Fred Kaiser was there in the beginning, running down J Street on a crisp Thanksgiving morning two decades ago along with 800 dedicated local runners who’d gotten word about a new fundraising event for the Sacramento Food Bank.
The 61-year-old attorney hasn’t missed a year: He’s run every Run to Feed the Hungry ever since. And this year, for the event’s 20th anniversary, he will wear a special bib emblazoned with the number 20.
“I heard about the Run to Feed the Hungry through my running club,” said Kaiser, who lives in Carmichael and is a longtime member of the Buffalo Chips Running Club. “Word spread that there would be this Thanksgiving event. That was before the Internet and email blasts. It was labor intensive and expensive to send out fliers saying, ‘Please sign up.’
“And the chatter among the participants was, ‘We need to tell our friends and family we’re running on Thanksgiving.’ No one was clear how that would go over with our families.”
Over time, the Run to Feed the Hungry, which offers both 10K and 5K events open to walkers and runners, has attracted up to 28,000 participants a year, raising $850,000 toward the Sacramento Food Bank’s annual budget, said food bank communications director Kelly Siefkin.
It also became a Sacramento institution, the community event that signals to the region that the holidays have begun, and it helped change the culture of Thanksgiving in America, which is, after all, an ideal day to raise money to help the less fortunate and preemptively burn off calories.
According to Runner’s World magazine, Thanksgiving has become the top day for fun runs around the nation, replacing the Fourth of July. The Run to Feed the Hungry wasn’t the first or even the second – that would be Buffalo’s Thanksgiving race, followed by a similar run in Dallas – but it now ranks high among the races attracting the most participants.
“Our numbers for this year are trending really good right now,” said event director Rich Hanna, who owns Capitol Road Race Management. “If we have decent weather, we’re looking good. A lot has to do with it being the 20th anniversary. We’re telling people that if they’ve ever done the Run to Feed the Hungry, we’d like you back.”
Hanna estimates that there are probably up to 100 veteran participants who, like Kaiser, have done the race every year.
“We’ve reached out through our database to request that people email us, but we haven’t had a huge response,” he said. “The crazy thing is, I was training that first Thanksgiving for the California International Marathon with a group of buddies. I’d just left the track at Sacramento State.
“And then we saw all these people running down H Street, and we just looked at each other. How did I not know about this race? Now, you’d have to be under a rock not to hear about it.”
For Kaiser, the Run to Feed the Hungry long ago became his Thanksgiving tradition, one that he wouldn’t dream of missing.
“Everyone who knows me understands that unless something’s horribly gone wrong, I’ll be there on Thanksgiving,” he said. “This is what I love to do.”
His life as a runner began long ago, during his college years, and over time, he’s amassed experience in countless fun runs and marathons. From his nicely appointed office in Campus Commons, he likes to pop onto the American River Parkway for a lunchtime run several times a week, come rain or shine.
This year, his son Matthew, a seventh-grader, will participate in the Thanksgiving Day run for the first time.
“It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without the Run to Feed the Hungry,” Kaiser said. “Even in the early days, to come home with the event shirt, that was big.
“It was a badge of honor having this running shirt. You’d see other people with the shirt and it was a source of camaraderie and conversation.”
Not long ago, he said, the food bank decided to put together a collection of the running shirts from all 20 years’ races.
“They didn’t have a first-year shirt,” Kaiser said. “So someone said, ‘Call Fred.’ And they took my shirt.”