10-month-old daughter. Her avantage may be a stroller pushed by grandma, but it could be one more future Gennaro runner’s introduction to the Gobble Wobble.
“Every year, our whole family looks forward to it,” Julie Gennaro said. “We go off to the race. That’s our tradition.”