Every Thanksgiving Day, in an act as ritualized as mixing the mashed potatoes or snapping the wishbone, Robert Cook puts on his sweats and flip-flops, props up his folding chair and spends hours cheering on the participants in the Run to Feed the Hungry.
All that changes, year to year, is his location. Some years, he'll set up at the Starbucks on 38th and J streets; others, he'll encamp near the steps of Sacred Heart Parish on 39th. Most times, though, he favors the modest patch of grass in front of his apartment building, mere steps from the action on 39th. Can't beat the proximity.
It was at that spot, during the 2009 edition of the race that supports Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, where Cook feared he'd meet his demise by a stampeding herd of 30,000 sweaty runners, many of whom make participating a ritual in itself.
Cook had just hunkered down with a two-pump, no foam venti vanilla latte, his smoldering, 7-inch Ashton Churchill cigar and a copy of The Bee he swiped from a nearby medical office doormat, when the starter's gun went off.
Yeah, in retrospect, he may have been a tad too close to the sidewalk, but soon Cook found himself utterly engulfed. Oh, the humanity.
"It was really incredible," he recalled. "It started out with tens of runners going by. Then, hundreds of runners, and it was starting to get unnerving. Then, literally thousands streamed by. They spilled over onto the grass of the church and my apartment building. Runners were having to divert around me. The noise, man, it was incredible.
"Listen, I'm a people person, but I started to get claustrophobic. I thought, when this group leaves, I'll get up and make my way to the door. But the groups just got larger and larger. I started to have a minor panic attack."
Yet, undeterred, the 52-year-old will be back, stogie blazing, to watch today's 19th annual race, though he'll try to remember to scoot his lawn chair back a bit. The 10K race starts at 8:35 a.m. and the 5K race at 9 a.m.
For scores of sedentary Sacramentans like Cook, cheering the runners and walkers from the streets and front lawns of east Sacramento and midtown is both a community-bonding opportunity and a way to feel they're actively (well, it's all relative) supporting a worthy cause.
What began 19 years ago as a humble charity fun run has blossomed into one giant block party. Call it our town's version of folks lining the streets of Pasadena for the Rose Parade.
It's what prompts Kevin Meier to open his house on 55th and H streets, near the finish line, to invite friends and neighbors to sip mimosas and dance to throbbing techno beats blaring from his speakers.
It's what, for each of the 19 years, has inspired Peter Glick to set up an "unofficial" aid station at 36th and McKinley to hand out 2,000 cups brimming with Gatorade, while he, his sons and a few friends provide live music through the morning.
It's what gave improv comedian Paul Burke of Roseville the idea a few years ago to launch "Sit to Feed the Hungry," raising money for the food bank by sitting on his keister under a banner explaining his noble non-aerobic mission.
And it's what led two popular watering holes along the course route, Club 2 Me and Chargin's, to fling open their doors and have tables lined with Bloody Marys to "hydrate" runners and those getting tired just watching.
"We usually get runners coming in," cracked Jeff Chargin, son of the bar's owner, "who don't finish the race. But we do a great business in Bloody Marys."
Joining in the merriment
Rich Hanna, longtime Run to Feed the Hungry race director, said the crowds have grown in tandem with the popularity of the race.
"It's really a great thing to see for the community and, of course, the food bank," Hanna said.
Glick, a Sacramento lawyer, has been participating by not running since the race's inception. The original 10K course ran right by his house on 36th Street, but since the route change in 2010, he's moved operations down one house to the corner.
"It was my wife's idea," Glick said. "We set up a table out front, and she sliced oranges from our tree. The next year, we realized this was a lot of fun and started offering water and Gatorade and then recorded music."
Because Glick's two sons are musicians, they formed an informal band seven years ago to serenade the runners. It's not the only act around. Quincy Brown of the Q Balls sets up on his lawn at 45th and J on the 5K course and plays Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" and other uptempo classic rock anthems.
"One of our band's deals is to support the community," Brown said. "And, you know, where else are you going to get 30,000 people running by and hearing you play?"
The merriment and cohesion extend to the commercial district up and down J Street in east Sacramento.
Club 2 Me, near 48th on J Street, has a "Cheers" atmosphere on race day. Drinks flow, seasonal food is consumed, and runners are urged to stop by for a quick snort. Some take them up on it, according to bartender Huey Tidwell.
Bill Mier, who owns the Pasty Shack next door and spends lots of time at Club 2 Me, explained, "See, it's not a race where everyone's worried about speed, so they'll stop in for maybe a bunch of Bloody Marys."
Sitters raise funds, too
Just because you are spectating does not mean you can't get a workout. Meier throws a party at his house on 55th and H streets, a block from the finish line. A DJ spins dance beats, "high- energy music to bring the runners home," he said.
Anthony Piccardo, an attendee at the Meiers', notes that "people at the party were in the front yard dancing, feeding off the energy of the runners, vibing off that and sending back a big 'congratulations' to them."
"Tell you what," Piccardo added, "I've walked the thing and tried running it, too. But last year the party was the most fun I've ever had at the run."
Not running is what Burke, the comedian behind "Sit to Feed the Hungry," is all about. The idea for his charity struck, he said, while he was working out at a gym ("ironic, right?" he said) and watching a news report about the race the night before Thanksgiving in 2009.
"I thought, 'Great cause, but I don't want to get all sweaty and then have to go eat with friends and family,' " he said. "So I thought I'd raise money by sitting. It was a joke, but friends told me I should do it.
"I went and had a sign made real fast. I was up until 3 in the morning, making shirts with iron-on logos and stuff. I was out there the next morning all by myself for a few hours until my friend Sean (Daniel) and his wife (Kimberly) showed up to help sit."
He raised about $300 for the food bank the first year. This year, he has corralled 20 sitters and hopes to raise more. They aren't just sitting, though. Burke and friends yell slogans at passing runners. Example: "We've been training the whole year for this."
Indeed, this year Cook, the spectator wielding the pungent 7-inch cigar, will be risking life and limb once more by sitting out the race.
"I watch my friends pass by and wave to them," he said. "My ex-wife even sort of walks the course. I'll even wave to her."
Well, it is Thanksgiving, after all.