From the smoothness of the roads to hydrating runners and guiding them to the start line, the AJC Peachtree Road Race depends on thousands of volunteers. One of them is Jack Abbott.

As runners and wheelchair racers rest up the night before the AJC Peachtree Road Race on July 4, Abbott will make his way along the Peachtree Road course for a final check of the asphalt. It’s part of a job he’s had for 20 years as part of volunteering for the Atlanta Track Club, which organizes and manages the race.

“The surface of the race course is a major concern for me,” said Abbott, who is the course director. “I’m not sure many other race course directors worry about it like I do.”

Abbott, 74, is one of up to 4,000 volunteers that make sure the world’s largest 10K runs smoothly — no pun intended. They direct sleepy runners into their correct starting areas, fill thousands of cups of water along along the course, staff medical tents and at the end, hand out the coveted finisher’s t-shirts — plus more water.

Jack Abbott, 74, course director of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, surveys the progress of potholes and problem areas during a ride along with Atlanta Public Works employees along Peachtree Road in Atlanta, Ga., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Abbott, who is serving in his 21st and final year as volunteer course director, says that he starts the prep work for the race each year in late May, after which he works on it every day until the event itself on July 4. "I'm a perfectionist," says Abbott. "I can't reach that but I try." (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Casey Sykes/Casey Sykes

But for Abbott, the work he does this year is even more important. For the 50th running of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, the top male, female and wheelchair race winners who also set a race record are eligible for a $50,000 prize.

Related: By the numbers: AJC Peachtree Road Race volunteer break-down

For both runners and wheelchairs, the smallest bump on the course could throw them off a record pace. So Abbott began his work weeks before the race, scanning the pavement for potholes, uneven manhole covers and other debris and arranging for repairs.

The first race, in 1970, had 150 runners with an unknown number of volunteers largely led through grassroots efforts. But as the race swelled to the current field of 60,000 runners, it requires nearly 300 volunteers to do preparation leading up to the race, and 3,200 on the day of the race, Atlanta Track Club volunteer manager Tina Sjogren said.

“It’s a really fun way to get out there and see the best (of the race),” Sjogren said.

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Included with the volunteers are “crew chiefs” who are assigned to oversee a section of the 6.2-mile race course. Those chiefs are the only ones who undergo a background check, she said. They also undergo more training, have more responsibilities and attend meetings in preparation for the race.

With the number of volunteers the race requires, Sjogren said the Atlanta Track Club hasn’t had to turn anyone away. The race takes volunteers up until 8 a.m. July 3 but has largely relied on longtime volunteers such as Abbott, who is one of four “retiring” after this year’s race.

The life of a race course director

Abbott’s first involvement with the Peachtree was as a runner. He began running the race in 1975 after a coworker at Lockheed Martin signed him up for the race. Two years later, he organized a group of runners at his job to train and run the race.

In between then, Abbott organized 35 5Ks at Lockheed Martin, worked on many Chattahoochee Road Runner Club races and served 20 years race director for the Atlanta Marathon course, now called the Invesco QQQ Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon, 5K, Mile & Dash. He became race director of the Peachtree Road Race in 1990.

Jack Abbott, 74, volunteer and course director for the AJC Peachtree Road Race, surveys the progress on repairs needed to the road before the race is run. He used a checklist during a ride along Peachtree Road with Atlanta Public Works employees. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Abbott typically starts his day at 1:30 a.m. the morning of the race. “I have to be mindful or aware of last-minute things that should be addressed,” he said. That includes ensuring the more than 40 potholes along the route this year are patched up, putting up banners, and making sure the roads are clear of cars.

That’s not always an easy task. One year, a car crash occurred at the intersection of Peachtree and Piedmont roads about 20 minutes before the wheelchair race was set to begin.

“The thing that immediately caught my attention was the glass all over the place,” Abbott said. I went to the wrecker, got a broom and started sweeping as fast as I could.”

Another time he was almost arrested while checking the race course. “I’m looking for the potholes when I’m driving and I’m swerving to miss them,” he said. “Before I knew it, I’ve got flashing lights behind me. They probably thought I was drunk.” After Abbott explained who he was and what he was doing, the officer let him go.

But this year, Abbott wants everything in place: it’s not only the race’s 50th running, but it’s also his last year organizing the race. “It’s very demanding and with my medical issues it’s time for me to pass it on to someone younger.”


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Where the bag stuffing magic begins

One thing the club hasn’t had to worry about is who stuffs the finisher’s bags for the Peachtree Road Race. For the past 20 years, Jewish Family and Career Services has organized the bags handed to finishers at the end of the race — a job that also requires keeping the AJC Peachtree Road Race T-shirt design a secret.

“It’s a great statement of inclusion, to assist in such a great event, such an important one in Atlanta,” Community Access Program Manager Abby Frantz said.

Frantz has been with the charitable organization for four years, overseeing the bagging each year. The organization provides counseling and work training for older adults and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

June 14, 2019 Atlanta - Dayna Livingston, client at the center and volunteer, assembles bags of AJC Peachtree Road Race gift at Jewish Family & Career Services on Friday, June 14, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The organization began bagging the last week of May, Frantz said. They first sort through the boxes to make sure they have everything and enough to space to house all of the materials, including 4,000 pounds of hand sanitizer.

The bagging room is split into two sides: An assembly line to stuff items on one side and t-shirt folding on the other.

Jewish Family and Career Services goes to extraordinary lengths to keep the secret of the t-shirt until it’s revealed on race day.

“Secrecy is central to this project,” Frantz said. The doors are locked, window shades are pulled down and signs are put up. Frantz said volunteers are quizzed to see if they have seen the t-shirt logo and must sign a non-disclosure agreement. The cleaning crew also isn’t allowed in that room at the end of the day.

“It’s a very important part of Atlanta, so for us to be trusted with the shirts is important,” Frantz said.

In the final stage, the bags containing the t-shirts are taken to a secret storage unit where they are kept until they are taken to Piedmont Park where they will be distributed to finishers at the end of the race. 

June 14, 2019 Atlanta - A few of the goodies that will be included in finishers’ bags at the end of this year’s AJC Peachtree Road Race. The bags are assembled by the Jewish Family & Career Services. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“There’s always a lot of excitement from families and individuals,” she said. “People notice the big boxes coming in and out and it builds up a lot of curiosity.”

As a longtime runner of the Peachtree, volunteer Abbott will collect another shirt for himself this year. But he said his main job is to make sure the race goes smoothly for the tens of thousands who will pound down the pavement he has closely inspected.

“After 45 years, I don’t need any more t-shirts,” Abbott said. “The reward is working with really good people and being a part of a really successful event.”

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