There was no pack of tense runners crowding the starting line, waiting for a buzzer under the full-harvest moon during this year's Moonlight Run & Walk. There was no free Hobee's coffee cake at the finish line, and no police officers directing traffic away from blocked off streets near the race routes at the Palo Alto Baylands. Instead, there was Andrew Dimock, running alone at midnight under an almost-full harvest moon. There were Mirjam and Rolf Koerber, completing the 5K walk in the bustling city center of Berlin. And there was Austin Johnson, who recruited his roommate to join him for a half marathon route through the Baylands.
They were among the 677 runners and walkers from 13 states and six countries who participated in the 36th annual fundraising event that moved from its longtime home at the Baylands to parks and streets in neighborhoods near and far after going virtual due to the pandemic. The annual event, organized by the Palo Alto Weekly and city of Palo Alto, which would have typically kicked off with a 5K walk followed by 5k-, 10k- and half marathon races under a full moon at the Baylands on Oct. 2, took place whenever and wherever participants chose over the past two weeks and raised more than $50,000 to support the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, which awards grants to nonprofits that serve children and families in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
For some runners and walkers, the year's unconventional format opened new opportunities. Dimock, who always runs with his daughter, was able to attempt the half marathon for the first time.
"I ordinarily have to skip the longer races so I can do the 5K with my now 14-year-old daughter," he wrote via email. "In this virtual setup, I can go the half, she the 5k, and we can still race 'together.'" Although fire smoke ultimately thwarted their tandem run, Dimock still completed the half marathon on his own under a reddish-orange moon at the Baylands.
In Berlin, Germany, the Koerbers completed their first ever Moonlight Run in the city center after their friends in Woodside invited them to join. "We were absolutely thrilled by the international openness and wanted to show our closeness with the people of California," they said via email.
Johnson, who completed his first-ever half marathon at last year's Moonlight Run, said he was committed to running his race no matter what — even if he was only able to train sporadically because of wildfire smoke and trail closures due to restrictions from the pandemic.
"I can count on one hand how many times I ran in the past six months," Johnson said.
Johnson, a second-year medical student at Stanford University, signed up to run this year with 20 of his classmates, all of whom volunteer at Stanford's outpatient clinics serving low-income families.
With social-distancing rules, training and running became a solitary endeavor, he said. Johnson tried to stay in shape by lifting weights but said that in the months leading up to the half marathon, he struggled to maintain a running regimen: Much of his time was taken up moving home to Colorado, after Stanford administrators asked undergraduates to vacate the campus in March due to the pandemic, and then moving back at the start of fall quarter.
"I did an entire quarter of medical school online," he said. "We learned about cardiology and the lungs while I was in my old bedroom that I lived in for 20-plus years."
When he got back to the Bay Area, the air was filled with wildfire smoke for a solid month.
"Since I've been back here, I think I've run maybe four times," he said prior to running the half marathon.
Johnson said he was excited and ready when heard that the Moonlight Run was still taking place this year. He wouldn't be setting any personal records, but his time wasn't the most important thing to him, he said.
"The more people I meet, the more I realize that people just need to hold on to a sense of normalcy ... to still take part in a tradition that stays strong no matter what's going on," he said.
"I think that Cardinal Free Clinics and the Moonlight Run collectively are the experiences that have given me the most invigorating memories of my first year in medical school," he added.
Johnson and Dimock both said that while they enjoy running and walking, it's the spirit of the event and the nonprofits it supports that keep them coming back year after year, and it's why they laced up and pounded the pavement in the face of unprecedented obstacles.
"The other races I participate in, it's more been just personal goals, making sure I'm fit and what not," Johnson said. "But here, I think there's something bigger than that, and I'm not going to let that get taken away."
Johnson, who ended up competing in the race with his roommate, submitted the fastest time in this year's half marathon.