Fitness and fabulousness merge to make Atlanta Pride Run a winning event

‘It’s been a very meaningful and validating part of my life,’ one participant says of the run/walk on June 2.
The Atlanta Pride Run has grown from a small event in Grant Park in the ‘90s to a major fundraiser in Piedmont Park. It has raised approximately $300,000 for LGBTQ+ nonprofits since 2018. (Courtesy of Brandon Carter)

Credit: Brandon Carter

Credit: Brandon Carter

The Atlanta Pride Run has grown from a small event in Grant Park in the ‘90s to a major fundraiser in Piedmont Park. It has raised approximately $300,000 for LGBTQ+ nonprofits since 2018. (Courtesy of Brandon Carter)

Shannon Browning says she “kinda knew” what she should do when she was about 30 years old.

“I should have known by age 20,” she adds. “And there were definitely clues when I was a teen.”

But it was not until after she turned 40 that Browning knew that she would transition from a man to a woman.

That was in 2021, after the worst of COVID had passed. Browning had spent the lockdown running six days a week, getting into peak shape. She had started her social transition to being female, but not yet her physical one.

“I found the Atlanta Pride Run and I signed up with my new name,” she says. “The sign-up form asked for my gender, and I put ‘transgender.’

“I certainly wasn’t out to more than a handful of people,” she continues. “It was the first time I’d publicly used my chosen name, and it was also the fastest 5K I’d run.”

Shannon Browning ran the Atlanta Pride Run 5K in 2023. (Courtesy of True Speed Photo)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

This year she is disappointed that she has to be out of the United States on June 2, when the 5K run/walk, a fundraiser for local LGBTQ+ nonprofits, convenes in Piedmont Park. But she will be there in spirit.

“There’s a lot of spaces in sports now trying to exclude trans folks, but the Pride is the opposite of that,” she says. “It’s been a very meaningful and validating part of my life.”

The run/walk, a qualifying event for the AJC Peachtree Road Race, has grown exponentially in recent years, and increased from 2,000 entrants to 3,000 this year.

“This 5K is the great equalizer,” says Pride executive director D’Marcus Jermel Pulce, who goes by DJ.

“We can all be different genders, different expressions, but we’re all united here for this purpose, to have this communal experience.

“Every year I say I’m not doing this again; it’s so much stress,” Pulce continues. “And then you get to race day and it’s the most magical feeling. There are so many people from all walks of life out there. You have the old gay, and they’re talking and connecting with the gay that are just coming out. And that kind of connection is something that you never see.

“You see some people in tears cause it’s the first time they’ve been seen or accepted.”

The Atlanta Pride Run started in 1991; the planning group felt the need to meet in secret in a Midtown library because of the homophobia of the time.

Two of the principal founders, partners Keith Willey and Philip Vallowe, will be honored with the Achievement Award following this year’s race from Front Runners Atlanta, the group that organizes the race.

Willey will run the 5k before he accepts the award, but Vallowe’s award is posthumous; he died in 1993 at age 44.

“It started as a love story,” says Pulce. Willey and Vallowe “started this running group because they felt there were not many outlets for LGBTQIA people to meet other than the clubs. They wanted a healthy outlet to do that.”

The race was initially held in Grant Park, and early turnouts were in the low hundreds. In the last five years, awareness and participation have soared. The race has raised approximately $300,000 for LGBTQ+ nonprofits since 2018 (record keeping makes it difficult to estimate further back). Beneficiaries this year include AID Atlanta, Bridge of Light, and Lost + Found Youth.

The Atlanta Pride Run includes both serious runners looking for a personal best and those who show up just to see and be seen in their community. (Courtesy of Brandon Carter)

Credit: Brandon Carter

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Credit: Brandon Carter

This year, the event’s theme is “Right Where You Belong,” and chip timing will be introduced for precise results. There will be local LGBTQ talent performing, including singers from the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, and, of course, drag queens.

“We have a lot more entertainment afterward to keep people in the park longer and have more time to connect,” says Pulce.

It had not even occurred to Browning, an industrial engineer, to enter the Pride Run until 2021, when she was ready to start her physical transition.

She says she worried about her transition and how people would react more than turned out to be warranted. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. Had I transitioned 20 years ago I don’t think the world was as welcoming or understanding.”

It helped that her wife of 15-plus years, Stella Dillard, was so supportive. Dillard has been a chef at some of Atlanta’s most prestigious restaurants, including Holman & Finch and Empire State South, and during COVID started her own business selling soups and casseroles at local farmers’ markets. The couple lives in Midtown.

“She looks at it that it’s much better to have a happy spouse than a miserable one. I’ve been a much happier person ever since I transitioned. It’s really been great for us and our relationship.

“She did the work to learn,” Browning continues. “We were together 15 years before, and she had to learn a new name and pronouns. So it was a lot of work for her.”

Less than five weeks after the Pride comes the Peachtree Road Race, and Browning will be back to run her 14th Peachtree.

She plans to run with Dillard, whose birthday is July 4.

Browning was born in Decatur, grew up in DeKalb County, the only child of a single mother, and attended Georgia Tech. She asked not to be identified with her previous name.

“I only started using the past tense saying ‘transitioned’ in the past year,” she says. “But there’s still work. Going out in the world and existing as a woman every day, there’s always things to learn. We talk about it as second puberty. The past few years have been this rush of new experiences and catching up on these things that maybe you didn’t imagine.

“You have this longing and this hope and this wish, but never had the experiences. And now there’s a whole new experience.”


Atlanta Pride Run

8 a.m. June 2 in Piedmont Park (Charles Allen Drive entrance off 10th Street). Registration: $45 (plus $4.50 sign-up fee) through May 30; $50 starting May 31.