Other Thanksgiving traditions actually reward coming in first. The first to call the drumstick gets . . . the drumstick. The first to dip into the mashed potatoes gets to scoop out the warm pool of butter in the middle. The firstborn get to sit at the grown-ups' table.

So naturally Joanna Whyte, a Princeton, N.J., epidemiologist who was in the area for the holiday, was excited to be the first to cross the finish line yesterday at the annual Howard County Turkey Trot in Columbia.

"I'm so happy. I've never come in first," said Whyte, who reported her age to be "over 21." "Of course, you're not supposed to."

The Howard County Striders, a running club that sponsors the annual Thanksgiving day race, raises the stakes in its version of this popular holiday event. Although other turkey trots held throughout the region yesterday paid homage to the fastest and fittest, this one rewarded the thinker.

How Columbia.

Runners can start any time they want just as long as they cross the finish line at exactly 11 a.m. Oh, and no watches are allowed. The runners have to judge how fast they are going and guess how long it will take for them to complete the 10K course, which traverses a bicycle path near the Jeffers Hill community center.

It is kind of like trying to guess when to start cooking the turkey if dinner is supposed to be on the table at 3 p.m. sharp. Only there is no hot line to help out.

"Anyone can win," said David Tripp, a Rouse Co. vice president who has organized the race for the past 20 years. "Speed doesn't matter. The slowest people can win."

Still, some of the 143 runners who turned out yesterday did a bit of overanalyzing.

Overheard at the start: Man in white shirt: "I think it's time. It's 9:58 a.m."

Other man in white shirt: "How about 9:59 a.m.?"

Paula Mee, 45, of Ellicott City, and her neighbor, Susan Gnatt, 42, both were running the trot for the first time. Mee predicted that if she started at exactly 10:07 a.m. and ran even 8 minute 45 second miles, then she would surely cross the finish line at 11 a.m.

She ended up running faster than she expected and crossed the line about 10:57 a.m.

She was hardly alone. Just minutes before 11 a.m., a pack of runners emerged from around a bend, some slowing and some speeding up as they tried to figure out how close it was to the finish time. The gray skies, as one runner pointed out, provided little help.

"You couldn't even tell by the sun," said Denise Harragan, a computer scientist from Columbia who ran with her husband, Al, and their two children.

Of the 143 runners, 74 finished within one minute of 11 a.m. The Top 10 finished within four seconds.

Michael Kreft, of Columbia, was the winner, having come within 2.13 seconds of crossing the finish at 11 a.m. He took home a brass turkey mounted on a trophy stand as his prize.

Kreft, an engineer in his thirties, said the secret to his victory was "pure luck."

"I think everyone ran too fast," he said. "The problem is these people are so competitive that they see someone ahead of them and they want to pass them."

The Turkey Trot is a tradition for David and Judith Tripp, whose grown sons also help out on race day. Jason Tripp calculated the time yesterday, while Joshua Tripp guided the winners across the finish line.

"This is our tradition," Judith Tripp said. "The embarrassing part is going to Dunkin' Donuts at 8:30 in the morning and asking for 14 dozen doughnuts because they know I don't need 14 dozen doughnuts on Thanksgiving."

CAPTION: David Tripp, in jacket, documents runners as they cross the finish line in the annual Howard County Turkey Trot in Columbia. The goal of the race was to come in as close to the specified time--11 a.m.--as possible.