Monday morning was the first time that Irene Cheptai had made the 10-kilometer dash from Buckhead to Midtown in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. But the Kenyan needed to utter but 16 words in a non-native language to communicate a central truth about the Peachtree, completed Monday by about 39,000 runners and walkers in this annual celebration of country, family and health.
“The course is very tough, it was not easy and the weather is terrible,” said Cheptai, who was the second-place finisher in the women’s footrace. “Very humid.”
For the majority of the field who weren’t world-class athletes racing for prize money, the 53rd running of the Peachtree fit Cheptai’s description and also far more. Not limited by COVID-19 protocols for the first time since 2019, the Peachtree returned to the familiar and beloved form that has made the race the largest 10K in the world and a singular Atlanta Independence Day tradition.
“Everybody was excited, everybody was grouped together, pulling together,” said Barbara Ezell of Milledgeville, who completed her 16th consecutive Peachtree, including the 2020 virtual version and the 2021 race which was spread out over two days and also conducted virtually as a COVID precaution. “We were just glad to be together. It was very patriotic.”
Or, in the words of Atlanta Track Club executive director and Peachtree race director Rich Kenah: “We’re back.”
After overseeing alternate versions of the event the past two years – the 2020 Peachtree was held over Thanksgiving weekend – Kenah was in his post overseeing tens of thousands of participants, more than 3,000 volunteers and staff from Atlanta Fire, Atlanta Police and Grady EMS.
About 47,000 people registered to participate either virtually or in-person, with about 4,000 selecting the virtual option. The race has reached 60,000 in-person registrants previously; races nationwide have seen a dip in participation rates since in-person races began amid the pandemic.
“It was great to get back to that normal Peachtree feeling,” Kenah said in an interview with the AJC. “While clearly the pandemic is not completely behind us, it felt as if all of Atlanta celebrated in unison (Monday) in the spirit of Peachtree without having to see it through the lens of COVID.”
A desire to be a firsthand celebrant inspired Teresa Warstler of Asheville, N.C. Eight weeks ago, when Warstler fractured a bone in her left foot, she wasn’t sure she could take part. But she was determined to try to extend her Peachtree streak to 23 and renew a tradition that she has enjoyed with a group of friends, especially so since the race was being staged in its pre-COVID format. On Monday morning, she took the start line with her foot still protected by a walking boot. Warstler finished in 1 hour, 18 minutes and 46 seconds, about 16 minutes faster than her times recorded in training.
“I love this race,” she said.
Ajeenah Carroll felt the first twinges of the return of the familiar Peachtree when visiting the race expo at the Georgia World Congress Center this past weekend and then when joining the masses at the North Springs MARTA station making their way to the start line in Buckhead. Carroll ran her fifth Peachtree, fueled by a love for running and the challenge of setting personal bests.
“I love that it’s an Atlanta tradition; the race is fun,” she said. “I’m an introvert, but I love the crowds.”
Carroll, from Roswell, managed the humid conditions while wearing a Muslim head covering, leggings, shorts and a long-sleeve shirt.
“I wouldn’t do this for anything else but making God happy,” she said with a laugh.
Amid the runners dressed as bananas, wearing grass skirts and Hawaiian shirts and donning any number of variations of red, white and blue, Aprille Moore of Decatur made a particularly eye-catching fashion choice – a pearl necklace, pearl earrings and bright red lipstick – in homage to her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
“And how do you get through a whole race and still keep it together?” asked Moore, who ran the race with friend John Thomas of Atlanta. “You look good and you feel good and you run good.”
The heat and humidity, as they often are, were as much a part of the race as the cheering crowds, the massive start-line flag and the prized finisher’s T-shirt. The adverse weather conditions led Kenah to move the event to red-flag conditions (dangerous) at 9:19 a.m. from the yellow flag (use caution) that it started under, meaning participants were advised to consider stopping if they felt their condition worsening. At about that time – the first start wave after the elite racers left the start line at 7 a.m., with the last scheduled for 8:30 a.m. – the temperature was about 85 degrees with 79% humidity.
Kenah said that there was an average number of medical cases and fewer than 10 that were deemed serious enough to require transportation to a hospital. The last two starting groups were delayed about 15 minutes because of a medical emergency near the start of the course, Kenah said.
“Thankfully, we had a little bit of cloud cover that kept that sun off everyone until, really, right around 9 o’clock or so,” Kenah said.
By then, the elite racers were well off the course. Arguably the most successful was female wheelchair winner Susannah Scaroni of Urbana, Ill. The 2018 Peachtree champion, Scaroni was the only elite winner to break a course record – she finished in 21:14, 14 seconds better than the previous mark – and thus claimed all of the $53,000 available to anyone who lowered a Peachtree standard. Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto, the 2019 Peachtree champion and world-record holder in the 10K road race, won the men’s race in 27:26, the fifth fastest time in Peachtree history. Ethiopian Senbere Teferi won the women’s footrace in 30:49, edging Cheptai, and Daniel Romanchuk won the men’s wheelchair race for the fifth consecutive year, in 18:38, the race’s third-fastest time.
“The times they put up in these conditions are, in my opinion, world-record worthy,” said Kenah, a former Olympic distance runner.
A few weeks after winning gold in the 5,000 meters in the Paralympics in Tokyo last year, Scaroni was hit by a car while training in Urbana and suffered a burst fracture of her T8 vertebra. She was in a back brace for four months.
“So I know every race, getting to the start line feels like a win because I get to be here, but I’m really grateful for fast times, too,” Scaroni said.
A champion of a different sort completed his Peachtree miles away from Midtown. Tyrone resident Bill Thorn kept intact his status as the only person to have completed every Peachtree. Thorn, 91 and a member of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, did his Peachtree virtually on a course near his home.
Kenah, the race director, was witness to yet another sort of Peachtree champion as the final participants struggled to the finish line, long after the elites and even most of the participants had left Piedmont Park. Kenah said that he was near the corner of Peachtree and 10th Street when a straggler, making his way with the aid of a walking stick, asked if he would be allowed to finish and receive his finisher’s shirt – this year a turquoise shirt with a red, white and blue design featuring a peach overlaid on a map of Georgia.
“And I said, ‘Of course, you will,’” Kenah said. “And he broke down and started crying. He said, ‘People told me I couldn’t do it, there’s no way I could do it,’ Etc., etc. So those are the sorts of things that sort of stick with you.”