After a death and many close finishes, one Thanksgiving runner just hopes she can get to the end

There were many things Marion So could have been thinking early Thursday.

While she’s run several three-mile races in Balboa Park, this would be the first without her husband at home. He died earlier this month.

She could have focused on her pace. The 84-year-old had previously placed in her age category, but she’d never won.

Yet as the race got underway, her main thought was: I just want to finish.

So was one of thousands to sign up for the 21st Annual Thanksgiving Day 5K hosted by Father Joe’s Villages, which is raising money to bolster its work with the homeless. Organizers bill it as the city’s first turkey trot.

Runners assembled at sunrise.

There were two starting lines for two types of participants. “Speedy Turkey Start” featured washboard abs. “Fun Runner Start” included people wearing inflatable turkeys.

Making sure nobody jumped the gun was “Dude Vader,” the local cosplay legend played by Chris Canole. Wearing a feathered headdress and his trademark gold armor, Canole stood in front of one line with two outstretched swords.

Chris Canole, 75, dressed as “Dude Vader,” warms up before he and about seven thousand others participate in the 21st Annual Father Joe’s Villages’ Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot at Balboa Park on Thursday. This was Canole’s eighth year but he said he’s long donated blankets to the nonprofit.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria stepped onto a platform to address the crowd.

“There’s no bigger or more complex problem that we’re facing right now than homelessness,” Gloria said. A recent report tallied thousands of people living on the street, which is likely an undercount. “I’m so grateful that 7,000 of you would show up today to be a part of the solution.”

The mayor counted down from 10.


There was a blur of legs.

Runners were followed by joggers, then walkers. Many pushed strollers, not all of which held children.

Benzy, an 8-year-old Boxer, poked a head through the mesh on her dog stroller. She recently had knee surgery and was in no shape to run.

Pushing her was Josiah Kern, who’s in real estate. Working downtown has made him very aware of the homelessness crisis.

Father Joe’s reported raising nearly $373,000 at one point in the day, and leaders pledged to use the money for free meals.

A different crisis was on Benjamin Cisneros’ mind.

Cisneros is a respiratory therapist at Rady Children’s Hospital, where he’s seeing kids as young as 1 struggling with the flu, RSV, COVID — sometimes simultaneously. He’s three months into a travel contract with Aya Healthcare, the race’s main sponsor, and does not see easy relief in sight.

“COVID is not over,” he said.

About seven thousand people participate in the 21st Father Joe's Villages annual Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot at Balboa Park.

About seven thousand people participate in the 21st Annual Father Joe’s Villages’ Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot at Balboa Park on Thursday.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A mile passed. Then two.

The race ended on El Prado.

Thomas Maxfield was first over the line. The college junior from Utah finished in 16 minutes, 34 seconds.

Others followed.

Everyone got a medal. One was placed on a woman holding a baby. The baby grabbed the medal and yanked. The woman winced.

Near the snack tables, three boys huddled together.

Matias Perez is in fourth grade at Gage Elementary, Maximus Drury in third. Carter Shelley, a fifth grader, peeled a banana the size of a Jeep.

The hardest part of the race? “Uphills,” they said in unison.

They were glad to take part.

“It’s a good cause,” Shelley said.

“Same,” Perez said.

Past the finish line, hundreds milled around the Plaza de Panama Fountain. A guy in a Spiderman suit posed for pictures. So did Black Panther.

One family rounded up their kids. The group was so large that the adults weren’t immediately sure how many people they’d brought.

“I loved it,” said Leroy Henley, standing with his young daughter and godson. This was his first turkey trot at the park, and seeing so many people get up so early on such a significant day made him want to make this a family tradition.

Mary Abille, 66, center, and others dance to the YMCA song.

Mary Abille, 66, center, and others dance to the YMCA before participating in the 21st Annual Father Joe’s Villages’ Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot at Balboa Park.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

More people flowed by.

A little after the 54-minute mark, Marion So crossed the finish line.

She’d made it.

Her daughter and three grandchildren had come, too. Each wore an identical blue sweatshirt with “Hong Kong,” “San Diego” and “1933″ printed on the front.

So is originally from Hong Kong. San Diego is where she’s lived for decades. And her husband, Kwan So, was 89 when he died, meaning he was born in 1933.

The group moved toward the art museum.

On a nearby stage, a woman picked up a microphone. It was time to announce the winners.

The category of women aged 80 to 99 came up. Marion So heard her name.

She’d won.

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