Fifteen minutes before Albany’s annual holiday race began, a teeth-chattering crowd of more than 1,500 gathered near the State Street starting line.
With temperatures hovering just above freezing, friends huddled together, blowing warm air into their hands. Amidst all the chatter, though, the voice of a young Michael Jackson broke out over the loudspeakers, and the crowd began to jump and sway to the rhymes of “ABC,” ready for a burst of cardiovascular activity.
The sun had just set, and the Capital Holiday Lights in the Park shone bright and colorful against a dark sky. It was time for the 16th annual Last Run 5K, and participants came dressed for it, wearing red and green outfits with sequins and stripes, Santa hats, elves’ ears, reindeer antlers, jingle bells and twinkling holiday lights draped around their necks.
Lisa Luyckx and her friends decided that after about four years of running the race without costumes, they would join in the ubiquitous festive attire.
“We decided we needed to up the ante,” said Luyckx, 50, of Guilderland.
Their outfits — Santa hats, striped socks and colorful holiday lights — were easily outdone, though, by a whole family that showed up as elves. It was certainly an impetus for them to up the ante next year, Luyckx’s group agreed.
“We’re adding to it next year,” said Sue Cleary, 48, of Niskayuna.
Luyckx admitted they would probably peruse the shelves for whatever was on sale after Christmas.
“This is just a fun thing to do, to run through the lights and see the park,” she said. “It’s just a festive kind of evening.”
It was actually less festive back when Albany used to hold its annual First Night 5K, according to Albany Special Events spokesman Jason Bonafide. The crowd dwindled over time, as Capital Region residents north of Albany opted to head to Saratoga’s First Night 5K.
“This race is actually a holdover from that,” Bonafide said, taking a break from organizing event gear inside the post-race area in the Empire State Plaza. “It was kind of hard to pull people in because everyone was kind of split as far as where they were going to go on New Year’s Eve. We decided we’d still do the run but would just move the date up.”
The same year the race transformed from “First Night” to “Last Run,” the Price Chopper Capital Holiday Lights moved into Washington Park. Now, runners pound the trails on a cold December evening amidst more than 125 displays and scenes in the city park based on themes like America’s Heroes, Toyland, Victorian Holiday and Peace on Earth.
“The lights are a big part of it,” said Bonafide. “It’s a nice family event this time of year. And they’re pretty amazing. I think if you’re going to go out and run when it’s 20 degrees out, you might as well have something nice to look at.”
This year’s Last Run 5K sold out in record time. The race was capped at 1,500 participants last year for safety reasons. Some of the roads are narrow along the course, and some turns are too sharp to accommodate any more people.
Bonafide said the city is looking to change next year’s course to accommodate “at least a few hundred more runners.”
Mayor Jerry Jennings spoke before the race to thank sponsors and ask that everyone bow their heads in a moment of silence for the community of Newtown, Conn., after Friday’s elementary school massacre.
The buzzing crowd quickly went silent.