AJC Peachtree Road Race will be run only virtually

The AJC Peachtree Road Race has been an Atlanta tradition since 1970.
The AJC Peachtree Road Race has been an Atlanta tradition since 1970.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Atlanta Track Club bought time and considered going to great lengths to stage The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race as an in-person race. However, the coronavirus’ continued pervasiveness claimed another landmark sporting event. Initially delayed from its customary July 4 date to Thanksgiving Day in hopes that COVID-19 would have been under better control, the Peachtree now will be run solely in a virtual setting.

“We’ll do so with mixed emotions, but we’ll do it knowing that this is going to be the safest route and also the route that delivers the most authentic Peachtree possible,” track club executive director Rich Kenah told the AJC.

The long-standing Atlanta tradition will no longer be an event featuring 60,000 runners and walkers making their way through the streets, cheered on by a mass of spectators. Instead, participants will design a 6.2-mile course of their choosing with the use of an app and run on Thanksgiving. The track club will create the app that will enable participants to track their times and measure their performance against other finishers.

In May, when Kenah pushed the race from July 4, its home since the race’s inception in 1970, to Nov. 26, he described himself as “cautiously optimistic” that the world’s largest 10-kilometer race could be run down Peachtree Road. However, the spread of COVID-19 has not been curtailed as hoped, particularly in the state of Georgia. Bringing together tens of thousands participants, plus race staff, became less and less of a feasible option. Kenah said that it seemed that the chances of getting a permit from the city of Atlanta to hold the race decreased on a daily basis.

ExploreWhat you need to know about the 2020 (virtual) AJC Peachtree Road Race

“And, to be honest with you, as we made some educated guesses, we never thought that the Southeast and Georgia specifically would be seeing the level of virus we’re seeing right now,” he said.

Custodian of a tradition cherished by thousands of Georgians, Kenah acknowledged feeling the aggravation shared across the state and region, saying that, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I feel as if we’re here as a result of a failure of leadership and collective sacrifice. And that frustrates me.”

Kenah added that he was not referring to any leader in specific.

“No, we as a country just need to own this together,” he said. “I’m not pointing fingers, but it disappoints me that, here we are, that our schools are day to day, our sporting events are being taken down one by one, and the rest of the world seems to have made the sacrifices necessary to try to get back to a new normal.”

Runners approach Cardiac Hill during the AJC Peachtree Road Race on Wednesday, July 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Runners approach Cardiac Hill during the AJC Peachtree Road Race on Wednesday, July 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Before the decision not to hold the in-person race, a track club task force charged with developing alternatives delivered one intriguing option – holding four separate races over the Thanksgiving weekend in different parts of metro Atlanta – north, south, east and west. It would have been a possible field of roughly 34,000 – out of the initial pool of about 45,000 entrants for the July 4 race, about 11,000 passed on participating in Thanksgiving, either running the race virtually on Independence Day, deferring their entrance to 2021, donating their race fees back to the club or asking for a refund.

In that four-race format, the club was considering spreading start times across a window as wide as 10 or 12 hours and having participants sign up for start times staggered in five-minute intervals. The track club has organized smaller in-person races over the summer and believed that it could replicate it safely on a much larger scale. The task force had potential spots, such as shopping malls, scouted out.

But, doing so over four consecutive days would have been a considerable undertaking for the track club and its many volunteers.

“It would’ve been unique, and we were up for the challenge, but over these last few weeks, we started to look at each other on our Zoom calls and saying, ‘What have we created?’” Kenah said. “And, while it’s safe, it’s not Peachtree.”

For those still registered, “I’d like to believe that the virtual experience that we will bring to the Peachtree will be best in class,” Kenah said.

Entrants will receive the finisher’s T-shirt, a race bib and “a number of other swag items,” according to Kenah. The track club is teaming with its registration platform to create a race-day app that will use GPS technology to track progress on the race and enable entrants to compare their times against the rest of the field.

ExploreMost recent AJC Peachtree Road Race T-shirts

“It’ll show where you would actually be on the Peachtree course, and it’ll deliver the sights and sounds of that traditional July 4 morning that we are all accustomed to,” Kenah said.

For instance, reaching the two-mile mark will trigger a blessing from the Rev. Sam Candler, who has sprinkled holy water and offered blessings upon Peachtree participants along the race course outside the Cathedral of St. Philip since 1999.

The T-shirts will be the same ones that were printed for the July 4 running of the event, but will be decorated with an additional screening created for this most uncommon edition of the Peachtree. Registration will be reopened Aug. 31.

Like nearly all businesses and non-profits, the track club has been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic. Kenah said that the club had projected revenues for the year of about $11 million with a modest gain, but will instead run a deficit of about $1 million and will have to dip heavily into reserves to make up the balance. The club has already laid off about 10 percent of its staff, and remaining employees will all take a one-month unpaid furlough before the end of the calendar year.

But, on a day for giving thanks, perhaps a race can offer a respite from a dismal year and a foretaste of hopefully better days ahead.

“I recognize that, as we make this announcement, there are going to be tens of thousands of people who are disappointed, but I am confident that, by the end of the day on Thanksgiving, they’ll be pleased with the outcome and be looking forward to July 4 of 2021,” Kenah said.

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