Willa Porter climbs out of a silver Mustang convertible in the Dana Point Harbor parking lot and greets me with a smile. Long blond hair, bangs, all-white sweats, flirty eyelash extensions. She takes a business call in the parking lot from one of her five sons, something involving the paving company she owns.
So this is 83, I’m thinking.
We set out across the harbor to walk part of the annual Dana Point Turkey Trot course, or, more clearly, she sets out. At quite a clip. I lag, trying to make my exhausted panting sound like breathing exercises.
Porter this month celebrates her 25th year running the Thanksgiving 5K and 10K in and around the harbor. The race started in 1977 with a few hundred neighbors, and beer and pizza at the end—mere appetizers for the day’s big meal. Last year 11,000 runners did the trot. It’s still mostly locals who compete. And loads of families, some four generations strong, take part in this annual ritual. The big names of running usually don’t show, because the prize money is pretty skimpy, and they know this race falls squarely into the catetory of What to Do With Your Relatives on Thanksgiving Day. Almost one-third of the field registers at the last minute, and race organizers long ago realized they had to allow space for the thousands who want to sign up right before they run.
Porter stops to talk with someone, and soon she’s buzzing from one table to the next on the deck outside a coffee place near the gangplanks, our walk interrupted. It may be difficult to find Main Street in Dana Point, but for the moment it’s right here, right now. Everybody knows Porter, and she knows everybody.
At 7 square miles, Dana Point always has had a hang-ten, small-town vibe. I think it’s one of the most laid-back of our cities. I tell Porter how, when I lived there, I showed up for a doctor appointment to find a sign on the door: “Gone surfing.” But with major redevelopment slated for the city and harbor, some locals worry that their small town will get away from them in the same way the turkey trot has grown.
Porter finally wraps up her socializing, and we take off along the water. She says last year she became a sort of octogenarian “poster child” for the turkey trot. Then she got a pain in her side two weeks before the race. Although she usually ignores aches and pains, Porter didn’t want to miss the run, so she went to the doctor—who immediately sent her to the emergency room.
“The turkey trot saved my life,” she says.
Porter’s appendix had ruptured. Into surgery she went. And the City Council sent her flowers: “Sorry, we’ll miss you this year.”
But Porter was not so easily deterred. She had a national fitness magazine waiting to do a short profile, two blogs tracking her, and a daily newspaper wanting a photo. She wasn’t about to succumb to a ruptured appendix. Only 10 days out of the hosptial, she lined up for the trot. I ask her what her doctor had to say. “Oh, I didn’t tell my doctor,” she says, as if the thought never occurred to her.
A concerned Heather Johnston, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, dispatched Porter’s long-term partner, Pete Hammer, a retired Marine Corps captain 13 years Porter’s junior, to run beside her, even though he usually volunteered for other roles at the race.
“I asked him to watch her,” Johnston says, “but she ditched him.” And she finished the race.
Porter ends our walk, though she plans to get out again later for a real workout. She tells me she didn’t walk or run for exercise until she reached her 40s. She quickly took a liking to running marathons, until the 1985 race in Los Angeles when the rain was intense and “me and everybody else lost their toenails.” She’s also trekked in Nepal and Antarctica, hung out with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and helicopter hiked in Canada.
But she always loves coming home: “Only in Dana Point does City Hall send flowers to an ordinary citizen.”
Trot With Willa!
Registration for the Nov. 27 Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in Dana Point Harbor begins at 6 a.m. Starting times for different age groups and race lengths are staggered from 7 to the 10:15 a.m. Gobble Wobble for kids. Proceeds go to various charities. 949-496-1555, turkeytrot.com