Not every race is about winning.
At the 7th Annual Santa Speedo Sprint on Saturday afternoon, along a quarter-mile stretch of Lark Street, the real goal was to be noticed. And while runners in their underwear will generally cause an onlooker to do a double take, people stepped up their game to get attention from the hundreds lining the street for the highly anticipated race.
Aside from holiday accompaniments to the Speedo, like a Santa Claus hat, tinsel scarfs and electric lights, outfits included a complete gingerbread costume, an homage to Jesus Christ and a team of runners in their underwear pulling a sleigh with the Grinch and Santa Claus on it.
Men had the numerical edge, comprising probably 80 percent of the runners, with a handful of spirited women taking part.
“If you go too fast, no one can see you,” said 31-year-old Rob Immel of Burnt Hills, who ran in his sixth sprint in an American flag Speedo, a red-white-and-blue headband and a distinct mullet.
When choosing his outfit, he said there is one simple rule: “I never repeat.”
Posing for pictures in the Lionsheart Pub on Madison Avenue with some similarly scantily clad friends, Immel described the tradition as the official start to his holiday season.
“It’s a chance to see family and friends who are like family,” he said.
This year, his group of runners included first-timer Jeff Jeanette, 39, of Schenectady, who was in a Speedo for the second time of his life. Before the race, he didn’t know what to expect, although he assumed anyone doing this race was pretty cool and has their heart in the right place.
The race is a fundraiser for the Albany Damien Center, a house on South Lake Avenue that provides programs and activities for families and individuals dealing with HIV and AIDS. The race is organized by the Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy, which Immel called a group worth supporting.
About 10 minutes before the race’s 2 p.m. start at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Lark Street, runners and spectators began emptying out of nearby bars and restaurants to take their starting positions. By the starting line, runners danced in place, jumped up and down or simply took in the attire of the person lined up next to them, as they anxiously waited for the call to begin running. The minutes leading up to the start seemed endless, but the mild, damp weather was easy to withstand.
Standing out in the crowd despite a comparatively conservative outfit was Jason Williams of Albany. He popped because his homemade kilt, cape and hat were made of blue fabric displaying traditional Jewish artifacts.
“It’s good to have one person representing the Jewish tradition,” said Williams, who also wore a duct tape Star of David around his neck. “I’m wearing about five minutes of effort and an hour of inspiration.”
in the moment
The start of the race was delayed as fans and news crews snapped pictures and shot video.
When the more than 100 participants finally got the call to go, a handful of competitive runners sprinted down Lark Street toward State Street, with the rest of the crowd hamming it up at speeds that ranged from a fast jog to a leisurely saunter. People armed with smartphones and cameras laughed and yelled as they documented the whole experience.
After going about a quarter-mile, the runners turned around and headed back toward the start. When race organizer Jasen VonGuinness made the turn, trailing most of the pack, he was rewarded with a small bottle of dark liquor from the proprietors of Capital Wine and Liquor, located along the course.
“Every year, they have a flask out there for me at the turn,” VonGuinness said.
Down the stretch, the first few runners crossed the finish line going strong, but finishers later in the pack crossed with less and less enthusiasm, to the point where some competitors had enough of the almost half-mile run before the finish line.
After the race, VonGuinness said he was happy with how the event has evolved since its inception, when a few dozen people traipsed through nearby Washington Park.
“The community has really taken a hold of it. … It’s really encouraging to see,” he said. “The people on the sidewalk were twice as many as last year. We’re just hoping to grow.”
Following the race, runners and spectators stayed in the area, with many participants opting to remain in their race attire as they flooded into bars, restaurants and shops near Lark Street.
“You don’t have to change. There have been years when I haven’t changed until six or seven at night,” the 34-year-old VonGuinness fondly recalled.
In the future, he hopes the race can grow to raise more money. The goal is usually to raise about $25,000, with totals coming close to that mark each year.