Atlanta high school runners part of virtual AJC Peachtree Road Race

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Sarah Burwell grew up watching her parents run the AJC Peachtree Road Race every year. Her grandparents lived right on Peachtree, so every year, Burwell would spend the night at her grandparents’ house, then wake up early on July 4 to watch her parents run.

Though she wasn’t yet a cross-country runner — soccer was Burwell’s sport of choice until high school — she’s been running the race since she was in sixth grade, carrying on the family tradition.

“It’s a big family thing for us,” Burwell said. “… My grandfather ran the second one ever. It’s a big thing in our family. We always celebrate it, and the Fourth of July sort of revolves around the Peachtree.”

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Peachtree Road Race was postponed from July 4 to Thanksgiving and will be run virtually. Athletes will choose their own course and upload their time to a leaderboard for the results.

That means the normal atmosphere, with 60,000 runners all together, cheering crowds and everything else that makes the race such a spectacle, won’t be there this year. All the high school runners who spoke with the AJC referenced the atmosphere as something they’ll dearly miss.

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But because the race is virtual this year, the Atlanta Track Club decided to create a new competition for the high schoolers: the High School Championship. All Georgia high schoolers are eligible, regardless of whether they compete on a team for their school, and the winners will be featured on the cover of the track club’s Wingfoot magazine.

“When you think about Olympians and record-holders and all the folks who have run Peachtree, you’ll see a high school kid’s name right there,” said Eric Heintz, Atlanta Track Club’s director of high performance. “It’s a pretty cool thing for them to able to participate in, and for us it’s really that focus on them being the next generation and the future of the sport.”

Because this year’s event falls right at the end of high school cross country season, some of the runners the AJC spoke with said they’re excited to participate but don’t plan to go for the win because they’re in a lower-intensity phase of training right now.

But for others, such as Burwell, the opportunity to win the top prize is motivating. Though she didn’t start running until her freshman year at Walton High School, Burwell quickly fell in love with the sport. Now a senior and committed to run at Georgia Tech, she skipped the RunningLane Championships in Huntsville, Ala., last weekend so she could be fresh for the Peachtree Road Race.

“I haven’t finished my season yet, so I’m actually gonna try in the race,” Burwell said. “… There was a big race this past weekend in Alabama, and I decided not to run that so I could focus on the Peachtree because I’m much more of a distance runner. I enjoy the 10K. That’s probably what I’ll be running in college. I’ll build up to that.”

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And even for those who don’t plan to run at top speed, like George Blaha and Nicole Pizzo, the concept of the High School Championship is exciting. It’s a new opportunity this year, and one that everyone seems excited by.

“I know people who are going for the win,” Blaha, who’s a junior at Pace Academy, said. “It’s a cool opportunity. The awards kind of incentivize it. … It’s a good concept because we obviously want to compete, and normally the competition is great for the top three in the age group for the summer.”

“I’m just excited to run it and see how my times place against some other high schoolers,” added Pizzo, a junior at Marist School. “I think it’s so cool. It’s like a shared experience. Each of us had different seasons and whatnot and just being able to do that one race, that’s so special with all of us.”

There may not be the same atmosphere as normal, but it’s still a chance to compete against the best high school runners in the state. After a unique season with fewer competitive opportunities than normal, the chance to get the competitive juices flowing again is welcomed.

“With the pandemic, it’s been really difficult to get in that competition this season, just because we’ve been running more time trials than we’ve been running head-to-head races,” said Cara Joyce, a junior at Atlanta International School. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity, that it’s safe for me physically but I’ll also be able to compete with other runners and have that feeling of competition again.”

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