When Tommy and Maureen O’Neill were dating—before they married in 2006—both would head to their native Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, but he always got a much later start than she preferred.
That’s because of a Fredericksburg event Tommy O’Neill had to put on his plate in the morning, before he later piled it with dark turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade stuffing and sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows.
“If you didn’t do the Turkey Trot, you didn’t feel right the whole Thanksgiving,” O’Neill said about the early morning race through downtown Fredericksburg. “It’s just a wonderful way to start the holiday. It’s a great social event, and there’s just awesome camaraderie and sense of community spirit.”
The O’Neills no longer trek to Philly on the fourth Thursday in November, and he had to stop running last year after an acute episode of arthritis. But the Stafford County resident will continue what’s been his tradition for the better part of two decades, just in a different mode.
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He’ll walk the Fredericksburg course of the YMCA Turkey Trot along with his German shepherd, Rocky.
The YMCA’s website officially states dogs aren’t permitted on the course. But because Rocky has helped O’Neill deal with some of the issues of leukemia and autoimmune-related anemia, which he was diagnosed with in 2013, Rocky and his brother, Percy, were granted waivers as service dogs by Barney Reiley, CEO of the Rappahannock Area Family YMCA.
Thursday’s event marks the 30th anniversary of the Turkey Trot and Reiley is excited about the benchmark and projected return of participants. The race was virtual in 2020, attendance was lower than normal in 2021 and YMCA officials hope to have more than 3,000 people running or walking, either the 1-mile stretch or 5K course through downtown.
“We are BAAACK,” Reiley wrote in an email.
Like other businesses and nonprofits, the YMCA “had its struggles” during the pandemic and Great Recession, Reiley said, but “it has been blessed by the support of a wonderful and giving community.”
In the spirt of giving, the YMCA started a new tradition last year, which has expanded this year. Three dollars from each Turkey Trot entry fee will go into a pot to be split equally among five community nonprofits. They are the Thurman Brisben Center, Micah Ecumenical Ministries, Hope House, Ainsley’s Angels and Fairy Godmother Project.
YMCA officials expect race proceeds to yield about $3,000 for each group.
“We just thought it would be a neat thing to kind of enhance the community spirit if we’re disseminating some of these net proceeds to these worthy nonprofits,” Reiley said.
Supporting Ainsley’s Angels, which allows those in wheelchairs to compete in events, also ties into another goal: making sure people of all abilities are included in YMCA events. The Turkey Trot includes separate heats for those in wheelchairs.
Reiley and O’Neill are of the same mindset on several counts related to physical fitness and life in general. Both see the Turkey Trot as a symbol of what the YMCA represents in the community—and both are bigtime fans of German shepherds.
Rocky belongs to the O’Neills while Percy is owned by Karla Edwards, the youth director at the YMCA. When the Edwards or O’Neills are out of town, the other family takes care of both energetic German shepherds, who are almost 2.
O’Neill also walks the two regularly through local parks and on downtown streets—often carrying Pebbles, an Imperial Shih Tzu, in a pouch around his neck.
While O’Neill has had to give up running because of the stress to his knees, the former triathlete continues to walk miles each day with the dogs, bicycle regularly and swim often at the YMCA pool.
He retired in January, two days after he turned 60, from work as chief scientist and engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.
Physical fitness has always been a big deal in his family, and he’s found his life has “gotten so much better” since arthritis forced him to stop running. He’s not stressing about having to fit in four or five different activities in his routine, but can focus on becoming a stronger cyclist, spending more time walking the dogs and, of course, enjoying the annual Turkey Trot.
“It’s awesome, man,” he said. “I’ve been blessed so much in my first year of retirement, it’s been fabulous.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425