The AJC Peachtree Road Race belongs to everyone, including push-assist athletes

Push assist team Ricardo Aranda and Nick Fragnito win their division of the 55th running of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on Thursday, July 4, 2024.   (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Push assist team Ricardo Aranda and Nick Fragnito win their division of the 55th running of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on Thursday, July 4, 2024. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Erika Northrop and her running partner Robert Buckley had just finished The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race together. They were winding down from the 10-kilometer race, enjoying the still-cool shade outside the Midtown High football stadium with Northrop’s mother, Teresa, and a reporter (me).

“It’s just been great,” Buckley said of teaming with Northrop. “She keeps me motivated.”

There’s more to this partnership than the typical running tandems that populate the Peachtree. Erika, 17 and from Acworth, lives with a rare form of dwarfism that only about three other people in the U.S. have, Teresa said. She is about the size of an average 3-year-old.

Erika and Buckley teamed in the Peachtree’s push-assist division, in which able-bodied runners push teammates with physical or intellectual disabilities in wheelchairs down the race’s 10K course. It has been part of the Peachtree program since 2013. Her 14-year-old brother Logan also competed.

Discovering the world of push-assist sports about two years ago – and the community of the Atlanta-based Kyle Pease Foundation, which seeks to support disabled people’s athletic endeavors – has opened Erika’s world.

“She had no social life before and nothing really to do,” Teresa said. “We found this, and it was like a whole new life.”

“It’s wonderful,” Erika said. “It’s fun.”

The Peachtree means so many things to those associated with it, whether as participants, volunteers or fans. It’s technically a race, but it’s really a celebration of health, family, friendship and country. It brings together metro Atlanta in a way that few institutions can.

And it held true again Thursday, as men, women, young, old, black, white and brown all streamed across the finish line on 10th Street. Peachtree Street spread wide enough to allow some of the world’s fastest distance runners to share the race course with Erika Northrop and anyone else able to plunk down race fees and willing to rise before dawn on a holiday and sweat through 6.2 miles.

Robert Buckley, left, of Dunwoody, was the running partner for Erika Northrop, 17, of Acworth, for the AJC Peachtree Road Race on July 4, 2024. Buckley and Northrop competed in the push-assist division of the race. (Photo by Ken Sugiura/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Photo by Ken Sugiura/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Photo by Ken Sugiura/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And to be able to share in that experience – lamenting the heat, comparing times and inspecting the finisher’s T-shirts – probably meant a little bit more to Erika and her Kyle Pease Foundation teammates than most.

Said Erika, “It’s fun racing.”

It’s not all Hallmark-movie tender moments. The fastest team in the men’s division was wheelchair athlete Ricardo Aranda of Mableton and pusher Nick Fragnito of Brookhaven. Speeding along in a custom-made wheelchair that cost somewhere around $9,000 (paid for through fundraising), Aranda won his third Peachtree, his first with Fragnito.

The 33-year-old Aranda has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. He used to play handball. A little confused, I asked him how he did that. He told me it was with the help of a guide telling him where to go. He did not miss the opportunity to make light of my question.

“You’re like, ‘Wait a second, this kid’s blind. How did he play?’” said Aranda, his voice animated. “Right?”

Yes, I said, that was exactly it.

“Hey, do you see my point now?” he asked, piling on. “Hey, Ken, do you see that?”

A competitive sort, Aranda takes the sport seriously and even calls himself a professional. Even without sight, he tried to coach Fragnito through the course Thursday. It’s his way into sports. He even has the talking points down.

“It’s not necessarily about the wins and losses and the world records or not,” said Aranda, who clearly was not giving his first interview. “At the end of the day, when you come out of those doors and off the racetrack, it’s about the relationships you’ve formed.”

Brent Pease, who established the foundation with his brother Kyle, was nearby, overhearing the interview and loving it. Brent likened Aranda’s style with media with the famous scene from the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” where career minor leaguer Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) instructs phenom Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) on how to spew meaningless platitudes to sportswriters.

“But that’s the point of the Peachtree for us,” Brent Pease said. “It’s supposed to be a competitive day, and Ricardo is such an amazing spirit. He’s such a wonderful human. And to him, (the Peachtree) is the Kentucky Derby. He is part of this elite event.”

The foundation, which coordinates push-assist teams and provides equipment, awarded $1,000 to each winner, specifically for the wheelchair athlete. During a post-race awards ceremony, when the wheelchair-assist winners were presented, a volunteer first tried to hand the first-place prize of a glass peach to Fragnito, who redirected her to Aranda.

While the sport satisfies his competitive urges, Aranda also sees push-assist racing as a way to advocate for the disabled and to break down stereotypes.

“I want to be seen not just as an athlete, but as an activist for disability rights,” he said.

Darden Glass being pushed by sister Anna Glass crosses the finish line at the 55th running of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on Thursday, July 4, 2024.   (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Darden Glass, 19, and her 17-year-old sister, Anna, of Sandy Springs, had a simpler ambition, though no less meaningful. The two sisters, both students at Riverwood High, saw wheelchair-assist racing as a way to spend time with each other. In last year’s Peachtree, their dad, David, pushed Darden, who has Down Syndrome, becoming the first father-daughter pair to take part in the division.

After that, “I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe I want to try that,’” said Anna, a rising senior and member of the Raiders’ track and cross-country teams.

The sisters mostly get along, but, naturally, not always. They fight sometimes about clothes or food. And when Anna sees Darden at school, Darden likes to keep her space from her younger sister.

“But it’s really nice having something to do with her when it’s just the two of us,” Anna said.

Sometimes, Anna said, Darden will ask her to go on a training run together on a trail along the Chattahoochee River.

Said Anna, “I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course.’”

On Thursday, as they made their way from Buckhead to Midtown. Anna provided the muscle, and Darden, adorned in star-spangled glasses, waved to fans and gave them the thumbs-up sign as they raced past. Their father ran alongside, pushing a neighbor.

They passed time by listening to Taylor Swift. Anna even ran up grueling Cardiac Hill without stopping.

“Here’s the thing,” Anna said. “You kind of have to do a little stutter step; it’s not like a full-on stride. But my calves were dying after that.”

Darden’s assessment of her sister as pusher: “She’s fine.”

They reached the finish line first in their division (they also were the only entrants in the female wheelchair athlete/female pusher group).

Community, inclusion, sisterhood.

On Thursday, there were prizes far more valuable than the finisher’s T-shirt.

To learn more about the Kyle Pease Foundation, please visit its website.

Watch as wheelchair races cross the finish line at the 2024 AJC Peachtree Road Race.