The 18-year run of a popular Palo Alto foot race that raised money for local schools could come to an end in February if its founder can't find someone to fill her racing shoes.
Karen Saxena, a longtime Palo Alto parent who started the Juana Run in 1997, is retiring as race coordinator, she confirmed Wednesday. The final race she'll organize will be on Feb. 22.
Saxena's departure leaves the race's future in limbo. The volunteers are fewer now, and her youngest daughter is graduating from Gunn High School this coming May. Saxena has grown weary of the hours of phone calls and emails to organize volunteers, she said.
There could be hope for future runs, however, if the right person or persons take over. Saxena has received emails from two interested people. One is affiliated with the schools; the other might want to expand Juana Run as a broader venture, she said.
Juana Run has offered something for everyone: a competitive 8K race on a USA Track and Field-certified course; races for elementary school students; and a 1-mile family race.
"It's a good way to raise money if you get involved in a volunteer activity and do something you like doing," she said.
Saxena had volunteered at school carnivals and other events, but in the late '90s, she sought something more.
"I wanted to do something I could own," she said.
She and her husband, podiatrist Amol Saxena, are avid runners and had enjoyed a similar Los Altos family-oriented race called "Willy's Road Race," which benefited St. Williams' School, they said in a 1997 interview with the Weekly. They launched the Juana Run when the Juana Briones Elementary School PTA was looking for a fundraiser.
The Juana Run attracts about 1,000 people each year, she said. At first, it benefited the elementary school. Proceeds were later split between Juana Briones and Barron Park elementary schools. More schools, including Terman Middle School and Gunn High School, have benefited in recent years. Student runners who register garner $5 apiece for their schools if they promote the run on campus, she said.
In the past four or five years, Juana Run has given a percentage to groups that help at the event. The Gunn girls basketball team took care of the burger booth last year, and environmentally oriented "green teams" sorted the trash into recyclables.
For several years, the Juana Run was part of the Palo Alto Grand Prix, a series of road races that consists of the Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run and Walk, Marsh Madness, Stanford Habitat for Humanity Home Run, Pacific THERx 5K4Play and the Agile Running of the Bulls. The races, which take place throughout the year, benefit medical, educational, sports and youth wellness programs and local nonprofit groups.
Saxena said the race has changed over the years, evolving from a simple run to an event that includes a pancake breakfast, raffle, lunch and prizes.
Barron Park Principal Magdalena Fittoria said Juana Run benefits the schools through community building, fitness and income.
"This one event brings both (school) populations together. It's a unifying event for two elementary schools in this area," she said.
Losing Juana Run means losing funding for some after-school programs. Income from the Juana Run are given to the PTAs, which provide grants for noontime activities and after-school programs such as computer clubs and taekwondo.
Enriching campus activities contribute to how students feel, she added.
"We are wondering what is going to happen," Fittoria said.
Juana Briones Principal Lisa Hickey credits the run with getting her back into the sport after a 10-year hiatus.
"It's a great little neighborhood run. Last year I did the Juana Run, and I did a half-marathon last month. Now I'm going to run a full marathon. I feel like the Juana Run inspired me," she said.
With her free time, Saxena might do more part-time work, she said. And although her kids are nearly all grown, she continues to coach after-school sports for Palo Alto's middle schools.
Saxena and her husband can't do all the running they want to do anymore, she said. But if Juana Run survives, she just might be one of the first at the starting line.
"I always love race day," she said.