Ed Burke  /  AP
Runners take off in an annual First Night 5K on Dec. 31, 2002, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
updated 12/30/2004 11:35:55 AM ET 2004-12-30T16:35:55

On the last night of the year, 2,000 sneakered feet will stamp anxiously, and gloved hands will vigorously try to rub the warmth back into freezing arms. Conversations will be illustrated by white clouds of breath.

This robust band of runners will wait for the starter’s gun to send them out on a 3.1-mile gallop. When they finish, they will join thousands of others at First Night races nationwide resolved to run headlong into the new year.

“It’s become a tradition,” said Jeffrey Allen, who directs the Saratoga Springs First Night 5K with his wife, Naomi, in this town famous for horse racing.

In 1998, the race’s inaugural year, 220 runners crossed the finish line. Last year, registration was closed at 1,000 three days before the race. This year, the maximum 1,000 was reached 12 days earlier than last year.

Road races were not part of the party when the alcohol-free First Night celebrations began in 1976 in Boston. Until 2000, only two cities ran races billed as First Night events. This year, 13 cities — including three new additions — will host runs ranging from a mile in Worcester, Mass., to four miles in New York City’s Central Park.

Several other cities stage races on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, but not under the First Night billing.

“They say, ‘I want to start the year off on a good running start,”’ said Richard Finn, a spokesman for the New York Road Runners’ Midnight Run in Central Park. “It’s a good way to dedicate themselves. If they want to run and get a little healthier, what better way to start your New Year’s Eve resolution than by actively taking part in it?”

In New York, about 6,000 runners — some dressed as Father Time or Baby New Year or decked out in tuxedo or evening gown — will leave the starting line at midnight for a jaunt through the park. Fireworks, a costume parade, music, dancing and a nonalcoholic champagne stop midway through make the event first run in 1979 more revelry than race.

“I think there’s a certain amount of curiosity of what it’s like to run at midnight,” Finn said. “This is sort of a cool way to bring in the new year.”

These New Year’s Eve runners are a devoted bunch. Ask Judith Kaye.

New York state’s chief judge and her husband, Stephen, have missed the Central Park race just once in the past 15 years when, at 11 p.m., she was handed an order involving an abused child. The job was more important.

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Not on Dec. 31, 2001. Newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg had asked Kaye to swear him in at a private ceremony after the ball dropped at midnight, but this time the race came first. Outgoing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani swore in his successor, and Kaye caught up with hizzoner at the next day’s public event.

“He fully understood,” she said.

Marc Lochbaum, an assistant professor of sports and exercise psychology at Texas Tech University, said the very date of the race helps make these events popular. “If you had a March 1 run, it probably wouldn’t be as exciting,” he said.

The races are relatively new at First Nights, created as family-oriented, community celebrations focused on the arts. But Naima Kradjian, president and chief executive of First Night International, sees the races as complementary to the First Night mission.

“First night is an active choice,” she said. “You’re not sitting at home watching other people celebrate. You’re walking from one place to another, making an active decision to go to three or four other places during the evening.”

About 4 million people will attend 118 First Night celebrations this year, with the biggest turnout in Boston, where 1.5 million are expected.

In Saratoga Springs, race results can read like a phone book, with clumps of surnames appearing where families crossed the line together. Allen regularly registers several members of a family, many from out of state and home for the holidays. This year, he has runners from 22 states.

In State College, Pa., Phil Walz started with 132 runners in 1997. By 2002, there were 465 runners, a number he expects to match this year — if the weather cooperates.

“We’re trying to get people out of the house, away from the boob tube and just doing things,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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