I forget who said it, but the quote goes something like this: New Year’s Eve is basically just a bunch of people running around, desperately trying to have a good time. The pressure is real. Even though I have been to enough excruciating New Year’s Eve parties to know better, I still end up feeling slightly guilty when I don’t have any grand plans on December 31, as though I’ve made a conscious decision to forgo humanity’s greatest annual bacchanal. The years are already ripping by with terrifying speed; the least I can do is mark the occasion by making an ass of myself in public.
Fortunately, however, there are New Year’s traditions that don’t involve wearing silly hats or abasing yourself in front of an ice luge. While Thanksgiving is the biggest running day of the year in the U.S., in other countries New Year’s Eve races have established themselves as a favored prelude to the feast to come. Particularly in countries with large Catholic populations, so-called Silvester runs—after Saint Silvester, whose name day falls on December 31—are a popular way of acknowledging that our beleaguered planet has survived yet another trip around the sun.
Arguably the most famous of these is the Corrida de São Silvestre, in São Paulo. The 15K race in Brazil’s largest metropolis has taken place every December 31 since 1925, with the exception of last year. As the story goes, sports journalist Cásper Líbero imported the tradition after witnessing a New Year’s race in France. In turn, São Silvestre ended up inspiring similar events in Europe, most notably perhaps the San Silvestre Vallecana in Madrid, a 10K that began in 1964. Far more than just mass participation spectacles, these races have featured generations’ worth of distance running royalty. Past winners include names like Emil Zátopek, Frank Shorter, Rosa Mota, and Bridgid Kosgei in São Paulo, and Paula Radcliffe and Eliud Kipchoge in Madrid.
However, most New Year’s races are decidedly more low-key. I grew up in Germany and Austria, two countries where the Silversterlauf is a widespread seasonal rite, often with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts waiting at the finish. I’ve known about these events for as long as I can remember, though I was relatively late to the party myself; I didn’t run my first Silvesterlauf until 2019, when I raced the 5.35K loop around the Ringstrasse, the bombastic, monument-studded street that circumscribes Vienna’s 1st district. (There was no Kipchoge at the starting line that day; the winner was a local law enforcement official whose claim to fame was that he was “Austria’s fastest policeman.”)
There’s something to be said for testing your aerobic limits to close out (or kick off) another year. Like many people, I find the anticlimax of New Year’s Eve to be a little depressing—a reminder that, as Ezra Pound once cheerily put it, “life slips by like a field mouse, not shaking the grass.” (Reciting that poem is probably a good way to avoid getting invited to those ice-luge parties.) Of course, ultimately there’s no cure for the passage of time, but a sustained run at the threshold of your ability—the almost dreamlike way that the pleasure and pain of racing can warp temporal perception—is as effective a reprieve as we can hope for.
You know how you always feel a little better after a run? In my experience, the effect increases with the intensity of the effort. Hence, the post workout high and the post race euphoria. While perhaps not every race will leave you feeling rapturous, the low-stakes nature of the New Year’s event, like the Turkey Trot, means that you get the benefit of a post-race buzz without the burden of expectation. You can run your ass off and savor the adrenaline-soaked afterglow until long into the night.
Since not everyone is going to be able to hop on a flight to São Paulo or Madrid, it’s worth mentioning that these days there are plenty of (secular) Silvester races happening stateside. With the caveat that everything now exists in a pandemic-contingent limbo, this year, the New York Road Runners annual four-mile Midnight Run is tentatively slated to return to Central Park. A similar event in Phoenix—dubbed the Midnight Madness Run—has existed for over three decades. If you want an old-world style Silvesterlauf, the Harmony Silvester 5K, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, includes Germanic New Year’s traditions like Bleigießen, where you drop a piece of molten lead into cold water and use the resultant shape to predict your future. (According to the race director, there will be no lead pouring this year due to COVID, but as of this writing, the 5K is still scheduled to take place.)
Meanwhile, the people behind the apparel brand Tracksmith had initially planned to host a New Year’s Eve indoor meet at the Armory Track in Manhattan—with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and dancing. Unfortunately, the event, which was dubbed the Midnight Mile New Year’s Eve Gala, was canceled earlier this week because of New York’s surging COVID cases. That said, the highlight of the evening is still slated to go ahead, albeit without spectators: At the stroke of midnight, multiple Olympic medallist and recent Tracksmith employee Nick Willis will attempt to become the first person to run a sub-four-minute for the 20th consecutive year.
Now that’s how you celebrate.
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