Atlanta tradition back to ‘normal’ for first time since 2019

For most of her life, Claire Morris and family — first her and her parents, now her own kids — have spent the morning of July Fourth on Cardiac Hill.

It’s their tradition to cheer on the runners and walkers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race as they attempt to summit the course’s most excruciating stretch. Everything about it — the competition, the camaraderie, the costumes — is hard to match, said the 37-year-old, cowbell-wielding Alpharetta native.

“It’s just so patriotic,” Morris said, “and brings everybody together in a way that you just can’t do the other 364 days a year.”

For the Morris clan and many, many others, that was especially true this year.

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The Peachtree has been a uniquely Atlanta addiction since its inaugural edition in 1970. But Monday’s race marked the first time the world’s largest 10K race was run in its full Fourth of July glory since before the start of the pandemic.

The 2020 race was both “virtual” and on Thanksgiving weekend. Last year’s event was split over two days, and still partly virtual, thinning out the crowds. It still felt different.

Monday was more like the return of an old friend. Or nearly 40,000 of them — and that’s only counting the runners. Thousands more lined up along the course to cheer racers. Thousands more volunteered.

“Everyone’s out here bringing a lot of energy, positivity and love,” said Kevin Cone, a former Georgia Tech wide receiver and current Atlanta Falcons staffer who donned a peach costume to run his 17th Peachtree.

“We’re all just cheering each other on having a great time.”

The AJC Peachtree Road Race, managed by the Atlanta Track Club, is a competitive event for some.

Two-time Olympian Senbere Teferi of Ethiopia won the women’s elite division, taking just over half an hour to conquer the 6.2-mile course that runs from Buckhead to Piedmont Park. Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto, who holds the 10K world record, won the men’s elite division in a little over 27 minutes.

Daniel Romanchuk and Susannah Scaroni won the elite wheelchair divisions, with the latter setting a new course record to earn a $53,000 prize.

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But for thousands of other runners, walkers and spectators, the Peachtree is as much about fun and family — and that post-race beer — as it is athleticism.

Ask the folks from R. Thomas tossing watermelon chunks to runners enduring the soupy conditions, or the clergy from St. Philip’s sprinkling competitors with holy water, or the scantily clad Santa Claus. Ask 42-year-old Juan Archila, who dressed up as Waldo — as in “Where’s Waldo?” — for the 11th straight year.

Or the guy who ran in full clown regalia because he lost his fantasy football league.

“I’m already having a good time,” Mitch Esteppe, 28, said at the starting line. “All these American flags, red, white and blue? I just love this country. I’m fired up to be here.”

Tradition, of course, is also about more than silly costumes.

Monday’s Peachtree was the 41st for John Adams. He was joined by a gaggle of children, grandkids and great-grandkids, all wearing shirts bragging about the number of years they’ve participated — and declaring that they were “walking for Papa” in 2022.

Adams is set to have surgery to remove a tumor in just a few days.

“What this (race) means to me,” he said, “is all the people doing it with me.”

The same could be said for John Hogan, 62, and Lauren Marston, 30.

The father-daughter duo has run the Peachtree together for two decades now. Hogan said Monday’s race felt just like all those pre-pandemic events — except he lost his wife to brain cancer three years ago.

He and his daughter run to honor her memory now, making sure to thank medical workers cheering them on along Cardiac Hill.

“We still look for her at the road race,” Marston said, “but in a different way now.”

Some others used the Peachtree to protest last month’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, ending constitutional protections for abortion.

A few dozen abortion rights activists gathered outside the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta building in Midtown, chanting “rise up for abortion rights” and getting occasional thumbs up from passing runners. That evolved into a post-race rally near Piedmont Park, with perhaps a few hundred people in attendance.

An hour or two earlier, Beth and Metta Sweet completed the race in abortion rights T-shirts.

“I figured this would be a great way to show how we feel about equal rights,” Metta Sweet, 53, said. “And that we all can get along even though we’re all very different here today.”

—The AJC’s Hope Dean, Mary Helene Hall, Destiny Cook and Taylor Croft contributed to this article.