On the day that is generally reserved for backyard barbeques, a final trip to the pool and rest, many in the Elm City will begin their Labor Day a bit differently: by running a 20-kilometer race.

Since 1978, the New Haven Road Race has drawn thousands to run through the city’s streets — including for the past sixteen years the United States’ best male and for the past eight its best female runners — to compete in the National 20K championship. It was supposedly a favorite race of top American prospect Ryan Shay, who ran this race many times and won in 2004 before his death at the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2007. The winner of those trials (and the tenth finisher in Beijing), Ryan Hall, won this race in 2006. History, in the form of world records, has been made on what is often advertised as a “pancake-flat” course.

But while the competition attracts the greats, races like the one today are great for reasons that have little to do with elite participation. Races have long been used to fundraise. Large ones can raise real money: the 2009 Boston Marathon raised nearly $1.5 million for Children’s Hospital Boston. According to the New Haven Road Race Web site, the race has returned over $300,000 to the community. (While this race waives entry fees for anyone who contributes $100 or more to one of the designated charities, it is not primarily billed as a charity race and does not have the same incentives as Boston.)

And as a response to our national obesity epidemic, races have become popular ways to promote physical activity, especially in children. Many races now offer short “fun runs” with trophies and medals, and some partner with public schools to provide training programs that culminate with a race-day celebration and run for student participants.

Additionally, cities commonly use athletic events to promote their areas and generate tourism. New Haven is no exception to this pattern. The city has long tried to make itself a destination through sports.

In the 1990s, it built one of the world’s largest tennis centers to lure the Volvo (now the Pilot Pen) Tennis Tournament, a warm-up for the U.S. Open, to the city. The Web site for the tournament (which wrapped up just over a week ago) featured a prominent pitch for New Haven as a travel destination. The sponsorship page on the New Haven Road Race’s site is much the same: It touts New Haven’s accessibility by car, train and plane (praising the wonderful Tweed Airport), as well as its panoply of restaurants and cultural activities (highlighting, of all venues, Toad’s Place).

Road races benefit their participants as well by offering the chance to see parts of a city besides the downtown. The New Haven Road Race begins and ends on the Green, but racers run along Long Island Sound, in East Rock Park and through a diverse set of residential areas. Three days into my freshman fall, the race was my first foray off Yale’s campus and, while I run along some of the race’s streets regularly, each year in the race I end up in a neighborhood I go to only rarely. Since, like Atlanta’s Peachtree 10K or Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run, spectators — from the ones handing out ice cubes and oranges at unofficial aid stations to the ones cheering from their lawns to the ones mercifully wielding hoses— line the streets of New Haven’s race, runners like me are able to get a sense of the culture of the city. And, since road races always end with food, the host usually offers some of its best.

Finally, at a time when cities are trying to wean their residents off their car dependence and make streets friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists, races change the dynamic of the street, at least in the short term. I’m not a proponent of anything radical, like permanently turning the streets over to pedestrians, and I think it’s good that races are usually held on weekends or holidays to minimize traffic disruptions and consequent inconvenience. (This year, Yale professors are admittedly a bit stuck, but you can’t blame the city for that one.) Still, I think letting pedestrians take over for a few hours creates an opportunity to think about the composition of our streets, especially on busy roads like Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and Long Wharf Drive, where there are few lights, high speed limits and limited sidewalks.

If nothing else, road races that occur year after year become part of a city’s ethos. As the 20 in yellow bibs who have run in all 32 races might attest, running the annual New Haven Road Race is, like marking the final hurrah for the halcyon days of summer with a day of doing nothing, tradition. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself on the starting line.

Sarah Nutman is a junior in Trumbull College.