Tracey Russell began her tenure as caretaker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in January 2007. Shortly after her hire, she told the AJC that her goal was not to change the race, but “to uphold the significance it has in the community.”
Russell will leave her post as executive director of the Atlanta Track Club shortly after the July 4 race to become CEO of the Los Angeles Marathon. In her time as the successor to Julia Emmons, Russell made adjustments to the race and built up the club. Russell, who declined an interview request for this story, leaves with a record praised by Peachtree participants.
“Of all the race directors, I think she’s clearly the best, and in the shortest period of time,” said Eatonton cattle rancher Tex McIver, who will run his 40th Peachtree next week.
Her tenure had a challenging start. In 2008, the second Peachtree under her watch, a drought prevented the race from finishing at Piedmont Park. A hurried search for new options ended with runners finishing on an uphill climb followed by a half-mile walk to the gathering area at the Atlanta Civic Center, a situation that longtime Peachtree runner Shelley West remembered as “kind of a cluster.” On the whole, however, the ride has had few bumps.
“I think organization-wise, I think it runs pretty smooth,” said West, who will travel from Florida with her husband and her 6-week-old son to run with her father, Bob West, for the 20th time. “It’s just always so fun, and I think that what everybody kind of takes away is that it’s an awesome event.”
Perhaps the biggest change Russell enacted was in 2010, when the race doubled the number of time groups to 20. The purpose was to create a smoother flow for all runners, as sending up to 10,000 runners from the start line at one time created bottlenecks just past the starting line.
Previously, “there was trampling and pushing and shoving and … poor children getting pushed down and things like that,” McIver said. Now, “it’s just much safer.”
Because of the success of the start-wave system and continued demand for entry, the race expanded from 55,000 to 60,000 the following year (2011), firming its hold on its claim as the largest 10-kilometer race in the world.
The club has made other tweaks to the race during her tenure, as well. All runners were given time chips starting in 2009, allowing every participant to have an official time. That same year, the entry procedure changed from having applications go through the mail to an online system. The first year was problematic for many would-be entrants, but it was addressed in 2011 when the race went to a lottery system instead of the time-honored first-come, first-served method.
Club membership has tripled, to 19,000 members. It has developed its Kilometer Kids, an incentive-based program to engage children in running. As much as 30 percent of the Peachtree field has been made up of first-time participants, a fulfillment of the club’s mission to encourage fitness.
Perhaps her most questioned decision was in 2010 to move the track club’s Thanksgiving Day marathon to October, while keeping the half-marathon on Thanksgiving. The change to the oldest marathon in the Southeast irritated those who had run the marathon as a tradition. The rationale was to ease the burden on volunteers on a holiday and increase participation. The marathon had 825 finishers in 2009, its last Thanksgiving date, and had 1,124 and 982 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
She leaves in an auspicious year, as the race, in conjunction with the Atlanta Police Department and other agencies, will heighten security in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April. How the race handles that matter and others in years to come will be someone else’s responsibility.
Said West of Russell, “I feel like she’s done a lot of good.”
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