The end point of Bill Thorn’s 10-kilometer journey approached, if not quickly enough. The only person to have completed every AJC Peachtree Road Race could now spy the finish line on 10th Street in Midtown, and he compelled his 89-year-old body out of a steady walk into a run. Accompanying family members raised cheers. However, Thorn’s closing burst had begun a little too soon, and the Tyrone resident returned to his walking pace.
“They keep moving that finish line back,” Thorn said to one of his walking companions for the morning, former Atlanta Track Club executive director Julia Emmons.
Thorn continued undaunted, and then his coterie, holding aloft fans with his face on one side and “I’m a Bill Thorn fan #50” on the other, broke out into a happy chant commemorating the accomplishment, finishing all 50 Peachtrees, a half-century of undying consistency: “FIFTY! FIFTY! FIFTY!”
Along with Thorn, Atlanta’s sweat-soaked Independence Day tradition reached a milestone Thursday with its 50th running, continuing to hold forth as the largest 10K race in the world with a field of 60,000. They ran, walked and ran/walked to celebrate health and family and to honor country, cheered on by fans offering high-fives, water and beer. The range of star-spangled attire included (but was not limited to): tutus, body glitter, cowboy hats, butterfly wings, an Evil Knievel-style jumpsuit and rompers.
And that was just Thorn. (Just kidding)
“I saw a lot of people having fun,” Atlanta Track Club executive director Rich Kenah said.
The weather largely was compliant with cloud cover, resulting in fewer numbers of hospital transports than in recent years, but no life-threatening injuries or illnesses, according to Kenah.
At the head of the race, all four elite competitions – men’s and women’s footrace, men’s and women’s wheelchair – were won in course-record times, enticed by $50,000 bonuses for breaking the Peachtree marks. The men’s footrace winner, Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto, surpassed all with the fastest road 10K ever run in the U.S., 27 minutes, 1 second, lowering the 23-year-old Peachtree and American road-race marks by three seconds.
“We asked the athletes to come here and put on a show, and they put on some fireworks,” Kenah said.
Further on down, there likely was another record shattered by fans eager to be a part of (and earn a finisher’s T-shirt from) a most noteworthy Peachtree. Typically, there’s a no-show rate at the Peachtree of 10-15%. Following the race, Kenah said that the number of finishers would be the highest in race history, possibly exceeding the official field size of 60,000 with the inclusion of entries from charities and sponsors. Unofficial results did indicate that more than 60,000 participants crossed the finish line by Piedmont Park.
That undoubtedly would have delighted Tim Singleton, the race founder who died in 2013 at the age of 76. Singleton lived to see the race grow from its original 110 finishers in 1970 to its present size, a growth that his son Tim Jr. said that he could not have anticipated at the start. But it’s one that he helped foster with a missionary’s zeal.
“That first race, it was like, we’re going to be here, so he started inviting all his friends and anybody and their friends,” said Singleton, who helped Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms start the men’s elite footrace. “So that’s what he would have liked about this race, how many families and friends make this an annual tradition.”
People such as Linda Buckley and her friend Missouri Neely, both of Atlanta. Friends through their church in southwest Atlanta, Buckley ran her 20th and Neely, after two years of encouragement from Buckley, her first. They wore matching red T-shirts with blue tutus.
“It was very exciting and moving, and because there were so many people and the music, it kept the tempo going,” said Neely, 62. “I loved that.”
As a milestone event, the Peachtree also stood as a snapshot of the changes that have shaped Atlanta and its people over the past 50 Julys. The 110 finishers in the original Peachtree – about 30 of whom joined Thorn in the field Thursday – included only three women and six runners (all male) 50 and over. The field was all or nearly all white.
The population of metropolitan Atlanta was about 2 million. The concept of running for exercise was foreign.
Jim Goldsack, of Lawrenceville, was a runner at Druid Hills High in DeKalb County when he ran in the first Peachtree. Speaking before the race, he said that jogging was so unusual that, when he went for a run on North Decatur Road, “people would honk and ask if you needed a ride.”
The participants who flowed down Peachtree from Buckhead to Midtown in a seemingly unending stream painted a different portrait of the Peachtree and Atlanta, whose metro population is now about 6 million. Finishers were as young as 10 and into their 90s at the other end, their sweaty skin glistening in a panoply of tones.
Where the first Peachtrees were the province of competitive runners, finishers’ body types Thursday – whippet thin to contours with more padding – spoke to the democratization of the race. The gender split was near even.
“I think it’s almost a symbol of Atlanta, to see all these different types of people,” said Samuel Gilstrap, a 17-year-old high-school runner from Atlanta who ran with his father, Wendell.
One of them was Thorn, a longtime high-school football and track coach who was feted by runners and fans as he made his way to Piedmont Park. One of the latter was another notable Bill in Atlanta sports circles, Georgia Tech great Bill Curry. The attention may have been a bit much for Thorn, who had to be persuaded by his children just to wear a race bib reading “Coach Thorn” given to him by the race.
For at least one race out of 50, he was willing to be the center of attention, though he tried to defer to the race that he has come to personify.
“Whoever would have imagined that little tiny group that first day (in 1970) evolving into what was out there (Thursday)?” Thorn asked with a chuckle. “It’s unimaginable.”