First AJC Peachtree Road Race winner still runs strong, just not at the front

At his Atlanta store, Jeff Galloway trades in all things running and displays his mounted t-shirts from AJC Peachtree Road Races past. (Photo by Steve Hummer/AJC)
At his Atlanta store, Jeff Galloway trades in all things running and displays his mounted t-shirts from AJC Peachtree Road Races past. (Photo by Steve Hummer/AJC)

The first AJC Peachtree Road Race winner might have had the thing won before ever crossing the start line.

Jeff Galloway had gotten there nearly 45 minutes early, parked his car and reported to the little card table that race founder Tim Singleton had set up to greet this road race expeditionary force. In 1970, with just 150 souls entered, parking and logistics were almost comically simple.

“It took (Singleton) like five minutes to set up registration. I asked if I could help and he said no, it’s pretty much done. He put up a banner over part of the road there, that was the hardest thing to do,” Galloway remembered.

So, with plenty of time to spare, Galloway thought he’d get a look at the first stage of the course while warming up a bit. He jogged out a short way just out of sight of the start, and by the time he ran back to the line, other runners had begun to assemble.

One of them asked what he was doing. And Galloway, the sly dog, thought he’d employ a little gamesmanship.

“I said, ‘Oh, I parked my car (miles away) downtown and I ran here to warm-up,’” Galloway recalled. “It was a quip, but it turned out that it became a mental benefit to me because people thought anybody that can jog that is too tough.”

Simply on his own merits, Galloway was too tough for this inaugural field.

Old black and white photos of Galloway nearing the finish — then near the Equitable Building downtown — show him all alone on the road, save for one of Singleton’s kids sitting in the middle of the road in a lawn chair, monitoring. He had covered the 6.2 miles in 32:21.6, so read the hand-held stopwatch, and run into Peachtree lore.

On the Fourth of July, the Peachtree had one of its founding fathers. With his first and only victory in this race, Galloway hardly would become the most decorated Peachtree performer — first women’s winner Gayle Barron would win four more times. But as someone who embodied the coming running craze — he made it his vocation, opening his Phidippides shoe stores and birthing a training system for the common, every-day runner – Galloway was the perfect first-time winner. And through his long relationship with the race, he came to be one of its lead ambassadors and an enduring face of the race.

Can Galloway, who turns 74 a week after the Peachtree, believe that when he lines up this Fourth of July with his wife and his two sons and their wives that this will be the 50th running of the race? Or that there’ll be 59,850 more runners at the start for this race than 1970s?

“Yes and no,” he said. “The feelings and the memories are so clear. It’s a wonderful story, the whole thing of running in general and the Peachtree specifically.”

Galloway and his wife, Barb, still operate under the guiding principle of a marathon a month. Yes, to repeat, they will do a marathon a month. They feel no need to set any age-group records; in fact, Galloway’s method of run-walk-run that he still tirelessly teaches throughout many parts of the world would discourage setting hard-and-fast time goals. And doesn’t that perfectly reflect of the attitude of the Peachtree itself? At least for a majority of the 60,000 runners. Just get it done, and feel good about doing it.

Whatever time he runs the 6.2 miles in this year, he’ll never know. Just like he couldn’t tell you what his time was last year. “I don’t have any time goals any more whatsoever,” he said. “I run almost all of my races with my wife. It’s just a great thing.”

“My competitiveness is gone, and that’s not bad at all,” said Galloway, who was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic track and field team. “I don’t regret any of that. I had some amazing competitive years, I’m very fortunate, especially coming from a kid who was severely overweight and lazy when he started at Westminster.”

In 1970, Galloway had just gotten out of the Navy, and returned home to Atlanta. The one-time overweight, under-motivated Westminster Schools kid had shifted into serious running mode. And very quickly he was making contacts with those of like mind and strong wind.

One of those was Singleton, then a dean at Georgia State. While signing up for a few classes at GSU, Galloway stopped by Singleton’s office.

“He said, ‘I’ve got this great idea,’” said Galloway, remembering the first time he heard about running a 10K through the heart of Atlanta on the Fourth of July.

“I thought it was amazing,” Galloway said. “Road races then were mostly in New England. That’s where I learned to love them. Here you’d only see road racing taking place back in some neighborhood where the police were OK with it because there was no real traffic. Well, here, we’re running right down Peachtree Street into downtown Atlanta. That puts distance running on the map.”

So, yeah, Galloway was all in from the beginning, an easy sell. Just try to keep him off that start line.

The first Peachtree race day began late, at 9:30 a.m., as Singleton hoped to give runners from nearby southern cities time to get to the race. That also gave the sun extra time to come up to mid-summer heat.

No fuss at the start: “Tim called us out there about 10 minutes before and we staged right along the road. And at the last minute he had his policeman friend block traffic for a very short period of time. We walked out there, and he fired the gun and we were off,” Galloway said.

No big road closures. The runners and the light holiday traffic of 1970 peacefully coexisted.

No crowds of cheering onlookers as today. “There were not that many people out, but I do remember curious looks. I remember enjoying seeing those curious looks,” Galloway said.

And not many people to keep pace with the first Peachtree winner. One of the young runners Galloway worked with at Georgia Tech tried to stay with him, but the kid’s lack of training for this distance showed itself around cardiac hill.

As he pulled out to a lonely lead, Galloway had but a single dominant thought: “I just wanted to get it over with.” Yes, in 1970, it was hot in downtown Atlanta on the Fourth of July.

“I came down this little incline to the finish and the first thing you saw that year was Tim’s son sitting in a lawn chair right in the middle of the road (helping to mark the finish),” Galloway said.

“I was looking around for something to cool off with. They had a little card table (the same one as at the start, quickly driven to the finish) that had a few glasses of water. I got one and threw it on me. And then there was the Equitable fountain. And I was in. I soaked myself.”

As Galloway stayed deeply involved with it for years, the Peachtree became so much more than a 10K run. It became an event central to Atlanta’s personality, an indispensable statement of vitality and physical freedom on the Fourth.

“It has become,” Galloway said, “what I call a lifestyle empowerment vehicle for Atlanta and the world. That’s generic to all road races open to the public. On a holiday morning, to wake up at all hours and go down and run when you don’t have to in the heat, it really says something about Atlanta.

“I’ve talked to people who have been long-term runners in, say, Birmingham and they’ve told me you wouldn’t have that number of people coming out on July Fourth in Birmingham.

“Atlanta is a forward-looking city. It has a great diversity of people from all over the United States, and a growing population from all over the world. And part of the equation of this diversity is running.”

In 1970, the Peachtree made a pretty modest opening statement, but also earned itself a pair of perfect winners in Galloway and Barron.

For their sweat, they received a couple of handshakes and a small trophy.

And then the first male Peachtree champion did something that surely would amaze those who already thought him an iron man at the start.

Galloway collected his trophy, turned around and ran back to his car.

Read more about the history and people of the AJC Peachtree Road Race

The Original 110: They were finishers in the first race in 1970

Bill Thorn: Looking forward to his 50th run in the AJC Peachtree

Gayle Barron blazed a trail as first female AJC Peachtree Road Race winner

The 50th AJC Peachtree: A look at the history and future

News and updates from the AJC Peachtree Road Race