Virtual AJC Peachtree fun, but let’s run together next year

Kristi Swartz writes a first-person account of virtually running the AJC Peachtree Road Race.
Kristi Swartz writes a first-person account of virtually running the AJC Peachtree Road Race.

Credit: Photo provided

Credit: Photo provided

I turned on my Garmin GPS watch, fastened my ROAD iD bracelet, pulled my too-long hair into a ponytail and straightened and re-straightened my race bib.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, not July 4th; the start line is in North Ormewood Park, not at Lenox Square; and instead of being surrounded by thousands of volunteers, runners decked out in patriotic gear and a large American flag, it was me, my boyfriend and two rambunctious cats.

This is the AJC Peachtree Road Race, pandemic-style.

I haven’t fully embraced virtual racing, but I wholeheartedly support any person or organization who wants to create some normalcy in 2020. Atlanta’s running community also has become my second family, so it’s important to me to participate in whatever shape that takes.

If you live in Atlanta, you know the AJC Peachtree is not any random race. With 60,000 participants, it is the world’s largest 10K that doubles as a 6.2-mile celebration.

This year, the Atlanta Track Club stuffed that atmosphere into a customized app to use along our virtual journey. The app was complete with a playlist, a way for someone else to track you and a blessing from Dean Sam Candler from the Cathedral of St. Philip at Mile 2.

I don’t know the first thing about designing an app, but it was clear that the Atlanta Track Club’s goal was to create a fun experience. This, coming from an organization that went through every scenario and then some to keep the AJC Peachtree an in-person event.

Last month, I ran in a virtual race – literally called The Race – that also used a running app with customized events. It digitally connected all the participants to an announcer and a coach, who tracked us as we ran to an upbeat playlist.

The pair called out our names and gave shoutouts as we hit certain milestones. It was the most fun I’ve had running since February.

For the AJC Peachtree, there was a lot of hype around the app, and I perked up when the email finally landed in my Inbox last week.

At the same time, I realized that the instructions for the app were thorough and lengthy, so I decided to tackle logging in and checking out the features until the evening. The multi-step process went smoothly.

A few friends who use an Android device mentioned they were still waiting for their email, which came the following week. And on Wednesday – the day before the app would go live – one posted on Facebook about having trouble logging in. I thought nothing of it until another friend mentioned that there was an outage. I checked my app and sure enough, I wasn’t logged in anymore and attempts to do so were unsuccessful.

I kept my fingers crossed that whatever techno-bugs were causing the outage would get fixed but wanted to keep things in perspective. Yes, this app was supposed to be a key part of the virtual AJC Peachtree experience, but I’ve had running disasters far worse than this.

The app was working by the end of the day, and I sent the link to track me to my mom and said, “for old times’ sake.”

I got a late start on Thanksgiving morning, but stalling allowed me to run through the features again, synch up my Garmin watch and keep my expectations in check. Why? Forgive me for stating the obvious, but nothing is normal this year.

For me, my “sole sister,” who paced me to an AJC Peachtree personal best now lives in Florida; an injury from overuse sidelined me for two months this summer; and for the first time there would be no “Good luck” texts from my father. He died unexpectedly a month ago.

Phone in hand, I tapped “Race Day Experience” and tapped through the options, which included choosing the Spotify playlist. A few more taps led to a familiar voice – Ken Berger, veteran AJC Peachtree Road Race announcer, followed by the national anthem and then a welcome message from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

We went outside for the national anthem and the mayor’s message, which ended with “runners set … go!” Oh! I guess we’re running now. But I wasn’t sure whether the app had actually started tracking us, and sure enough, that was a separate action.

I also started the playlist, and we trekked down Glenwood Avenue being serenaded by MC Hammer.

One key thing to remember is the app follows the same real-time clock if you’re running in an in-person race. This means, if you stop to adjust your shoes, talk to a friend or refill your water bottle, that clock keeps on rolling.

Right foot, left foot to the music -- BeeGees, Michael Jackson, Calvin Harris, Earth Wind and Fire – but about a mile in, I realized we weren’t hearing those recorded messages that were supposed to play every mile. Twice, while we were stopped at red lights, I checked to make sure the app was tracking us – it was – and figured I had stumbled upon a glitch. A little disappointed, but I shrugged it off.

The app also said we had run about a half-mile more than we had, which was a bit confusing. I continued to follow the distance on my Garmin watch, and we headed down the Beltline, turning around 3.1 miles in.

We caught the red light by the Krog Street Tunnel, which happened to be Mile 5 on our journey. I pulled out my phone and could hear someone talking. I admit to being somewhat giddy realizing that this function was indeed working, and that the voice was coming from 2017 AJC Peachtree Road Race champion Aliphine Tuliamuk, who also won first place in the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials here in February. She’s quite the superstar and motivator, regardless of your ability.

I wondered if the music was drowning out those recorded messages, so I turned off the playlist as we finished up the last 1.2 miles. At the finish mark, the recorded voice of Meb Keflezighi, a longtime Atlanta Track Club supporter, Olympian and champion of the New York and Boston marathon, congratulated us for our feat.

I perked up again and wondered who else I missed. So, Friday morning, I put my shoes on again and headed out for some miles. I used the app again without the playlist to test my theory.

Yep, one mile in, I heard greetings from emcee Ronnel Blackmon; a blessing from Dean Candler at Mile 2, and a motivational message from Daniel Romanchuk, who crushed the record on the men’s wheelchair division last year.

OK, because I hadn’t planned to set any records for myself or anyone else, I was satisfied. But I wondered if others had the same experience and briefly scanned social media for comments, which can be its own adventure, of course.

Some noted having trouble uploading their finish time, and at that point, I realized that I had yet to submit my results. A few click throughs on the app, and all my recorded runs since early November showed up. I selected the one for Thursday and received a message that the results had been submitted.

Were there bugs? Sure. But what isn’t buggy about 2020? This is coming from someone who takes the AJC Peachtree way too seriously and looked forward to running in my hard-earned Wave B this year.

I have no doubt that the glitches will be fixed for next time, but I think we all hope that there is no next time and we can all share the pavement again together in 2021.

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