On Thanksgiving morning in 1991, about 600 people gathered in Zilker Park for Austin’s inaugural ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot. Since then, the event location has changed, the numbers have grown, and the positive impact of the event has been greater than the ThunderCloud Subs team could have imagined.
The event has raised over $4.4 million to support Caritas of Austin’s work to end homelessness over the past 30 years, but it’s largely unknown that event proceeds were originally intended for expanding the Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake.
“We wanted to expand the trail through Zilker Park and across to Barton Springs,” says ThunderCloud Subs Co-Owner Mike Haggerty. “I took a check down to the City after the first year, and they said they couldn’t earmark it for that.” Haggerty began to ask friends what local organizations were doing meaningful work in the city and heard about Caritas of Austin.
“I knew very little about Caritas. I went to their office and said I wanted to donate money. For 20 minutes, I watched all that was going on and got to see interactions between employees and clients. I got a real feeling of respect and understanding for the situations they were in and the support and opportunities they were being presented. For me, it was a fundamental lesson in people helping people.”
What started as a random partnership and homegrown event has grown into one of Austin’s most beloved traditions and a powerful vehicle for supporting those experiencing homelessness.
In its earliest years, the ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot grew at a rapid pace. By year 10, the event had nearly 6,000 participants, and by year 20, nearly 19,000. Though many other Thanksgiving morning runs have popped up in the Central Texas area, Haggerty still believes there’s something special about the original event.
“Because the ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot has been around so long, our event is really multi-generational, which is cool. And the venue at the Long Center is special – you feel the city of Austin. It’s an aura, you can really feel and see the town, the river is right there, and the view from the terrace is amazing,” he said.
Through three decades of Thanksgiving morning events, Haggerty says they’ve had plenty of mishaps that are laughable now: the lead car turning the wrong direction and leading runners off the race course, a 22-degree morning where his Race Director nearly had hypothermia, and learning that streets around the event are closed just a day before Thanksgiving.
But the spirit of lightheartedness and gratitude that comes with the Thanksgiving holiday permeates the entire morning. There’s a sense of happiness all around at the Turkey Trot. The hundreds of participants dressed up in costumes only amplify that joy. Some are cute, some are crazy, and some are downright strange… just how we like it in Austin.
Haggerty feels especially thankful to return to an in-person event this year after last year being virtual. “I love arriving at the Long Center before 5:00am and watching the event set up begin. By 7:00am, the crowd is arriving and it’s all together. My favorite moment is probably when the event is over and we finish the cleanup. You look around and everyone is gone and I say, did that just happen?! It’s a great sense of satisfaction and appreciation.”
Though the event’s financial proceeds have a big impact on Caritas of Austin’s work and mission, Haggerty has seen how the platform of the event is potentially even more powerful for educating Austinites.
“As the event grew, we could see what a great vehicle the event was to deliver the message and let people know about Caritas. If we can let people hear about the organization, then you get the groundswell support organizations need for long-term success. We give a big check and that’s great, but it’s about the people who learn about the cause here and then do something about it.”
There’s still time to register for the in-person or virtual 5-milke run/walk, 1-mile walk, or Stepping Stone School Kids K, or you can sign up to volunteer. Don’t miss out on one of the best events in Austin before you relax and feast on Thanksgiving Day – there’s a reason people come back year after year to participate!**The ThunderCloud Subs team and Race Coordinators are working with the City of Austin and Austin Public Health to follow appropriate COVID-19 safety protocols for this year’s event. As with many local events, guidelines are frequently changing and participants will be informed of guidelines closer to the event.