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Bill Thorn, man of ‘longevity,’ set to run 49th consecutive AJC Peachtree Road Race

Bill Thorn had to go to practice. It was mid-afternoon, and the 87-year-old was due in the heat of a summer afternoon to impart some wisdom on the high schoolers he coaches.

A man of routine, Thorn couldn’t be delayed by a phone call. 

On the morning of July 4, that same routine and work ethic will bring Thorn back to the starting line of the 49th Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. Thorn wouldn’t miss it; he hasn’t missed it. Not once. Thorn is the only person to have run all 48, and he’ll keep going until he can’t go anymore.

There’s no magic elixir that propels him from year to year, no secret wisdom to impart on others his age. 

The key is in consistency — and some fortune. Thorn does the same workout routine that he assigns to his students, “of course I’ve refined it over the years,” he clarifies. It’s in the day-in, day-out rhythm that he maintains the shape he needs. Thorn said it’s conceptually simple, but not simplistic in practice.  

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“If you say ‘seven days a week’ you might be getting their attention,” he said. “But then when you say 365 days a year… whoa. People begin to think ‘What would that take for me to do that.’

Faith is at the core of all Bill Thorn does — “That’s what I attribute to all of this,” he said. Thorn helped found Landmark Christian Academy in 1989, where he’s coached for many years. He said he’s grateful that he’s even been afforded the opportunity to keep going into his 49th year at the Peachtree and beyond.

Quite a bit has changed in the 49 years since the first Peachtree Road Race, where Thorn was one of only 110 people to finish. There was no T-shirt during the first race, Thorn recalls. Shirts wouldn’t be added to the festivities until 1971. As retribution for the now-famous token, Thorn and fellow runners from that first race were given shirts years later that read “The one you never got.”

Since then, the field has ballooned from 150 to over 60,000. And each year since, Thorn has prepared himself for the morning of July 4, and all the factors that could break his streak.

“Every one of your limbs has got to be OK. You’ve got sprains, breaks, sickness, whatever you’re dealing with,” Thorn said. “That one day out of the year, you can’t have it too far out of line or it knocks you down.”

At 87, Thorn acknowledges that those obstacles grow in prevalence with each passing year. He’s a pragmatist. He can no longer wake up the morning of July 4 and run 10 kilometers without tremendous preparation, mentally and physically. He hasn’t set a goal for his time this year. His goal, understandably, is to finish.

Culturally, he chides, the race has tilted more toward “what do they call them now — millennials.” He won his age group last year, finishing after roughly 90 minutes. For all he knows, he was the only person in his age group.

But each day Thorn wakes up and does the exact same workout he’s done for as long as he can recall, coaches high schoolers as he’s done for over 60 years, confides in the same wife he has for 64 years.

On July 4, he’ll run the same race for the 49th consecutive year.

In a deep southern drawl, Thorn distilled his mindset about his Peachtree — about his life — into one sentence. He chuckled, not of any sarcasm, but out of a revelatory truth.

“There’s something about me that has to do with longevity.”

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