Peachtree 1970-2006:  A History

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At 7:30 A.M. on what is likely to be a hazy warm morning this coming 4th of July, 55,000 runners in the 38th running of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race will line up from Lenox Square north to the horizon.  Over 900 volunteers will help coordinate the start, and it will be a full hour and 15 minutes before the final runner gets a chance to begin his or her 6.2 mile run down Peachtree Road to finish on 10th Street.  The Peachtree is the world’s largest 10K road race and arguably the best and most prestigious.

 

The race’s inauguration in 1970 held few indications of such future glory.  The idea for a Fourth of July race down the city’s main thoroughfare germinated the year before when a carload of Atlanta Track Club members went to Fort Benning for its modest Independence Day run.  On the way home, someone suggested Atlanta should have its own Fourth of July event; another added it could go down the main street given the light holiday traffic.  Approximately 110 runners gathered together at the old Sears parking lot at the corner of Peachtree Road and Roswell Road and, at 9:30 a.m. on July 4, 1970, headed downtown towards Central City Park in the first Peachtree Road Race.

 

The race was but one of a series of small, local races put on by the Atlanta Track Club.  The club had begun in 1964 when a group of post-collegiate runners joined together with some metro area coaches to support track and field and road running at the local level.  The 1960s were the pre-dawn of the running boom; those who ran for exercise were viewed as amusing eccentrics.  Road races were small and infrequent, with runners driving long distances to take part in these low-key competitions.  To help fill this void, the ATC began a modest series of races in the late 1960s, administered informally and attended by a few stalwarts.  Peachtree would become one of this series.

 

The first Peachtree differed somewhat from its companion races, even in the beginning, for it attracted a sponsor, Carling Brewery.  That modest support allowed the race to afford trophies, a luxury not easily funded through the $2 entry fee.  Nor did the budget include T-shirts though it compassed the 15-cent bus fare given to each finisher to return him back to Peachtree to his car at Sears.

 

Those who ran the inaugural event recall its jovial lack of pretension.   Founder and race director, Tim Singleton, put the event on with a handful of volunteers.  He, himself, set up registration and started the event.  He then jumped in his car, got to the finish well before the lead runners, and oversaw the finish and awards.

 

During the early years, the course went from Sears in Buckhead to Downtown Atlanta.  The runners ran down Peachtree’s far right lane, kept close to the gutter by vigilant police.  At Pershing Point, the course veered onto West Peachtree, rejoining Peachtree near Davison’s (Macy’s).  The race ended at Central City Park.  There was no water on the course as track and field rules at the time discouraged such aid for distances 10K or shorter.  Spectators consisted of a few surprised pedestrians walking their dogs.  Though modest, the race nonetheless attracted the local elite:  it was won by Jeff Galloway, to be an Olympian two years later, and Gayle Barron, whose career would be capped with a 1978 win of the Boston Marathon.

 

Despite the heat and lack of pomp and frill, the race caught the imagination of the town’s running community, and of those in the neighboring states.  The 1971 Peachtree nearly doubled in size to 198, a growth which took organizers by surprise.  That year they used the Carling money to buy T-shirts, but had not ordered enough.  They decided to give the shirts to the finishers until they ran out.  Those who missed the cut vowed to return the following year and get one.  Many did return, though in some cases their luck had not improved.  Organizers this time had ordered enough for 250, with the exact design of the year prior, but this time 330 showed up.  Close to a hundred left disappointed, promising to return and finally earn the shirt.

 

 By 1973, earning the Peachtree shirt had become a goal of local runners.  Its appearance belied its importance.  The white shirt was undated, and was merely reprinted each year with little or no change, not even a date; those who had succeeded in earning all three shirts now owned three identical bits of cloth.  As the importance of the shirt grew, so did the number of people who ran.  Running as a recreational activity began to boom in the early

 

1970s following Frank Shorter’s win in the 1972 Olympic Marathon.  The name of this new sports hero, coupled with the growing popularity of Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book on the benefits of aerobic exercise, had thousands buying Nike waffle trainers and hitting the streets.  Running was no longer just the activity of the scrawny eccentric.

 

The 1974 event doubled again, to 765 finishers. And, once again, organizers ran out of shirts.  In 1975 it fared little better, when over a thousand runners finished.  The 1974 and 1975 now carried the name Tuborg rather than Carling but were otherwise unaltered.

