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Does time really matter when running the AJC Peachtree Road Race?

There is the one constant in the ever-changing Atlanta landscape.  

Traffic.

Always traffic.

For the love of all that’s holy, why is nobody moving?

This eternal frustration holds, too, for that one outstanding pedestrian (oxymoron?) event each Fourth of July, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. Traffic, in the form of 60,000 runners funneling through the heart of the city, is sneaker-to-sneaker. If everyone wasn’t just so darn happy to be there, that could be a real issue.

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» More: Plan your AJC Peachtree Road Race

And for those who might actually care about their time, those who use the stopwatch function on their Fitbit for more than boiling an egg, the Peachtree traffic poses a formidable obstacle. It’s hard to make time when you’re just another head of cattle in the world’s most deliberate stampede.

So, the first thing is to grasp the limitations of running the Peachtree. When Jeff Galloway first ran – and won – the Peachtree, that issue didn’t exist. Of course, that was the very first one, back in 1970. “With 110 people, everybody had freedom of movement right from the very beginning,” he laughed.

Now multiply that field by about 550. Many of them walking a great deal of the course. Some dressed up as Uncle Sam or a hot dog.

Owner of two Phidippides athletic shoe stores in Atlanta, Galloway also operates an online training program for those preparing for races like the Peachtree. He’s big on the message of enjoying the many benefits of getting out and running/walking, and not so much on the competitive aspect of setting a personal best time.

But he does hear the frustrations of those who want to go faster at the Peachtree, but just can’t.

“Among time-goal people I get a lot of that,” he said. “So, what they do is usually run with a relative or a friend and just enjoy it.”

More than a pure race – that noun itself implies some sort of attention to speed and time – the Peachtree stands as a social phenomenon as much as an athletic one.  

“It’s one of those lifestyle events,” Galloway said. “I’m proud to say when I helped organize it (in the mid-1970s), we really promoted the heck out of the lifestyle aspect.”

Those accustomed to running other 10K (6.2 miles) races might be better served by not trying to compare those times to a Peachtree time. The Fourth of July race is just a whole different beast. So said Amy Begley, a coach for the Atlanta Track Club.

» Also: AJC Peachtree starts earlier this year

“You can only compare Peachtree to Peachtree,” she said.

“We know people whose goal is to run the whole thing. Or run everything but walk up Cardiac Hill. Then, OK, next time actually run up Cardiac,” Begley advised. “You have to have your own goal. Sometimes it’s not time-based. Sometimes it’s more effort based.”

But for those who insist upon sweating out a time, Galloway and Begley can offer a few bits of advice:

Don’t get antsy at the start.

“My suggestion, go to the back of (your starting group), walk slowly to the start because your time doesn’t officially start until you cross the chip field (runners’ times are measured by an electronic chip). Then at that point, assess the situation before you cross and see how spread out people are. Then, when it’s time to take off, do so,” Galloway said.

Know the course.

“I suggest running the course several times and that allows you to see which parts of it you can run downhill and where you need to watch going too fast on the uphills,” Galloway said.

Be alert.  

“You have to be more aware in our race than other races,” Begley said. “You have to be aware of a lot of people will go out too fast and there are tons of people who are going to stop and walk up Cardiac Hill.

“You have to be very aware even if you’re tired and hot. Have a lot of patience.”

The Peachtree, you see, is not a straight-line experience. Factoring in all the swerving around traffic, you’ll likely going to end up running more than a 10K.

Enjoy the scene.

Begley suggests that all the people and the sensory overload of experiences along the route might actually help some through the chore of running more than six miles in the summer heat. Here’s her very positive way to looking at the congestion: “The distraction factor gets you out of your own head. You don’t have those negative thoughts, like, oh, my gosh, it’s how much farther? I’m hurting. It keeps you from going to that negative space in your head.”

And, no, you can’t just bully your way through the crowd. That may be your approach driving on I-285, but that doesn’t play at the Peachtree.

“It’s best to be a good citizen from the back,” Galloway said.

“Typically,” Begley said, “with that many people, when the road is completely and utterly packed from side to side, there’s not a lot they can do. Until you make your way to opening, probably just keep saying, ‘Excuse me. On your left. Passing on your left.’”

The fact that a runner of Galloway’s class doesn’t time himself at the Peachtree – looking back on the electronic timing only when required to – is instructive. He’s 72 now, and hardly in need of a number to define his experience. 

Maybe his is the healthiest way to mark the minutes at the Peachtree. Both in the physical and metaphysical sense.

“I really don’t care at all anymore about time,” he said. “My goal is to run until I’m 100 and help other people do exactly the same thing. Time just doesn’t have any meaning for me.” 

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