Among the duties that came with being Tim Singleton’s son were certain ones that involved pre-dawn roustings, long, sleepy waits, waves of sweaty humanity and the intoxicating aroma of a Magic Marker.
Because when Tim Singleton was giving birth to another road race — and he was always doing that, spreading the gospel of running with evangelistic zeal — the whole family was swept into the vortex.
“Dad started all kinds of races,” Tim Singleton Jr. said of his father, who died in 2013, at the age of 76.
Why? “What I always tell people is my dad was super competitive. He was a fantastic athlete,” testified his son of the one-time football player for Bobby Dodd and captain of the track team at Georgia Tech who went on to teach and administer at colleges in Georgia and Texas. Just how athletic did he remain? Singleton would sometimes get his students’ attention on the first day of class by walking into the room on his hands.
“After college there weren’t any chances to compete, he just started creating races. It was an opportunity for everybody to get together and compete,” Singleton Jr. said. “Dad was the type of personality that whatever he was doing, well, everyone else has got to want to do that same thing. He’d be having fun doing something, then everyone else should, too.”
On race day, Singleton and his wife would rise in the darkness first. Then shake awake their two boys and chunk them in the back seat. It was Tim’s job to number index cards with the marker, one for each runner in the race. Then take his position at the finish, wait for the runners to appear and hand each a card, in the order of their finish. His brother posted up at the finish, stretching the string that the winner would break. His mom, with stopwatch in hand, would shout out times as the runners finished, and it was up to them to fill out their card with the best estimate of their times and hand it back in to another Singleton.
Those were the labors of Tim Singleton’s love.
And the routine was usually the same, just as charmingly unsophisticated for one brand new race down Peachtree Street on the Fourth of July 1970. The AJC Peachtree Road Race as it would come to be known, the singular Singleton running invention, a massive undertaking these days, began as the humblest kernel of an inspired idea.
A crowd of 60,000 will run the 50th Peachtree this July Fourth, only about 400 times the number who ran Singleton’s first race (150 started, 110 finished). Tim Jr. was there for the first one, and he’ll drive in from his home in Huntsville, Ala., to run the 50th. Certain anniversaries are just undeniably important. He was there for the 45th, too, concluding his run by spreading some of his father’s ashes near the finish line at Piedmont Park. A fitting resting place for someone to whom running was so dear.
In the late 1960s, Singleton chaired the road-race committee of the Atlanta Track Club. Committee members were assigned the task of plotting courses for club members to run on the weekends. Singleton excelled at this, a gift that would come in handy when he was measuring off a course along Peachtree in 1970.
A hurdler in high school and college, his running dimensions would expand greatly. “Once he started with this dream of running the Boston Marathon, he realized the psychological benefits that runners get that hurdlers do not get, and he became infatuated with the whole lifestyle,” Jeff Galloway, the Peachtree’s first winner, said. “He used his imagination to find better ways of attracting people to running.”
He was in many ways inventive when it came to running. When he first started on the roads, Singleton found it most comfortable to wear a pair of cut-off football pants. “Nobody did that then, but today everyone has compression shorts. Dad was a little ahead of his time,” Tim Jr. said.
“There was an addictive quality to it. He went 10 consecutive years without missing a day running,” his son said. Years later, after he had moved to teach business management at a small college in Houston, Singleton picked up a virus that weakened his heart and stole from him the pleasure of running. But he indulged that passion for as long as he could.
The Peachtree Road Race may well have been born in a VW Microbus, on a hot drive home from Columbus in 1969. Singleton had taken three of his Georgia State cross country runners to run with the troops on the Fourth of July at Fort Benning. It was cramped - one his guys adding a big trophy to the load - and the air conditioning was out. There had to be a better way to spend a holiday.
“On the way back they were talking, saying we don’t need to be coming down here for this, we should be doing a race in Atlanta,” Tim Jr. said. “He got the idea we need to run right down Peachtree Street. The way my dad was, once he got an idea he started working on it.”
Just how simple was the first Peachtree?
“I’d offer to help and his reply was, ‘Uh, no, I’ve got it all in the trunk of my VW van.’ Which he did,” Galloway said.
According to a recent Atlanta Track Club story on Singleton, appearing on the site Peachtree50.com, Singleton started the race at a bargain: A $25 parade permit from the city. He convinced four policemen to volunteer as race security. And at the finish, he handed out 15 cents to each runner for bus fare back to their cars.
The story goes that Singleton initially measured the course — different than today’s – with his car odometer. And, wrote Karen Rosen in her book “Twenty-five Years of the Peachtree Road Race”: “A more accurate survey a couple of years later revealed it to be more in the neighborhood of six miles.” Galloway disputes that notion. Regardless of how much tired runners may like the idea of shaving two-tenths of a mile off their holiday run, be assured they are running every step of a 10K today.
No T-shirts were handed out that first race, but they were the next year, another Singleton idea.
“He got the (T-shirt) idea from the Boston Marathon,” his son said. “He ran tours to Boston for many years – Singleton Marathon Tours. That was a way for him to get his trip paid for. At Boston you had to finish inside three hours to get a T-shirt. He brought that idea back to the race. It was a big deal. I remember the early races, if you didn’t get your T-shirt it was a big deal (they were in lesser supply).”
Singleton served as race director of the Peachtree through 1975, seeing it through those difficult years of infancy.
“I’m not sure the race would have continued (without him),” Galloway said. “He relayed to me he got a lot of static running down Peachtree after he did it that first year. There were a lot of challenges he had to deal with. He had a full-time job, and he wasn’t getting paid for this at all.
“But he loved it and he nurtured it.”
And he was proud and little amazed at what it became, his son said.
“I think he was surprised how much the everyday person in Atlanta wanted to run that, and how it became a fabric of what people did on the Fourth of July in Atlanta, Ga.,” Tim Jr. said.
Ah, but there was one thing he absolutely hated on race day.
“He was not OK with people not queuing up properly and jumping in the race a mile or two miles down the race. Boy, he hated that,” his son remembered. “I remember one time, he was on a van, saw somebody coming in from the sidelines about two miles in, and he literally was booing him. Just abusing the guy.”
So, here on the 50th running, let’s everybody do this thing up right — by all means start properly and then finish with maybe just a brief, appreciative nod to the man who first thought it would be something special to mark Independence Day with a run through Atlanta’s iconic artery.
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