Thanksgiving Day in Silicon Valley means more than family dinners, touch football and volunteering. For the past 15 years, families across the Bay Area have flocked to downtown San Jose to participate in the Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot.

This year, the race is taking another page from 2020: it’s going virtual.

Since its inception, the 5K and 10K races have drawn up to 25,000 runners, joggers and walkers to the streets to not only join in on healthy activities, but also contribute to those in need by supporting five charitable organizations — Healthier Kids Foundation, Housing Trust Silicon Valley, Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, Second Harvest Santa Cruz County and The Health Trust.

This year, participants will track their personal races over the course of seven days via the app RaceJoy, where they can submit photos, send encouragement to friends and see real-time records for others.

Race Director Chris Weiler of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation has worked behind-the-scenes for the event since 2016. The nonprofit organization — consisting of business and community leaders — founded the event in 2004. It has grown to become the largest Thanksgiving Day race nationwide, according to organizers.

Racing against COVID-19

When news of COVID-19 began making waves in the Bay Area in early February, Weiler and the foundation team were preparing for the Lam Research Heart and Soles Run at the end of March. Three weeks before the event, as Santa Clara County announced a mandatory shelter in place on March 16, the race went virtual.

In the following months, as COVID-19 case numbers and deaths continued to rise, foundation officials questioned what the 2020 Turkey Trot would be.

“We knew that the reality was we were likely going to have to go virtual,” Weiler said. “We did the necessary steps for permitting, in case (of) a miracle vaccine — but 90% of the work we were doing was, what is a virtual event going to look like?”

Weiler and the team connected with event coordinators nationwide to see how other big events went virtual, and the lessons learned in transitioning online. The group also talked to sponsors and beneficiaries to determine how to stay true to the Turkey Trot mission.

“It’s a run, but it really has a bigger purpose of bringing people together and providing for those who aren’t as fortunate during the holidays,” Weiler said.

In preparation for the event, the group aimed to have 40% registration in comparison to previous years, with a reach goal of 50%. As of Nov. 19, Weiler believed the run would be completely sold out with approximately 12,500 participants by Nov. 21. Participants can also register their furry family members for the Virtual Doggie Dash.

Alongside race registration, participants are automatically enrolled in a virtual “Hometown Hero” challenge, with a goal to do more in the community via 25 not-so-random acts of kindness. With each completed good deed on the web platform, participants receive additional rewards, such as stickers and iron-on badges.

“We thought that — rather than an additional running component — it was truer to who we were, and it’s been incredibly well-received,” Weiler said.

Making an impact

CEO Leslie Bacho of Second Harvest Silicon Valley first worked with Weiler and foundation in 2017, shortly after joining Second Harvest, one of the largest food banks in the country with more than 75 million meals distributed annually. During the pandemic, Bacho has seen the numbers double for meals and people served.

“The Turkey Trot alone has raised enough money to provide 5.8 million meals,” she said. “It just has an incredible impact in the community.”

In addition to being one of the five event beneficiaries, Second Harvest Silicon Valley provides more than 2,000 volunteers on race day. This year, many volunteers continue their work in volunteering at the food banks or packing race materials.

“The Silicon Valley team (does) such an excellent job putting together an amazing event, and they’ve been really creative in how to still make this a really fun event and get community participation even when we can’t come together,” Bacho said.

The annual event holds a special place for many, whether they live in Silicon Valley or have moved elsewhere. One participant told Weiler that her 32 family members — and a dog — would be participating in the Turkey Trot across North America this year.

“Our race is not Boston, it’s not New York — but we’ve discovered that there are now people all over the country doing our virtual Turkey Trot,” Weiler said.

In addition, personal donations this year have hit new records. As of Nov. 23, Weiler said the organization had seen $83,991 in personal donations on top of registration contributions. Over the past 15 years, the race has raised $9.6 million.

The full week of the virtual Turkey Trot takes place Nov. 21 to Nov. 29. Learn more here.

Contact Grace Stetson at and follow her @grace_m_stetson on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.