As AJC Peachtree returns in-person, ‘just happy to be able to run’

AJC Peachtree Road Race returns to the streets of Atlanta
Caption
AJC Peachtree Road Race returns to the streets of Atlanta

A year ago, Mary Ann Korre so desperately wanted to observe her Independence Day tradition that she created her own version of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. With the 2020 Peachtree postponed because of the pandemic, Korre ran her own race around Stone Mountain on the Fourth of July. She even made her own race-bib number.

This weekend, Korre plans to join about 31,000 runners and walkers who are expected to make the Buckhead-to-Midtown voyage down Peachtree Road in this half-century Atlanta tradition, being conducted again in person after it was postponed last year to Thanksgiving and then transformed to a virtual version. Another 8,000 have signed up for a virtual version. She does not undertake it lightly; she planned to run with a face shield as she completes the race, which for her will be at least her 37th Peachtree.

“I’m just happy to be able to run after last year,” Korre said.

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The joy of partaking in the Peachtree, for many an ironclad ritual to be shared with family and friends, will be felt thousands of times over this weekend, as the race returns to a version approaching its standard format. While much of the race’s look and feel should be familiar, the Atlanta Track Club has implemented an array of safeguards to help ensure a safe experience for all participants. Notably, that includes the race being conducted over two days – Saturday and Sunday – for the first time in its 52 runnings to limit the volume and concentration of runners and walkers in the start area and along the course.

Also, the club is requiring that participants either show documentation of COVID-19 vaccination on race day or be subject to a sniff test from dogs trained in COVID identification.

“I want to make sure that those who registered under the expectation of us following through on that promise (that participants will be vaccinated or screened) feel good about the Peachtree and the Atlanta Track Club at the end of the day,” track-club executive director Rich Kenah told the AJC.

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On Saturday, 13,000 participants are expected. For Sunday, the track club is planning for as many as 18,000 runners and walkers. Another 8,000 have registered to cover their 10 kilometers in a virtual format away from the actual course.

Entrants had the choice of picking either Saturday or Sunday. Kenah was relieved that the number for Sunday stayed under 20,000, the cap imposed by the City of Atlanta. Had it been exceeded, the club would have placed all participants selecting Sunday in a lottery, with a select unlucky few bumped over to Saturday.

As of Thursday morning, after the expo had been open two days, about 80 percent of the roughly 12,000 who had come to pick up their race bibs had shown proof of vaccination. Of those who had not – a group of about 2,400 – fewer than 12 were identified by the dogs as being potentially positive, Kenah said. The dogs have been shown to be 99% effective in a double-blind study, according to the company providing the service, 360K9. The participants will undergo the same process at the start area.

“We have overengineered our plan to essentially create a safety net so we don’t fall short of our goals,” Kenah said.

The races will be practically identical in their execution, although the invited elite runners and wheelchair racers will compete Sunday.

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Most of the race-day volunteers – a sweaty and dedicated band numbering more than 3,000 – will put in double duty Saturday and Sunday to help execute what long has been the world’s largest 10-kilometer race, at 60,000 participants as recently as 2019.

To help create space between participants, the size of the start groups has been drastically reduced, and the pre-race holding areas expanded. The groups will be sent down the course 10 minutes apart, rather than the previous five-minute gap. Participants also will be asked to wear masks until they cross the start line. To Kenah’s knowledge, the Peachtree will be the largest road race conducted since the pandemic and the first to rely upon canine assistance for identifying potential COVID-19 carriers.

“Every day, I’ve got sort of this conflicting emotion, where (I wonder), are we doing too much, or are we not doing enough?” Kenah said.

The precautions were sufficient to draw out Atlantan Meredith Lilly, who’ll make her Peachtree debut after years of cheering from the sidelines.

“This year, after COVID and people dying and health issues, this is a good kick start for health,” she said.

Among those who will be tackling their Peachtrees on courses of their own design is Bill Thorn, the only person to have completed every Peachtree. Thorn, 90, is recovering from a fall suffered in June and will make his 6.2-mile trek near his home in Fayette County with the aid of a walker that allows him to stand upright.

Thorn, a newly inducted member of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame for a career in which he led Landmark Christian School to 38 state titles in track and field and cross country, was grateful for the virtual option that will help him extend his streak to 52.

“Hopefully, this’ll allow me to come back downtown and run (in 2022),” Thorn said.

Several members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic team will compete Sunday, including men’s marathoners Galen Rupp, Jake Riley and Abdi Abdirahman and women’s marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk. (Abdirahman and Tuliamuk are both past Peachtree winners.) Two of the premier wheelchair racers in the world, Daniel Romanchuk (the three-time defending Peachtree champion) and Tatyana McFadden (a seven-time Peachtree champion) will compete before heading to Tokyo.

The marathoners are coming in for a tune-up as they prepare for the Olympic marathon, which will be held Aug. 7 and 8 in Sapporo, Japan. The race also will serve as the USA 10K championship.

“It kind of gives you the opportunity to get back into the swing of things in terms of warmup and just making sure that everything’s ready,” Rupp said. “And also, it’s just good to get a hard effort against good competition.”

Among those expected to be at the front of the pack is Stephanie Bruce of Flagstaff, Ariz. A running mom of note – she has two boys, 7-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Hudson – the 37-year-old Bruce won the 2018 Peachtree. Atlanta has meted out a dose of heartache, also. Bruce ran in the U.S. Olympic trials marathon in February 2020, days before quarantining measures began, and finished 19 seconds out of a spot on the Olympic team.

She is hopeful for a result to celebrate. Bruce ran the 10,000 meters at the U.S. trials Saturday in Eugene, Ore., competing about a month after her mother’s death. Aiming for a spot on the Olympic team, she finished 13th.

“I’m hoping to come out here and see what I can do Sunday,” Bruce said. “I’m just happy to be back at a major road race. It’s pretty incredible.”