For Road Racing’s Elite—and 60,000 Local Runners—the Fourth of July Means Peachtree
How the Peachtree Road Race, a local 10K in the mid-summer heat of Atlanta, came to be one of the world's largest and most competitive.
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On July 4th, 1969, while driving down the backroads of middle Georgia, Tim Singleton had an idea.
He was riding back to Atlanta with a group of runners who had just raced at Fort Benning, GA when inspiration struck. “I figured that half of the 300 runners came from Atlanta anyway, so why go all the down there when we can have our own race,” Singleton, who passed away in 2013, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2003.
Before the ride back to Atlanta was finished, the plan had become more ambitious—aided in part by a few beers, legend says. Not only would there be a road race in Atlanta on July 4th, but it would run right through the middle of town, right down Peachtree Street.
Although the idea of a road race in July in Atlanta (average high temperature, 89 degrees) may seem masochistic, Singleton had a belief born from his experiences at the Boston Marathon that a road race could be a civic event and source of pride for a city.
Out of the Shadows
So it was that a little over 100 men (and three women) gathered in the Sears parking lot in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, GA on July 4th, 1970.
The runners placed their two dollar registration fee in a cigar box that Singleton had produced from the trunk of his VW Microbus, and stepped to the starting line in the stifling heat and humidity. Singleton gave the pre-race instructions—ending with, “Lotta traffic, y’all be careful”—and the runners took off down Peachtree Street and into running history.
Future Olympian Jeff Galloway was the first runner to cross the Peachtree Road Race finish line—which was a string held up by Singleton’s seven-year-old son who was sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the street. Future Boston Marathon champion Gayle Barron was the women’s winner—the first of five times she would win the women’s race.
Galloway decided to take the “cool-down” literally and jumped into the fountain in front of the office buildings where the race finished. Several other runners joined him as Singleton passed around one sock filled with nickels and another filled with dimes so the runners could get the 15 cents for their bus fare back to the starting line.
Although the turnout for the race was small, Galloway says the impact was big. “The Peachtree elevated distance running to the greater society in Atlanta by running right down a major artery on a holiday. It brought running out of the shadows,” Galloway says.
An Atlanta institution had been born—one that was set for much bigger things.
Riding the Boom
The “Original 110” who completed the Peachtree Road Race that day were the lip of a wave of runners at the start of the first running boom. As word spread, finisher numbers climbed steadily in the early 1970’s, reaching over 1,000 finishers by the 1975 race.
In 1976, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) took over as primary sponsor of the race. That brought two changes that allowed the race to explode. The first was that the AJC was able to provide marketing power and coverage that the race had never enjoyed before. The second was a budget that allowed Peachtree to bring in world-class runners to compete.
Galloway, who was now back living in Atlanta full-time, was tasked with reaching out to those he had met on the international circuit and bring them in for the race. “We didn’t have as good a field as I wanted to in 1976 because it was an Olympic year,” he says.
Still, his friends Bill Rodgers and Don Kardong (who ended up winning that year) came, saw the unique combination of high-level racing and participation event and began to spread the word to other runners. “We had an avalanche of people who wanted to come run in 1977,” says Galloway.
That avalanche included Frank Shorter and Lasse Viren, who combined with Galloway, Kardong, and Rodgers to make up a star-studded field of Olympic talent. Using the power of the AJC to promote the race as both an elite sporting event for spectators and a world-class event for participants broke new ground in the road racing scene.
As the Olympic stars raced through the streets, Viren faded in the heat and humidity and Shorter took home the victory. But apart from the results of the race, the spectacle caught the city’s imagination. The next year registrations for the Peachtree Road Race nearly doubled from 6,500 runners to over 12,500.
The double-helix of mass participation and world-class performances had been bound in the Peachtree Road Race’s DNA.
The Sweat of Stars
With the 1977 race as the template, the stars kept coming—Mary Decker, Craig Virgin, Jon Sinclair, Grete Waitz, and Lynn Jennings among them. The registrations kept climbing too, reaching a cap of 25,000 in 1980 and remaining there until expanding to 40,000 in 1990.
Also in 1990, John Curtin took over as the elite athlete coordinator with a clear directive—bring in the best talent he could find. “I never had a budget,” he says. “Julia Emmons (who was director of the Atlanta Track Club at the time) told me to come and ask if something was going to be really expensive. And she never said no.”
Soon the talent coming into the race was at an all-time high, with runners like Uta Pippig, Joseph Kimani, Khalid Khannouchi, Lornah Kiplagat, Robert Cheruiyot, and Martin Lel all bringing home victories on the hills of Atlanta.
And the structure of the Peachtree made sure that those victories were hard-fought. “We didn’t want to just bring in names. We wanted people to come in and race,” says Curtin. As a result, Peachtree put all their money into prize money instead of appearance fees. “Everyone wanted appearance money and we wouldn’t give it,” says Curtin.
In total, Peachtree road race champions have combined to win 49 world marathon majors, set 24 world records, and win 28 Olympic or World Championship medals, according to the Atlanta Track Club.
During this period, participant numbers continued to increase, reaching the current cap of 60,000 runners for the first time in 2011—one of the world’s largest fields of any distance. The rise in participation and stature has been reflected by the city itself. “One really unique thing that has happened is that Atlanta’s growth of reputation has really happened in tandem with the Peachtree’s,” Galloway says.
Bridge to Inspiration
Today, on the race’s 50th running, as most non-marathon road races are cutting back on elite athlete fields, Peachtree continues to stay true to its roots and prioritize bringing in top talent each year in addition to putting on a quality event for the non-elite runners.
Rich Kenah, the current director of the Atlanta Track Club sees those two missions as complimenting each other as he looks to the next 50 years of Peachtree. “Elite, professional runners can be an inspiration to the rest of the field if and when you build relevance between the two groups,” he says. According to Kenah, the goal and the challenge is to humanize the stories of both elite and non-elite runners to bridge any divide between the groups.
In recent years, Peachtree made a more focused effort to help support elite US runners, serving as a frequent host of the US 10k Championships (which Kenah says seems an appropriate celebration of Independence Day). Since 2007, Peachtree has been the site of the men’s championship eight times and the women’s championship four times.
Having grown into a “must-do” event for runners from around the world, it’s clear that Peachtree has reached Singleton’s goal of creating a civic event that creates pride in the city. “From Peachtree, an entire running community in Atlanta was born,” Kenah says.