When Bill Thorn, a fellow who could teach the Capistrano swallows something about being a creature of habit, was just entering his 30s he decided to take up running. And when he decides to do something, it is with the binding commitment of a wireless service contract, only much longer.
A high school football and track coach who was just getting started on a loooong life of coaching, Thorn thought it only fitting that he kept himself fit.
“He read a book about doing certain things to get in shape,” Thorn’s wife, Patty, recalled. “He figured running was the best thing because you just needed a pair of shoes.”
“He was trying to keep healthy. As a coach he was saying, ‘I’m not going to ask anybody to do something that I can’t do.’ This has always been his philosophy,” she said.
By 1970, working at a long-gone high school south of town, Thorn had taken up with a few other like-minded runners, hardly a rough crowd.
“They heard that this guy who was going to have a race on the Fourth of July. It was, oh, we’ll go run,” Patty said.
You see, the first of what is now called the AJC Peachtree Road Race was as much rumor as fact, a quirky newborn idea that was passed around by word of mouth among a very small community. Run 6.2 miles in the pressing heat of the southern summer? Run right through the heart of Atlanta, without becoming a hood ornament? Can that be real?
A hardy band of 110 runners finished the first Peachtree (of 150 starters), with a full 2.7 percent of those being Thorns. Bill had brought his two sons, one 10, one 6, at a time when the Peachtree was in no position to reject any applicant on the basis of age. And Thorns, be they children or adult, always finish what they start.
As best he remembers, Bill finished somewhere in the mid-70s that first race. His two sons, both under the age of 11, were not too far behind. “The little one didn’t do bad at all. I don’t know if he had ever run that far,” Bill said. “I can see him coming down the hill toward the finish line, with a shoe in each hand. He had taken his shoes off and was running on that hot pavement.”
Bill doesn’t plan to finish quite that high this July 4. But then, the race has grown somewhat in last half century, to a pulsing mass of around 60,000. And he’s 88 now.
Through all the great growth spurts, and all the alterations to the soul of this race and all the very valid excuses to skip a hot run on the holiday, there is one person who has run every Peachtree. Just one. Bill Thorn, part man, part metronome.
“Nobody is as consistent as my dad, that’s for sure,” his daughter Cheryl Thrasher said.
“I remember years ago we were thinking, you know, wish we could make it to the 50th. That seemed like such a long way away, and it’s actually here,” she said.
To understand the iron man of the Peachtree, just look at how Thorn has lived his life. Only this year did he retire from coaching, going out in style with a Class A-Private state championship in boys track and field at Fairburn’s Landmark Christian. It was the 38th state championship won by one of his teams over a coaching career that stretches back nearly 50 years at a handful of schools.
The discipline he demanded from his teams – he coached just about everything from football to cross country – was no less than he demanded of himself. How does one run in 50 Peachtree Road Races, into his late 80s? Don’t look for an easy answer. Thorn points to an uncompromising daily workout regimen as the one sure way to be one of a kind in a field of thousands.
The first Peachtree was almost a whim. Thorn gathered with his fellow pioneers at the intersection of Roswell and Peachtree roads in Buckhead – for a start that contained no more fanfare than the sound of the starter’s pistol. The finish then was just outside the Equitable Building downtown, where a bubbling fountain beckoned the flushed runners.
“All the people who gathered around the finish, we all knew each other. It was like a big family,” he said. “We were the ones who showed up and ran in whatever somebody came up with to run in. People were walking around in fountain cooling off and throwing water on you. You see how quickly that changed.”
There was an intimacy to that first race that was special. “I’m thankful because I got in that group,” Thorn said. “I wasn’t any kind of a runner, and I’m still not. But I like to feel I represent all those other people out there in all those races, they’re what makes those races. Yes, it’s good to recognize all the elite runners and give them gifts and whatever. But that race is strictly about all the others. (Late AJC columnist Furman Bisher) called all of us the duffers. He felt it was always about the numbers, the average people in the crowd.”
There was scarce little traffic control when the runners hit Peachtree, but honestly, there was scarce little traffic on that Fourth of July morning in Atlanta. There were no elaborate water stops along the route. No cheering crowds. No T-shirt giveaway at the end of that first Peachtree. Certainly no microchip recording finish times – finishers were handed index cards on which they wrote down the time they heard from a stopwatch-wielding volunteer as they crossed the line.
As each year passed, and more and more people entered the Peachtree but fewer and fewer could claim to have run in every one, Thorn began to look at this event as a holy obligation. It fell to a man who treasured constancy to become a Peachtree constant.
One year he almost missed the start, sitting in a portable toilet when he heard the gun go off. “I came out of there flying,” he said. And, thankfully, with running shorts up where they should be.
He might have missed another with a bum ankle. But didn’t. Nothing less than an open fracture was going to keep him from his appointed start.
“The Fourth of July, you knew you were going to be right here,” his wife said, “and you would be careful and not do anything to hurt yourself before the Fourth. It was a known thing that is what we’d do.”
“(The streak) never really became a big thing until well after the 25th Peachtree, before we started realizing there were only a few people who had run every single one,” his daughter Lynn said. “Then, wow, we’re on a streak here. Finally, for dad it was like, OK, I’m the only one, got to make a point to be there every year.”
The 50th will be a chance for an entire family to celebrate Bill Thorn’s stubborn streak. His wife and four children are entered. Grandchildren, too. And one great-grandchild. They’ll run. They’ll walk. They will, by all means, finish.
Thorn likens getting ready to run a Peachtree – as well as most other of life’s challenges – to preparing for a test in school. If you haven’t been serious about your studying, he said, then you don’t even want to go to school that day. But if you have prepped properly, you’re ready to practically rip the classroom door off its hinges to get to that exam.
The 51st Peachtree, he can’t speak for. Who can know? For the 50th, though, Thorn said he is ready.
“I’m ready to kick that door down as long as I can kick it down,” he said.
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