As AJC Peachtree Road Race resumes pre-pandemic form, ‘back to old times’

Runners make their way to cross the finish line  during the second day of 2021 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Sunday, July 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Runners make their way to cross the finish line during the second day of 2021 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Sunday, July 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Even when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race took its hiatus from its standard July 4 form because of COVID-19, Linda Buckley did not abandon the race she had run every year since her first Peachtree in 2000. Buckley has run marathons, half-marathons and several shorter road races, “but my favorite is the Peachtree Road Race,” she said. “I won’t miss that for anything.”

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She kept on completing the Peachtree even though COVID-19 precautions required that the 2020 and 2021 versions were not the same as the ones that she had come to love, when she joined tens of thousands huffing and puffing the 10-kilometer journey down Peachtree Road and Peachtree Street from Buckhead to Piedmont Park, cheered on by thousands more, a sweaty celebration of country and health, family and friendship.

In 2020, she joined friends on Thanksgiving weekend, when the race was staged in a virtual-only format, running a loop around Stone Mountain.

“It wasn’t the same,” Buckley said.

Last year, when the race was held both in-person (on July 3 and July 4, to spread out runners and walkers as a COVID precaution) and virtually, she again chose to keep her distance and knocked out the 6.2 miles at Stone Mountain again.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable at that time (to return to the in-person race),” Buckley said.

This year, though, Buckley, a 56-year-old licensed clinical social worker from Lithonia, will rejoin the masses at the world’s largest 10K race. Under the direction of the Atlanta Track Club, the Peachtree will again take on the look and feel of the event so familiar to Georgians who make the event, defined by star-spangled outfits, supporters passing out beer and other refreshments and the prized finisher’s T-shirt, an Independence Day staple. After two years of disparate and subdued Peachtrees, track-club executive director Rich Kenah told the AJC that the club and its 3,700 volunteers looked forward to delivering what he termed a “traditional AJC Peachtree Road Race” on Monday.

“It’s been since 2019 since we’ve done a one-day Peachtree, so we’re knocking the rust off a little bit,” Kenah said. “But we’ll be ready by race day.”

So will Buckley and, presumably, the rest of the roughly 46,000 participants expected to cross the start line in front of Lenox Square on Monday morning. As is her Peachtree custom, she’ll lay out her race outfit the previous night (her plan as of Thursday was a lime-green T-shirt and capri pants), meet up with friends pre-dawn at the Indian Creek MARTA station and make their way to Buckhead.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Buckley said. “Oh, yeah. All the people and the excitement. I’m just looking forward to it.”

Bill Nemeth is another longtime AJC Peachtree Road Race participant, having volunteered in the start area since 1984. Since 1985, he has run the course after finishing his volunteer duties. He ran the race virtually in 2020 – “It was strange, but we got it in.” Last year, he helped raise and take down the 30-foot by 60-foot American flag that hung over the start line both July 3 and 4 (Nemeth said that the giant flag is stored in a red, white and blue trash bin on wheels) and then went down the race course on the second day, reaching the finish line as the finish area was being disassembled.

“It’s kind of back to old times,” said Nemeth, 79.

The field will be smaller than the 60,000 that has been the race’s max (excluding the past two years) since 2011. Including those taking part virtually – an option that the club continues to offer – about 47,000 participants are expected. That includes the elite field, headlined by Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto, the world-record holder in the 10K and the 2019 Peachtree champion. The reduction follows with other major road races that also have seen their participation numbers fall as they have returned to full-field in-person races. Irv Batten, race director of the popular Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, S.C., said that races have seen fields decrease by as much as 35% from their pre-pandemic highs.

“I think everybody across the whole industry is feeling the same thing,” he said. “I just think it’s going to take a few years for the numbers to get back up.”

The reduced demand led the track club to adjust its approach to registration. Where, for years, the club accepted registrations for a two-week period in March, Kenah re-opened registration in May for another two weeks after thousands of Peachtree hopefuls asked to be included. Registration indicated that that group, which make up about 10% of the field, skewed younger than the original set of registrants.

“So one of the main learnings that I have, and one of the trends that we’re seeing is people are not making decisions about their activities until closer to that activity,” Kenah said. “So that’s a significant shift, and I’m not sure that’s going to go back to the way it was before. So that’s causing us to think about 2023 already and say, ‘How do you create registration options for people so you meet them where they are?’”

Combined ShapeCaption
Longtime AJC Peachtree Road Race participant Linda Buckley (right) poses with friend Missouri Neely in Piedmont Park after completing the 2019 race. Buckley is such a fan of the race that, since running her first in 2000, she has brought about 15 friends with her over the years, including Neely. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Longtime AJC Peachtree Road Race participant Linda Buckley (right) poses with friend Missouri Neely in Piedmont Park after completing the 2019 race. Buckley is such a fan of the race that, since running her first in 2000, she has brought about 15 friends with her over the years, including Neely. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Combined ShapeCaption
Longtime AJC Peachtree Road Race participant Linda Buckley (right) poses with friend Missouri Neely in Piedmont Park after completing the 2019 race. Buckley is such a fan of the race that, since running her first in 2000, she has brought about 15 friends with her over the years, including Neely. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Limited registration actually will re-open again at the race expo, to be held Saturday and Sunday at the Georgia World Congress Center. Race bibs will be available until the field fills at 50,000.

COVID precautions that were taken for the in-person race last year, such as COVID-sniffing dogs and proof of vaccination, will not be in place this year.

“There’s not been evidence that an outdoor endurance event could be a super-spreader event, so we feel confident that we can hold this event safely,” Kenah said.

The field will include Bill Thorn of Tyrone, who is planning to finish his 53rd Peachtree and hold onto his title as the only person to have completed every Peachtree. Thorn, 91, will take advantage of the virtual option and has a course laid out in his neighborhood that he plans to complete Monday morning with the aid of a walker and the company of family and a neighborhood friend. Thorn will attempt the race despite a balky left knee and ankle.

“I hope it’ll hold up,” Thorn said Friday. “I guess it’ll just depend on how much pain I can deal with.”