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In its inaugural year, the race was sponsored by United Kingdom-based beer company Carling Brewing Co. Then, there were 150 participants who entered for $1 and only 110 crossed the finish line.
Kenah attributed much of the growth to publicity and promotional support provided by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which began sponsoring the race in 1976. “The AJC helped bring the race into the mainstream,” he said. “It turned it into something that made it an event on the Fourth of July.”
Atlanta track club’s Executive Director Rich Kenah in front of the logo for the 50th Running of the AJC Peachtree Road Race in the track club’s office June 4, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Within three years of the AJC becoming its title sponsor, the race grew significantly from 1,200 to 12,000 runners.
“(The AJC) made it this event that people naturally wanted to be a part of,” AJC Vice President of Marketing Amy Chown said. The paper was also instrumental in registering participants before online registration was available. “The registration form for the race was published in the Sunday newspaper,” Chown said.
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By 1980, the club capped the race at 25,000 participants to account for congestion on the race course.
Former executive director of the track club, Julia Emmons, said part of the reason the race grew was because the race began to reach capacity within days of registration forms being published, filling so quickly that some who traditionally ran the race were left out.
“Our most loyal runners had been cut out and we hadn’t really seen it coming,” said Emmons, who was executive director of the club for 22 years, until 2007. “People were mad because this was their tradition and they planned their vacations around running the road race.”
Emmons estimated that at one point there were at least 15,000 hopeful runners left out of the race. With the support of her staff and the club’s board, in 1990 Emmons decided to increase the race to 40,000 participants.
The race’s popularity continued to grow in 1995 as the number of participants was extended to 50,000. In 2011, when it reached 60,000, an online lottery system was instituted for registration.
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A photograph of Jeff Galloway, the first winner of the Peachtree Road Race in 1970, hangs near the indoor track at the Atlanta track club’s office. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
As the race grew, the Atlanta Track Club instituted staggered start times to better manage the crowd.
There are now 21 start waves to manage the crush of runners who begin at 7 a.m. at Lenox Mall, head down Peachtree Street and onto Tenth Street, finishing at Piedmont Park. There they enjoy cold water, snacks, music and the coveted finisher's shirt.
And while the race has enjoyed successful growth, other similar sized races have decreased in size. For instance, the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Washington saw a peak of 61,298 runners in 1996, but has hovered around an average of 40,000 runners for the past four years. "It's still a special event, but not of the size that it was," Kenah said.
But with the sustained popularity and size of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, Kenah said there are no plans to increase it beyond the 60,000-runner cap instituted eight years ago.
“If we expand, we would have more people running later in the morning and in the heat of the day,” Kenah said.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, the chief medical director for the Atlanta Track Club, and said the No. 1 medical issue his team handles is heat exhaustion. In 2016’s particularly steamy race, 36 runners had to be taken to the hospital.
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Atlanta track club’s Executive Director Rich Kenah near their indoor track at the track club’s office in Atlanta June 4, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
“Expanding the race would not only increase the time and heat for runners by higher volumes it would also add stress to the medical staff,” Kim said.
Kim said the medical team typically sees emergencies within the first hour of the race and about the 10 a.m. hour, which coincides with the day getting warmer. He estimated the medical tents received about 400 runners at last year’s race.
“It’s hotter and runners are exposed to heat longer,” Kim said, “and these may be runners that are not as well trained.” Kim said runners who suffer emergencies in the early typically overexert themselves early.
“It’s race day,” he said. “You typically push yourself harder and get to peak intensity levels.”
Still, the summer heat and crowds haven’t stopped the race from being one of the most unifying events in Atlanta.
Chown said cities such as San Francisco and New York City have their iconic infrastructure, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building. But when it comes to Atlanta, Chown said the AJC Peachtree Road Race is what makes the city.
“We have the visual identity of a huge American flag with a sea of people running through the streets of Atlanta,” she said.
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