Heat, nagging injuries, and even prostate cancer have failed to stop Bill Thorn from pounding out a 10-kilometer run on the morning of Independence Day for each of the past 50 years. The coronavirus pandemic can join the list of forces that won't keep Thorn – the only person to complete the AJC Peachtree Road Race for all of its 50 editions – from his appointed task, even though the iconic race has been postponed until Thanksgiving Day.
Thorn, 89, has a 6.2-mile route marked out that starts and ends in front of his home in Tyrone.
“I’m hoping I’ll make it,” Thorn told the AJC. “I don’t know. I never know. But that’s my plan for (Saturday).”
Thorn, who retired from coaching at Landmark Christian School in 2019 after winning 38 state championships in cross country and track and field, said he’ll probably run with family members and perhaps a few friends from the neighborhood. He said the idea to do his own Peachtree just came to him.
“I said, ‘That’s what I’ll attempt to do, even though I don’t have to,’ ” he said.
He'll be among thousands for whom the world's largest 10-kilometer race has been an indispensable part of Fourth of July celebrations. The race has been run down Peachtree Road, starting in front of Lenox Mall in Buckhead and ending at Piedmont Park, every year starting in 1970. The field has stood at 60,000 since 2011.On May 1, the Atlanta Track Club announced its decision to move the race back to Thanksgiving (Nov. 26) due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first time in race history that it's been moved off July 4.
“It’s been hard on everyone at the staff level,” said Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club and the race director for the Peachtree. “I’ve only been involved with the Peachtree for seven years, but we have some staff and key volunteers who have been involved with the Peachtree for decades. So there is sadness, but I think we all remain resolute that this was the right decision.”
Another race fixture, Reverend Sam Candler of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Buckhead, has felt the same disappointment. Starting in 1999, Candler has stood along the racecourse, just outside his church, and sprinkled holy water on runners as they’ve passed by. Normally up by 4 or 4:30 a.m. to be ready to offer his blessings to Peachtree participants, he plans what he called a “low-density Fourth of July” with family members. The church did produce a video for its Facebook page of Candler shouting his blessings through a mask to church members as they ran past, pantomiming his tossing of water from an empty silver bowl.
“It’s a fun thing to do, a way to participate,” Candler said. “What I’ve realized is that people really do enjoy a blessing.”
Thorn, who will turn 90 in September, sounds ready for his run. He has continued the exercise regimen that he has followed for years, which includes stretching, bounding on the trampoline, pushups, weightlifting, core exercises and running. He goes six days a week and scales back on Sunday. Last July, he covered the 10K in two hours, 17 minutes and 58 seconds.
“I know the Lord’s in control, and he has everything to do with all of this, but nevertheless, he’s the source of all of us, so at least I can thank him and honor him by taking care of my body the best I can, and so that’s one of the things that drives me,” said Thorn, who was selected for induction into the Georgia Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame last November.
Whether intentionally or not, Thorn will be heeding the track club’s encouragement for runners and walkers to complete their own course (it doesn’t have to be 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles) and post it to social media with the hashtag “#MyPersonalPeachtree.” Kenah, a former Olympic middle-distance runner, said he will be going for a run in his neighborhood, calling it “a nice treat for me” as his standard Independence Day activity is making sure Peachtree participants reach the finish lane safely.
The club is also strongly encouraging would-be Peachtree runners to resist running the actual course as a matter of safety. Kenah called it a matter of scale, pointing out that even if only 10% of the typical field decided to head out to Lenox Mall and run to Midtown, that’s still 6,000 people. The streets will be open to traffic.
“You’re creating a potential need for first responders to have to react,” Kenah said.
Those who happen to be along Peachtree Saturday morning may see Reg and Paula Barnes, who hold the finish-line tape for race winners on 10th Street dressed, respectively, as Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross. Paula, retired from serving as deputy associate general counsel for the CDC, has had the job since the early 80’s and husband Reg, a retired pharmacist, has held the winner’s tape for the past seven Peachtrees. Saturday morning, they plan to drive down the race course in their Porsche 911 convertible, dressed in full costume, and offer their Fourth of July greetings from their car.
“We’ll be wearing masks – that’s our way of saying, ‘Wear a mask,’ ” Paula said. “So that’s what’s happening Saturday. It’s certainly bittersweet (about the postponement), but the right decision.”
The track club continues its preparations for the Thanksgiving Peachtree. While the race is hardly a certainty, Kenah said “we’re pretty far down the street” in planning the race and that the club has solutions for social distancing that he calls “pretty radical and creative.” Among challenges are coming up with a different way to keep runners hydrated, as handing out open cups of water (and creating logjams of thirsty participants) is not an option. Normally, nearly the entire field is divided into 21 start groups that hit the starting line every five minutes.
Kenah said that the start groups will be significantly smaller in size and more spread out in time. He also said that, of the 45,000 people who registered to run the Peachtree as originally scheduled, more than 75% took the option to either keep their spot for the Thanksgiving race or run on their own in a “virtual Peachtree,” which will still earn them the prized finisher’s t-shirt.
“Very, very few people have asked for a full refund, which, again, speaks to the power of the Peachtree,” he said.