MANCHESTER – The first time Janit Romayko ran the Manchester Road Race, she walked along the side of the road at the start so it didn’t look like she was actually running in the Thanksgiving Day race.
It was 1972 and women were not officially allowed to run the annual 4.748-mile race. So Romayko, who grew up in Manchester watching the race and had started running a few years before that, decided to duck in and out and do parts of it.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Romayko said. “I figured you do a little each year, then you do a little more. I went on the side on the grass (at the start). I figured I could just look like I’m walking.
“My husband would say, ‘What are they going to do? Throw you in jail?’”
Beth Shluger ran the race for the first time in 1973. She was 18 and also grew up in Manchester but never had any interest in running in the race until a group of her friends got together the night before Thanksgiving at the Hartford Road Café and dared each other to run it.
So she did. She didn’t know women weren’t officially allowed to run. She didn’t care.
Women were running the race, though. In 1973, women picketed the race headquarters prior to the race, then put their signs down and ran unofficially. The following year, women were finally allowed to enter the race officially, although there was not an official female division, with separate prizes awarded, until 1977.
Romayko, a long-time runner and triathlete from East Hartford, and Shluger, the former Eversource Hartford Marathon director and head of the Hartford Marathon Foundation from Waterford, will become the first women to run the race (officially) for 50 straight years on Thanksgiving Day.
The 87th edition of the race will start at 10 a.m. on Main Street in Manchester. Over 10,000 runners and walkers are expected to be there.
“Thanksgiving Day is such a day of tradition,” Shluger said. “My parents lived in town. I was born and raised in Manchester. No matter what, we came home.
“There is nothing I do today on Thanksgiving different than what I’ve done for 50 years. That is just such a comforting thing in life, especially in the world we’re living in now.”
“I wanted to hang out with the parrot”
Romayko, 78, grew up in Manchester. Her grandmother used to take her to watch the race but initially she wasn’t all that interested.
It was 1949. There were about 50 runners competing in the race. Romayko was four years old.
“The first year, there was a pet store there and there was a parrot in there and I was so enthralled,” Romayko said. “I didn’t want to go to the road race. I wanted to hang out with the parrot. That went on for four years.”
When her father came home from the war, he built his family houses in East Hartford and that’s where Romayko went to high school. There were no girls sports, only a 45-minute physical education period two days a week, where the girls would walk around the track and talk. Romayko came from a sports-oriented family – her father James was drafted as a pitcher by the White Sox but was drafted into the Army instead and her mother and aunt had played basketball at Manchester High.
She skied and played tennis and got into running in Manchester with a group of men and women who did triathlons. Let’s do the road race, someone suggested. Romayko wasn’t sure.
She did parts of the race in 1972, a little more in 1973, and she crossed the finish line that year.
“By then, it was OK,” she said.
Shluger, 68, was a synchronized swimmer at Manchester High. She did not run.
“When I grew up, you either went to the road race or the football game between Manchester and East Hartford on Thanksgiving,” Shluger said. “I would go to the football game in high school. Didn’t give a thought to the road race.”
After the dare, and the race in 1973, she simply kept going back to the race because it was a class reunion of sorts for herself and her friends. Around 1980, she realized that she had a bit of streak going so she kept doing it.
“In the early 80s, I started saving all my bibs,” she said. “I save all my running bibs but Manchester is special. I was going to wallpaper a bathroom with them. I didn’t, because I was like, ‘What if I move?’
“On the back of the bib, I write my time, what the weather was and my excuse of why I didn’t go faster.”
Naturally, with streaks, there are always things that pop up that threaten to derail them. Shluger, who timed the birth of her two children for September (two months before the race), was asked to do color commentary for the race on TV for two years.
“I said, ‘No, I can’t, I have to run,’” she said. “But (former race director) Jim Balcome said, ‘I’ll keep the finish line open for you and the timing mat on so I ran it after I got off TV.”
Romayko broke her kneecap a month before the race in 2012. She went to a local orthopedic doctor, told him the problem, and was placed in a soft cast and ordered “not to move” for a month. The Monday before the race, she got the cast off and went to a pool and walked in the water and kicked her legs for three straight days.
She recruited her niece, two cousins and a friend to walk with her during the race.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work,” she said. “Somehow I made it. I walked the race but I ran a little down to the finish.
“Then I went to PT after that.”
A tradition that’s hard to break
Shluger’s family all comes to the race every Thanksgiving, either running or watching. It’s become a tradition for them, too.
“My parents stood at the cemetery in the exact same place every year on East Center St. and my older brother David stands there now,” she said. “Our family goes there, that’s our location. Nothing has changed.
“Now the big question is: ‘When can we stop?’”
Romayko usually hosts 6-8 people on Thanksgiving. She cooks her turkey the day before so she’s ready for the race.
Neither she nor Shluger would know what to do on Thanksgiving if they weren’t in Manchester.
“What would I do?” Romayko said. “I would like to go to other races maybe, but now I don’t dare.”