 

A major shift took place in 1976, the first major change in the history of the race.  Carling, with lessening ties to Atlanta, dropped its sponsorship.  The title sponsorship was taken by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, largely at the instigation of Jim Kennedy, a runner and member of the inner circle of the Cox organization, the newspaper’s owner.  Affiliation with the newspaper brought added coverage and corresponding popularity.  The race organizers, for their part, began inviting the nation’s elite road racers to participate.  The field swelled to 2,300; Olympian Don Kardong won.  Peachtree was swiftly becoming among the best known in the United States. But the shirt still looked the same, with the newspaper’s logo replacing that of Tuborg.  There was still no date.

 

The large fields were straining race organization.  The 6,500 who entered the 1977 race overwhelmed Central City Park.  In 1978, the race course was modified.  The Start moved north to Lenox Square and the finish line was put in front of the Bath House in Piedmont Park.  Runners followed the original course onto West Peachtree.  They turned left at 12th Street and then entered the Park towards the Bath House.  The 1977 shirt also carried a new look:  the familiar peach made its first appearance and as did the date.

 

By 1979, the field had reached over 20,000.  The course by now had again been slightly altered, with runners entering the Park at 14th Street.  That year, as well, Bob Varsha was hired as the first paid director.

 

In 1980, race entries were limited at 25,000.  The limit was set because, at five and half miles, the course narrowed to two lanes where it entered the Park from 14th Street.  Organizers felt congestion there was too thick to allow more.  Thus race numbers remained until 1990.  Though the race limit remained steady, however, interest in the event continued to flourish and the race closed earlier and earlier.  In 1989, the 25,000 was reached in just 9 days.  Those not making the cut bellowed in anger.

 

Race organizers took heed.  The start was redesigned.  Time groups of 5,000 each were sent from the start at three minute intervals, allowing the crowd to stretch out sufficiently to ease comfortably through the 14th Street gate.  In 1990, 40,000 ran, with a start lasting 30 minutes.  The race took two weeks to close.

 

The 1980’s saw other changes as well.  In the early part of the decade, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped its sponsorship.  It returned in 1985.  And later in the decade, in an effort to better meet the needs of children, for whom the Peachtree was both too long and too crowded, the Atlanta Track Club began Peachtree Jr., a fun 3K run for children 7-12.  Run the first Saturday in June, it attracts approximately 2000 kids.

 

The decade also saw the emergence of Peachtree’s Wheelchair Division.  Presently among the most beloved aspects of the race, the Division took formal shape in 1982.  Today, more than 100 athletes take part, in what has become one of the world’s finest wheelchair events, attracting top international competition.  Sponsored by the Shepherd Spinal Center since its inception, the event has produced several world record-breaking performances with top contenders covering the 6.2 mile course in under 20 minutes (the course record for those on foot is 27:04).

 

During this period, Peachtree also found its niche in Atlanta’s effort to win the bid to host the 1996 Olympics.  Bid organizers invited International Olympic Committee (IOC) organizers to observe the race, and Peachtree’s fourth mile (I-85 overpass to Colony Square) was dubbed the Olympic Mile, complete with salutational banner and Olympic theme music over the sound system.  In 1990, Peachtree hosted a breakfast for visiting IOC members along the Mile.   In honor of Atlanta’s winning bid, banner and theme music continue there.

 

Continued as well has been the race’s popularity.  In 1992, the race expanded to 45,000.  That year, it closed in nine days.  In 1993, it closed in six days.  And for its Silver Anniversary, it attracted 60,000 entries the first weekend it opened.  The first 40,000 were accepted, the final 10,000 taken from a lottery of those entries postmarked in March (the race opened March 20). Over 10,000 were rejected.

 

As anticipated, the 1996 running of the Peachtree was memorable.  July 4th was but two days before the Olympic Village opened to welcome the 10,000 athletes coming to town to participate in the Centennial Olympic Games.  Thirty-two Olympians made Peachtree’s elite field the most illustrious ever; it was little surprise that both men’s and women’s course records fell, the men’s being broken by Kenya’s Joseph Kimani in a world best 10K time of 27:04.

 

The post-Olympic era has little dampened Peachtree’s popularity.  When the race opens the third Sunday in March each year, over 60,000 runners routinely vie to enter.  In 1998, 55,000 runners were admitted, up from 50,000 in 1997.  Among other changes that year as well, all runners who qualified for the early time groups by running a certified 10K in 50 minutes or under were timed, their names listed in the following morning’s Atlanta Journal- Constitution.

