The shirt. There is nothing more coveted. There is nothing more loved. There is nothing more hated. There is nothing more anticipated. The AJC Peachtree Road Race finisher’s shirt is annually the most discussed, debated and celebrated tradition of the world’s largest 10K.
And like almost everything else, how it was born and evolved is the stuff of Peachtree legend. Finisher’s shirts weren’t a thing when the Peachtree started because road races weren’t a thing. “It happened by accident, but we honored the accident,” said Julia Emmons, executive director of Atlanta Track Club from 1985 to 2006.
Keeping the T-shirt design a secret started out as an accident, too – there was simply no reason to take them out of the containers in which they arrived until race day, hence few eyes were laid on them before that morning. But it felt like a secret, and as curiosity and anticipation built up over the years the Club began to embrace – and intensely guard – the tradition of not revealing the design until the first Peachtree finisher crosses the line.
The design hasn’t always been selected by a contest – until 1995, the Club and the AJC designed the shirts – and they haven’t always been given to every finisher. Until the late 1970s, shirts were awarded until they ran out, giving the advantage to the fleet of foot. In fact, the only commonality between today’s finisher’s shirt and the original is its importance to the recipient.
“The shirt is sacred,” said Emmons.
In Atlanta Track Club’s archives, you’ll find hundreds of photos of people wearing their shirts in locations around the globe. You’ll find photos of quilts made from decades of collected shirts. On the walls of the Club’s office, you’ll find framed copies of each shirt signed by the elite athletes who competed in that year’s race.
And in “25 Years of the Peachtree Road Race,” you’ll find what may be the ultimate anecdote. According to author Karen Rosen, Jack Pearce was wearing his shirt the day he was hit by a van on a run. He spent eight days in the hospital. After he was released, Pearce and his wife went back to the scene of the accident and dug through the weeds and the mud to retrieve the shirt paramedics had cut off him.
None of the Original 110 at the 1970 Peachtree got a shirt. There wasn’t one. Race founder Tim Singleton got the idea after he ran the Boston Marathon in 1971 and saw shirts for sale. So, in Year Two, the first 250 finishers received a shirt. Emmons was among the 80 finishers who didn’t get one. For the duration of the 1970s, the faster you were the better shot you had a shirt. In fact, when the field size swelled to 6,500 in 1977, more than half the entrants went home empty-handed.
In the later part of the race’s inaugural decade, race organizers implemented a T-shirt clock. Shirts were available only to those who crossed the finish line in under 55 minutes.
The clock remains in place today, starting when the final runner crosses the line. But Emmons made the decision to give every registered runner a shirt when she took over the race, making the clock largely ceremonial.
What she couldn’t guarantee was that runners would get the right size. Predicting how many small, medium, large and beyond to order was a complicated science and Emmons said it took her 10 years to get it right. When she finally did, she erred on the side of ordering more larger sizes rather than smaller.
“I didn’t mind people like me being mad,” said Emmons, who stands 5’2” and weighs 97 pounds. “They don’t make a lot of noise.”
For the 50th Running, local celebrities and institutions with deep ties to the event were invited to collaborate with designers on a submission for the final designs. Artwork was submitted by the Atlanta Braves, whose design was done by the team’s creative director; Harry the Hawk, who worked with the Atlanta Hawks art department; Jeff Galloway, the first winner of the Peachtree, who worked with a local illustrator; New York Times best-selling author Emily Giffin, who worked with Tait, the 2015 winner; and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who worked with a designer in Atlanta City Hall.
The decision was loved by many, hated by many and talked about by everyone. So were the designs when they were unveiled on March 1.
“In its 50th Running, we wanted to spread the word to as many people as possible about the Peachtree,” said Rich Kenah, Atlanta Track Club’s executive director. “By working with these Atlanta icons, the message of the shirt and the growing movement of health and wellness reaches new communities here in Running City USA.”
Love the designs or hate them, Atlanta Track Club expects to spend nearly $400,000 on shirts for the 60,000 expected finishers.
While tweaks may be made here and there, the tradition of the T-shirt will likely last at least another 50 years. Its importance isn’t lost on the staff. No one on the staff of 30 at Atlanta Track Club will wear the finisher’s shirt. Why? They didn’t run the race. In fact, many learn of the winning design at the same time as the participants.
“It’s something people really care about,” said Emmons. “And you can’t let them down.”
In honor of the AJC Peachtree Road Race’s 50th year, the Atlanta Track Club is producing 50 stories over 50 weeks that celebrate various aspects of the race’s history and significance to the city. To learn more about the AJC Peachtree Road Race t-shirt’s history, visit www.peachtree50.com.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.