Thorn’s 2020 Peachtree experience likely will share similarities with the thousands expected to take part in a virtual version of the race that will take place over the Thanksgiving weekend. In May, the Atlanta institution was pushed back from its customary Independence Day date to Thanksgiving to buy time in hopes that an in-person event could still be staged amid COVID-19. In August, with race organizers not confident that they could deliver a safe Peachtree, the event was transformed into a virtual race, with runners and walkers challenged to complete a 6.2-mile course of their choosing, away from the thousands of competitors, volunteers and fans with whom they would be sharing tight quarters in any other year.
“It’s kind of a little different than anything they’ve done before,” said Thorn, who turned 90 in September.
There is at least one benefit to the format, representative of a time when videoconference calls have facilitated connections across states and countries. According to the Atlanta Track Club, this Peachtree will be run and walked in all 50 states and on every continent except Antarctica, with participants’ times to be recorded and collected for the track club through a smartphone app using GPS tracking. At least for those who have smartphones.
“I don’t, but my daughter does,” Thorn said. “I only have a little flip phone. That’s all I use. I’m not into all that.”
Thorn and the thousands who will join him in virtual fashion will miss the landmarks that help define the Peachtree – the massive American flag that hangs over the start line, the Cathedral of St. Philip, where the Rev. Sam Candler sprinkles holy-water blessings on participants, the climb up Cardiac Hill and the rousing turn onto 10th Street for the homestretch.
Instead, Thorn can measure his progress by a lake in his subdivision that he’ll run around and, once his route reaches the center of Tyrone, a barber shop, a printing store and a Dollar General, among other sites.
“You come up and the new city hall they’ve just finished is on the right, there’s a Baptist church on the right before you get to it and then there is a little restaurant and the post office, and they’re doing a lot of construction right in that area,” he said.
Thorn, a former high-school coach in football, cross country and track who won 38 state championships at Landmark Christian in Fairburn and an inductee into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, continues to be a model of fitness. He has a daily exercise routine that includes weightlifting, push-ups, bounding on a trampoline, stretching, core exercises and, of course, running.
“Bill is a man of routine and self-discipline, and he has been rock-like in his commitment to that as long as I have known him,” said Dial, Thorn’s longtime friend who himself has only missed four of the first 50 Peachtrees.
Thorn conceded that the event lacks the same excitement that the Peachtree normally generates “because of the way you’re having to do it,” he said. “I’m just going to get up early and go attempt it.”
The real thing can’t be duplicated.
“It couldn’t feel more different for us as an organization in terms of what our days look like,” track club executive director Rich Kenah said. “But it has been a lot of fun this week to see that usual excitement start to percolate.”
About 45,000 people are registered. Kenah acknowledged hearing from would-be participants with complaints about the sign-up process. When the race was moved to Thanksgiving, runners were given an opportunity to have their money refunded – a rare option in the road-race industry – or to move their entry to 2021, but not when the format was changed to virtual.
“To those people, I simply say, and we have said, ‘We’re sorry. We made a decision that we thought was in the best interest of the largest number of people who wanted to continue their Peachtree experience as well as in the best interest of the Peachtree,’” Kenah said, “and just ask them to give us a chance to deliver an authentic experience virtually and rebuild their confidence in us in 2021.”
That said, about 9,000 people signed up for the race after it was made a virtual event, according to the track club, perhaps evidence that many do want the Peachtree but, at least this year, not the in-person version. Times can be recorded starting at 12:01 a.m. Thursday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. (The coveted finisher T-shirts were shipped to participants beforehand.)
On Thursday morning, Kenah will be the starter for a group of young runners from LEAD, a nonprofit serving young Black males from the inner city led by former professional baseball player C.J. Stewart and his wife, Kelli. Kenah said that he has had a lot of conversations with people asking him where he’s going to run.
“It almost feels like someone asking you for the answers to the test, that they’re trying to figure out what’s the best course to deliver the fastest possible race,” he said.
Thorn said his course in Tyrone is up and down, although there’s no incline like Cardiac Hill.
“You’ve got some of everything,” he said.
After the race, he plans to recover the rest of the day and have a limited gathering with family Friday. As for future Peachtrees, he isn’t sure. But, he’ll line up Thursday at his mailbox to tackle 10 kilometers.
“All I can do is go and give it a shot and see what happens,” he said.
For a 90-year-old runner taking his mark in a Peachtree unlike any other in the most trying of years, who can ask for more than that?