At 5 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, a handful of people in Hart Park placed baked goods on tables and began making coffee. The sun was still about an hour from rising, and there was a brisk chill in the air.

Thirty minutes later, the chill remained, but the sky began to lighten, and that handful of people had grown to more than a hundred, with hundreds more on the way. 

The turkey could wait.

Now, it was time to run, eat dessert for breakfast and remember one of the founders of the Pie Run, a Bakersfield Thanksgiving tradition for the past 30-something years.

John Rous, a lifelong athlete who started the run with a group of friends, died Nov. 14 after being struck by a car while bicycling. He was 78.

It was Rous who, year after year, stood on the back of a pickup and said a few words at the start of the run. This year, his son David did the honors.

Around 6 a.m., he climbed onto the the back of a silver Tacoma and wished the crowd a happy Thanksgiving. He said he's sure some people showed up specifically to support his family, while others were there for the "simple beauty" of the event.

After a few short comments, David Rous said, "At this point I'd be telling my dad, 'Get down, they're ready to run.'"

But he said he couldn't end without repeating the two things his father said every year.

First, as the run was about to start, David Rous said his father would pause and say, "Wait a minute, I see a stream of cars coming in." They would then wait until the newcomers arrived. 

And second, he'd say, "Can I see a show of hands for first-timers?"

When David Rous asked that question Thursday, dozens of hands shot up. He then sent them on their way, some heading out for a run of several miles, others maybe a relaxed 10-minute walk before heading back for a steaming cup of coffee and slice of pumpkin pie.

Kelli Kelly, 54, was one of the early birds who spent the better part of an hour laying out the pies and assortments of doughnuts, cookies, breads and cupcakes that participants contributed. Anything sweet and filling is fair game at the Pie Run. 

John Rous is missed, Kelly said. She described him as always thinking of other people; it was Rous who years ago began providing hundreds of cups of coffee for run participants. 

"To me, I always called him my gentle giant," she said of the 6-foot-5 lifelong Bakersfield resident.  

John Rous had a deep voice, but was so soft-spoken you almost had to strain to hear him at times, she said.

He didn't like to waste anything. Kelly said he used the same coffee cup every morning at Bagels and Blenderz on Stockdale Highway, where he and others met for a run or bike ride. 

And he had a preference for thin bike shorts, Kelly said. Maybe too thin.

On one ride with him she ended up pedaling behind him.

"John, you're cracking a smile at me," she told him. 

Sid Fulce, 75, said John Rous wasn't the fastest runner, but kept up a "strong and steady" pace for miles. He participated in 70 marathons. 

He was the type of guy willing to do anything for anybody, Fulce said. Family and church were important to him, as was having fun. 

Fulce, who said he started participating in the Pie Run around 1985, said this year his grandchildren are attending, making it three generations braving the cool morning for some early exercise and companionship. 

Colby Churchman, one of the run's founders, said the idea for it was planted years ago when a group of about five of them met at one of their homes before going on a run. One of them happened to bring a pie. 

The next year, a few more people joined in, and the year after that a few more, and the run and bringing of a pie became a tradition. It grew so big they decided on Hart Park as the location, and what was at first a few friends is now a mass gathering.

It all happened by word of mouth, Churchman said.

The 83-year-old said Rous wasn't picky about his pie. "Hot or cold" were his favorites, Churchman said. 

Each year, the dozens of leftover pies from the event are donated to the Bakersfield Homeless Center.

It marks yet another tradition connected to Rous on a holiday that, for Bakersfield at least, is filled with them. 

Jason Kotowski can be reached at 661-395-7491. Follow him on Twitter: @tbcbreakingnews.

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