Atlanta Track Club executive director expects one-day, in-person race next year

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race offered even more face-to-face connections, moments of joy and a sense of normalcy on its second day of running this weekend featuring elite runners making their mark.

With the crowds of runners and spectators spread over two days for the first time ever to reduce crowds and promote social distancing, the elite runners and the competitors in the wheelchair division delivered a sense of sporting tradition Sunday morning. While the race went all virtual last year, this year included a virtual option.

The conclusion of this year’s in-person event Sunday buoyed hopes for what may be ahead for the iconic race as the number of coronavirus cases in Georgia has fallen to their lowest levels since the earliest days of the pandemic.

Rich Kenah, Atlanta Track Club executive director and the road race’s director, said he expects it to return next year as a one-day event.

ExploreYour guide to 2021 race, including results

Participants picking up their race numbers this year had to either show proof of vaccination or go through a COVID-19 screening process that included specially trained dogs that can detect when people have COVID-19 infections.

Kenah said about 80 percent of participants showed proof of vaccination.

Ultimately, what the race looks like next year will be determined by the status of the pandemic. And while the trend line has been encouraging, public health experts worry about the variants, including delta variant, a more contagious variant first detected in India, which is gaining a foothold in the U.S.

Early data suggests vaccines are highly effective against the variant, but vaccination rates lag in Georgia with just only slightly more than half of adults having received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to the national average of 66%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ExploreA recap of Day 1 at road race

On an unusually cool morning, a smaller but spirited group of runners started arriving even before sunrise, when rays of pink and purple streaked across the Atlanta sky. Many were decked out in red, white and blue along with sparkly accessories.

And it all felt very familiar — in the most wonderful of ways. For 5,531 runners, it was their first Peachtree race. For 331, they were running for at least the 40th time.

Connections were immediate. Paul Simpson, who is 79, stood off to the side before the start of his 41st consecutive race. But it didn’t take long before the Atlantan bonded with a fellow runner, also a fellow Georgia Tech grad, 46-year-old Beniquez Jones of Stone Mountain.

Combined ShapeCaption
Paul Simpson, 79 (right), of Atlanta struck up a conversation with fellow runner Beniquez Jones, 46, of Stone Mountain while they waited to start the race. They bonded over both being Georgia Tech graduates and running the race again in person. (Photo: Helena Oliviero/AJC)

Credit: Helena Oliviero

Paul Simpson, 79 (right), of Atlanta struck up a conversation with fellow runner Beniquez Jones, 46, of Stone Mountain while they waited to start the race. They bonded over both being Georgia Tech graduates and running the race again in person. (Photo: Helena Oliviero/AJC)

Credit: Helena Oliviero

Combined ShapeCaption
Paul Simpson, 79 (right), of Atlanta struck up a conversation with fellow runner Beniquez Jones, 46, of Stone Mountain while they waited to start the race. They bonded over both being Georgia Tech graduates and running the race again in person. (Photo: Helena Oliviero/AJC)

Credit: Helena Oliviero

Credit: Helena Oliviero

And the determination to run – driven by a variety of reasons ­– was fierce. One woman ran with a leg scooter because of a recently injured foot. And then there was Michael Chance of Atlanta. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, he struggles to talk and keep his balance. Each step requires sheer determination. Tenacious, he trained for several weeks with the help of his caregiver to keep his streak going and run a 16th consecutive race this year.

And on Sunday, they moved their way to the finish line. They had a walker — just in case he might need it. And at one point along Peachtree, he started running. Spectators erupted in cheers. They waved flags. They jumped up and down. Some cried.

You are so awesome! You are amazing!

“Do you hear that?” said Melissa Fritchley, his caregiver. “This is all for you, buddy.”

Mel Wages, 62, finished his 46th AJC Peachtree Road Race. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1976, Wages turned to running to stay healthy and strong. He looks forward to the race every year.

Combined ShapeCaption
Mel Wages, 62, finished his 46th Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Sunday morning. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

Mel Wages, 62, finished his 46th Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Sunday morning. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

Combined ShapeCaption
Mel Wages, 62, finished his 46th Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Sunday morning. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

“It’s the best birthday party in America, and it brings all of Atlanta together,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sharon Silmbee and her son Aaron ran the race for the first time together on Sunday.

Aaron, who has run the race four times before, said the smaller crowd didn’t impact the morale.

Combined ShapeCaption
Sharon Silmbee and her son Aaron ran the race for the first time together on Sunday. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

Sharon Silmbee and her son Aaron ran the race for the first time together on Sunday. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

Combined ShapeCaption
Sharon Silmbee and her son Aaron ran the race for the first time together on Sunday. (Photo: Sarah Kallis/AJC)

“It’s the same energy as before, just less people” he said.

The two are planning on running the race together again next year.

And, like always, the runners were treated to a steady supply of support and encouragement — from signs and cheers to live music, even customized to runners passing by.

Oscar Jones, 70, has been playing the trumpet for racers every year since 2013 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church. He normally plays “Yankee Doodle” and other patriotic songs, but he also knows the fight songs of many Southern schools such as the University of Georgia and Clemson University.

If he can identify alumni from those schools in the race, he’ll try to play their fight song. “I’ll usually just play a few notes, just to show that I recognize them,” said Jones, a graduate of Clemson.

Combined ShapeCaption
Oscar Jones, 70, has been playing the trumpet for racers every year since 2013 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church along the race route. (Photo: Isaiah Poritz/AJC)

Oscar Jones, 70, has been playing the trumpet for racers every year since 2013 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church along the race route. (Photo: Isaiah Poritz/AJC)

Combined ShapeCaption
Oscar Jones, 70, has been playing the trumpet for racers every year since 2013 at the Covenant Presbyterian Church along the race route. (Photo: Isaiah Poritz/AJC)

Christine Mitchell, a retired Georgia Tech professor, has cheered on runners at the base of the infamous segment known as Cardiac Hill for the past seven years. She used to run the race before getting a knee replacement years ago.

“Last year was such a bummer. Somebody told me, ‘That was the year that wasn’t,’” Mitchell said. “All the kids that come out this year and first-timers — it’s really cool.”

All told, about 17,000 people participated in the festive event Sunday. That followed 13,000 participants Saturday. An additional 8,000 decided to run or walk the race virtually over the weekend.

The age range included children as young as 10, the minimum age for entry, to Betty Lindberg, who is 96. And on Sunday, at age 90, Bill Thorn participated in the AJC Peachtree Road Race for the 52nd time. He is the only person to complete every race.

Thorn ran virtually this year — completing the distance in his Tyrone neighborhood as a COVID-19 precaution, but said he plans to be back on the course, in-person, in 2022.

Others echoed that sentiment, including Simpson, who also looks forward to returning to next year’s AJC Peachtree Road Race.

“And next year, I hope the pandemic is totally over.”