 

In 1999, Peachtree faced new challenges. Sewer construction in Piedmont Park required the final mile of the course be rerouted; for the first time since 1978 the race finished outside the Park. The new finish, on 10th Street at Charles Allen Drive, is broader and downhill, and has been greeted by runners with enthusiasm.  All finish area activity remained in the Piedmont Park meadow, the same as in 1998. In 1999, as well, the race added a new time group Time group 1B, which opened documented placement to all running under 55:00.

 

After a fairly serene 2000 and 2001, major challenges occurred for the 33rd running of the Peachtree in 2002. The meadow area of the park, which the race generally uses for the finish area, was under construction. After long debate on alternatives, the race moved its finish area in the Athletic Fields, a half mile walk through the Park. This constituted altering over 25 years of planning. As usual, the Peachtree Committee and the thousands of volunteers rose to the occasion, making this “Special Edition” a resounding success. Indeed, most enjoyed the cool-down walk through the Park and urged the format be continued.

 

The 34th was similar to the 33rd. The meadow remained under construction, and runners again received their T-shirts at the Athletic Fields. Unfortunately, Hurricane Bill came through three days before the race, leaving the fields sodden, and unable to support the heavy tanker trucks for PowerAde and Crystal Springs water. These were parked on the narrow road  overlooking the field, leading to memorable congestion. New touches that year included the introduction of Silver Numbers.  Two hundred and fifty randomly selected numbers were replaced by Silver Numbers, qualifying those runners for a special drawing for a trip for two to next May’s Vienna Marathon via Delta Air Lines. The drawing took place from the awards stage following the awards ceremony. Matt Minter of Smyrna was the lucky winner.

 

The 35th running was a major anniversary year and the 110 original finishers were invited back. This in addition, Peachtree hosting its first satellite race: at Camp Victory in Baghdad. Dubbed Time Group Ten-Baghdad Division, 500 soldiers wore Peachtree Road race numbers to earn the 2004 Peachtree T-shirt—a special edition with “Baghdad Division” on its sleeve. The Silver Number drawing was won by Nazeen Desai. Much to everyone’s delight, the renovation of Meadow in Piedmont Park was finished, and could once again welcome Peachtree’s finish area festivities.

 

With the success of Baghdad’s Time Group 10 of the Peachtree, runners in both Kuwait and Afghanistan expressed interest in having their own Peachtree Divisions. In early June, the Atlanta Track Club sent over numbers, special edition T-shirts, and a banner to all three off-site locales. Therefore, in addition to the 55,000 runners in Peachtree-Atlanta, another 750 in Baghdad, 1000 at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, and 500 at Bagram Air Force Base just outside Kabul earned the 2005 Peachtree T-shirt. Patricia Early of Atlanta was the lucky Silver Number winner on a July Fourth morning that was welcomingly cool and overcast.

 

The 37th running was a very special race for many reasons. It was the 22nd and last year under the excellent leadership and guidance of Julia Emmons, an icon in Atlanta and the sport of running.  We also celebrated the 10th anniversary of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, emphasizing the fifth mile of the race (Brookwood Station to Woodruff  Arts Center), with signage and music. The Silver Number drawing sent Rick Young to the Dublin, Ireland Marathon in 2006. 

 

This year we will host the USA Men’s 10 km Championship and crown our country’s fastest 10K runner on Independence Day.  We will also continue to support the satellite races in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait with an anticipated number of 3,000 military personnel crossing the Peachtree finish line a world away from Atlanta, Georgia.  The Silver Number drawing will again conclude the awards ceremony with the lucky winner headed to the Dublin, Ireland Marathon.

 

Not one of the runners who drifted up to Sears for the inaugural run in 1970 could have foreseen he would be among the founding fathers of an event which would, 38 years later, attract well over 55,000 applications in the first few days it opened, four months before the event itself.  Nor would have they foreseen the 150,000 spectators, the scores of elite runners from around the world, and the two and half hours of live coverage on TV.  One thing they would have understood, however, is how the race represents Atlanta.  In 1970, it was a gathering of people from all parts of the City coming together to enjoy their sport and celebrate Independence Day.  It still is.

 

 

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