Madison’s original Thanksgiving Day run

The Berbee Derby has given $670K to local groups
Madison’s original Thanksgiving Day run
Photo courtesy of Focal Flame Photography
The Berbee Derby Thankgiving Day run in Fitchburg is a holiday tradition.

There are plenty of turkey trots around these days, but few events deliver targeted benefits to local schools and nonprofit groups like the Berbee Derby.

Since its founding in 2004, the popular Thanksgiving morning 10K run and 5K run/walk in Fitchburg has delivered over $670,000 in grants to some 150 area organizations.

The benefits come via the Technology Education Fund, which was formed as a way to direct entry fees and sponsorship money from the Berbee Derby to worthy causes. The little pin-on paper numbers distributed to all entrants say as much: “100% Proceeds Go Back Into Community.”

For many, the family-friendly event has become the perfect Thanksgiving tradition–a way to do good for both body and soul. Lots of participants dress in costumes appropriate to the season, from turkey suits and Grinch costumes and everything in between.

Getting out of the house for some exercise on what is often a chilly morning also makes for some guilt-free feasting afterward for those who bother to watch the calories around the holidays.

Over 6,100 people signed up last year and organizers expect to top that figure when the final numbers come in Thursday. But participation is down a bit from the peak of 8,000 in 2013 largely due to the entry of a couple other Madison-area Thanksgiving runs, including one at the Alliant Energy Center put on by Chicago-based All Community Events which holds more than two dozen similar races around the country.

“We know people have other choices, but by choosing the Berbee Derby they are not only having fun with their families, they are directly impacting their local community,” says race spokeswoman Suzy Shain.

Newer participants might not even know where the name “Berbee Derby” comes from. It’s named after the Berbee Information Networks Corp. launched in 1993 by Madison native Jim Berbee. The company was one of the first IT support firms in the Madison area–in the days before smartphones and laptops became as common as kitchen toasters.

An avid runner himself, Berbee remembers reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about how common Thanksgiving Day runs had become all over the country. He also noted they were successful in both attracting participants and in raising funds.

Berbee wondered why running-crazy Madison didn’t have a turkey trot. So he and his staff set out to create one. The question then became what to do with the race proceeds. So Berbee and CEO Paul Shain came up with the idea to promote the use of technology in classrooms and nonprofit organizations via the Technology Education Foundation.

“Technology changes so quickly, and it’s important that people of all ages are exposed to it,” Berbee says. “The problem is that it’s also expensive and there really wasn’t a good source of private funding dedicated to it in Madison.”

That’s not the case anymore. This year, TEF awarded $99,669 in grants to the following organizations:

Shorewood Hills Elementary School ($998); School District of Monroe ($10,000); Capital Science & Engineering Fair ($1,500); Vera Court Neighborhood Center ($10,000); DANEnet ($10,000); School District of Poynette ($7,500); Goodman Community Center ($10,000); Boys & Girls Club ($5,000); Madison Children’s Museum ($5,300); Aldo Leopold Nature Center ($5,870); The First Tee ($5,000); YWCA ($20,000) and St. James Catholic School ($8,500).

Berbee Information Networks was sold in 2006 to publicly-traded information technology giant CDW in a $175-million cash deal yet has maintained a strong local presence in Fitchburg Research Park. The race has also continued and hasn’t missed a beat.

Jim Berbee, 54, has gone on to tackle a new career as an emergency room doctor after graduating from the Stanford School of Medicine. He remains actively involved with the race and the foundation, however. He also serves on the board of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

“With our Wisconsin weather, I’m always in awe at how thousands of runners and walkers get out of bed on a holiday to participate in the Berbee Derby,” he says. “I love seeing all of the clever costumes on race day but my favorite part is seeing how creative people are with their team names.”

The long-range forecast for Thanksgiving morning is calling for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 30s. Sounds about perfect for a little heavy breathing before the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

Mike Ivey writes the Footloose blog for madisonmagazine.com.

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