Thanksgiving Day, as slathered with tradition as gravy on mashed potatoes, would not be the same for thousands in the Sacramento area without joining the mass of sweaty humanity at the Run to Feed the Hungry.
"I can't even think of Thanksgiving in my family without the run," said Naomi Caietti of Folsom. "That's how ingrained it's become. Not only is it for a good cause, but you feel a real sense of community."
Eighteen years and going strong, the Run to Feed the Hungry ranks second in the nation among Thanksgiving Day road running races quite a feat for an event that began humbly with 796 runners in 1994 and has grown like some overstuffed turkey to more than 25,000 annual participants.
Some say, though, that the community feeling may be tipping toward claustrophobia. And with the proliferation of turkey trots in neighboring cities, some runners are choosing to get closer to people who actually live close to them.
Sacramento's 5K and 10K run, benefiting the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, reached an apex in 2009 with a record 28,364 runners. But attendance at last year's event dropped by 2,625 from 2010 in what may be a signal the race has become a victim of its own popularity.
Avid runner Angie Spallas of Elk Grove participated in the Run to Feed the Hungry for several years, but in 2010 opted to spend her Thanksgiving morning with 491 other 5K runners at the Elk Grove Turkey Trot.
"It's my hometown and they're giving to a food bank here, but, well, the other thing is, selfishly, it's a small race and I wanted to get a P.R.," (personal record), she said sheepishly. "I knew if I'd gone (to Sacramento), the crowds would be difficult. Run to Feed the Hungry does wonderful things for people, but sometimes an event can get too big. They might be at that point."
It's not as if Run to Feed the Hungry resembles Yogi Berra's famous malaprop about a popular New York restaurant: "It's so crowded no one goes there anymore."
But the significant dip in attendance last year has not gone unnoticed by race director Rich Hanna.
"There are new races that have popped up (locally) over the last five years because of the success well, we think, anyway of the Run to Feed the Hungry," he said. "We used to get so many people from up north and from the Bay Area because we were the only race on Thanksgiving Day.
"One guy who lived in San Francisco used to come up every year. He loved the race. He'd email me and say, 'You need to do one in San Francisco.' Now, they do have one in San Francisco. They have them all over now."
He's not exaggerating. Turkey trots on Thanksgiving Day itself, once hard to find, now are ubiquitous. In addition to the Elk Grove race, there are events in Folsom, Grass Valley, Roseville, Fairfield, Stockton, Alturas, Redding and Modesto. In the Bay Area, San Francisco, San Jose, Walnut Creek and Pinole now boast races.
All of those events, Hanna believes, potentially siphon runners from the Sacramento event.
"We're just trying to keep our numbers up over 25,000," he said. "We like to consider our race the Boston Marathon of turkey trots. I mean, which would you rather do on Thanksgiving, the Boston Marathon or the Average Joe race in another town?"
While Hanna does not begrudge the competition, his mission is to keep the Run to Feed the Hungry as large as possible to raise funds for the food bank.
Plus, he admits, there's the civic pride factor. For years, Sacramento's flagship race has battled with the Capital One Bank Dallas YMCA Turkey Trot for bragging rights as the largest Thanksgiving Day race in the United States.
Based on entrants, Dallas annually draws about 10,000 more than Sacramento. But in 2008, Hanna said, a national running organization certified that the Run to Feed the Hungry had the most timed finishers at more than 28,000. (Since then, Run to Feed the Hungry has given participants the option of being timed.)
"I don't really think our sponsors are interested in (the largest race) thing," Hanna said. "But it's a point of pride. Who'd think Sacramento could beat out Dallas? I really think we'd be at over 30,000 now if these other (local) races hadn't come along."
Dallas, too, has experienced local competition that cuts into its numbers. Race spokeswoman Sarah Byrom said a sister race on Thanksgiving, sponsored by the Fort Worth YMCA, routinely draws about 10,000 runners.
"We were shooting for 40,000 last year, but the weather was bad on race day and only got 35,000," she said. "We've been growing 8 to 10 percent each year. That's pretty good for a race that's 44 years old. We found that putting it on Thanksgiving Day really worked."
The success of the Dallas and Sacramento races on the holiday rather than the weekend before or after has spawned many imitators. The race aggregation site Active.com lists just under 500 turkey trots nationally.
Six years ago, when Jennifer Maier launched a race in Grass Valley the Michael Bratton II Turkey Trot in memory of her brother and in support of suicide prevention in Nevada County, she naturally thought of holding it on The Day.
"It wasn't a matter of being in competition with other races," said Maier, whose race has grown from 600 to 1,400. "It works because there's a tight-knit community feel and people are done and home by 9:30 or 10 (a.m.), which isn't the case if they're driving to Sacramento for Run to Feed the Hungry."
Steve Bond, a top 55-59 age group runner from Grass Valley, raced Run to Feed the Hungry from 2001 to 2006. But he since has opted to stay closer to home.
He praised the professionalism of the Sacramento race, but he, too, said Run to Feed the Hungry is almost too popular now; parking and maneuvering through the crowd have become a hassle.
"I have to fight to get anywhere near the starting line," he said. "But once you're there, it has a great vibe and spirit to it."
Hanna, for his part, says his team at Capital Road Race Management continues to work to mitigate traffic and parking problems around Sacramento State and east Sacramento. Several years ago, they instituted two starts, one for the 5K and another for the 10K, to ease course crowding.
But for die-hard Run to Feed the Hungry fans such as Sacramento lawyer Fred Kaiser, logistical challenges mean little.
"I'd never consider doing another race," he said. "You dance with the one that brung ya, and this was a flagship event that started it all."