The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated the postponement of an Atlanta Independence Day tradition that is practically synonymous with the holiday. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race, which has been run down Peachtree Street on every Fourth of July since its inception in 1970, has been pushed back to Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26.
“The guidance was as follows,” Atlanta Track Club executive director Rich Kenah told the AJC. “That, despite the fact that the curves may look good on July 4, there is just not enough information at this time, not enough testing, and the medical community just would not be comfortable with bringing thousands of people together so quickly.”
Staging the race almost five months later, Kenah said, “allows for testing to be significantly ramped up, contact tracing to happen, and it allows us to be better prepared for bringing people together in larger groups.”
In March, Kenah went ahead with registration for the 51st running of the Peachtree on the grounds that the track club had not received information from health officials that “the Peachtree is at risk of not happening on the Fourth of July.” An optimist, Kenah said that he wasn’t merely delaying what some might have thought as the inevitable postponement of the race, but believed at the time that the world’s largest 10-kilometer race could be run. However, continued conversations with his medical team, including infectious disease experts, led Kenah to postpone the world’s largest 10-kilometer road race.
Beyond the potential health risks to participants, Kenah said he was also deeply impacted by the toll that COVID-19 has taken not only on those whose lives that it has claimed and their families, but also on the medical community.
Health risks may be lower in July, “but when you understand the uncertainty in the short term, the lack of testing and the overall fatigue factor by those in the medical community, the first responders, and you understand how much we need them for the Peachtree, it became crystal clear to us that it was time (to postpone),” Kenah said.
» MARK BRADLEY: Moving the AJC Peachtree had to be done
About 45,000 people — well under the 60,000-participant max that the race perennially hits — registered for the Peachtree in March. They will remain confirmed for the race. The track club will re-open registration Aug. 31 for track club members and Sept. 7 for non-members on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration will continue until Sept. 13, unless the field fills to 60,000 before that point.
Landing on Thanksgiving Day was a solution that involved multiple factors. One, like Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day is a popular day for road races. (The track club held its marathon on Thanksgiving from 1981 to 2009, after which the club retained its half-marathon and added a 5K. Those races will be canceled in favor of the Peachtree.)
Two, it was later in the year, which figures to lower risk than it might have on Labor Day, another date that the club considered. Also, the club wanted to pick a date that would minimize impact on businesses located on or near Peachtree.
The race will include changes to attempt to account for health risks. Normally, nearly the entire field is grouped into 21 start groups that start every five minutes. Participants in this year’s Peachtree will be separated into more groups and spaced further apart. The water stations will also be reconfigured, and the track club will work with MARTA on a transportation plan.
Participants who can’t or don’t want to take part in a Thanksgiving Peachtree will have the option to run the event virtually (the club will send them a finisher’s t-shirt), defer their entry to 2021, transfer their number to someone else, donate the $42 entrance fee to the club or receive a refund. The last option is atypical for road races and not made without some pain.
The Peachtree helps fund the club’s programs and Kenah said he has had to lay off 10% of his staff of about 33 people.
“We want to be the gold standard by how events are measured in this time of uncertainty,” Kenah said. “And giving people all of those options just feels like the right thing to do. With that being said, the Atlanta Track Club will feel the impact of this pandemic for years to come.”
Despite the plans, there is no certainty the race will be run on Thanksgiving, either. Kenah said that canceling the race was considered, but that there was not enough information to lead the club in that direction. Kenah said that the health experts that the club has consulted with are “cautiously optimistic” that with more time and testing, the Peachtree can be conducted safely in November.
“We’re using the best information and the best guidance that we have as of (Thursday),” Kenah said. “And like other events and organizations around the world, we are trying to be hopeful and realistic at the same time.”
The plans are coming together for a Thanksgiving Peachtree. Kenah surmised, wryly, that “we’ll have a big turkey in the meadow at Piedmont Park,” where finishers gather.
“I hope that we will look back and recognize that it was a true celebration of the Peachtree on Thanksgiving,” he said. “But that everyone will look forward to the next Fourth of July.”
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