What it's like running the AJC Peachtree twice in one day

Ahhh, the Fourth of July in Atlanta can only mean one thing … The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race. The largest 10K run in the world, with 60,000 people making their way along on the most famous street in Atlanta.

I’ve photographed the race a dozen times, sometimes covering elite athletes crossing the finish line at a blistering, unthinkable pace and sometimes shooting everyday Atlantans as they celebrate the holiday with a 6.2-mile parade down Peachtree.

So, is the Peachtree Road Race a race to be run at top speed, or is it a celebration to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace? To find out I decided to toe the line twice this year, once with the “A” wave to try to beat my best 10K time of 48 minutes and once with the final “Y” wave, where I would take my time and enjoy the sights, sounds and crowds.

The race

As I waited for the 7:30 a.m. start of the “A” wave, the weather was perfect for a fast run. A light rain was keeping it much cooler than normal, which meant no need to worry about overheating. The one thing that concerned me was the crowd. People have told me that there is no way to run the race fast, unless you start with the elite runners. There are just too many people getting in your way to run fast.

To my surprise, that wasn’t an issue. After crossing the start line, the pack quickly spread out enough that it was easy to hold my pace without having to zigzag around slower runners or people walking in the middle of the course.

Before I made it to the heart of Buckhead, I noticed that the runners around me were all seriously running, and there was no idle talk going on. There were still plenty of spectators cheering us on and plenty of music playing, but those were the only sounds I heard other than the pounding of shoes and the deep breathing that comes with hard work.

Racing requires a lot of concentration and focus if you want to be fast (at least it does for me). Am I running too fast? What’s the best line through this corner? Am I drinking enough to stay hydrated without drinking so much that I get a cramp? Should I rest on this downhill stretch, or bomb it to make up some time?

This barrage of questions going through my brain certainly helps me get down the course faster, but it keeps me from being able to soak up my surroundings. I consciously tried to take in some of the race festivities, but my mind kept returning to the work of racing. All of a sudden I was turning onto 10th Street and heading for Piedmont Park.

I crossed the finish line with a time of 43 minutes — five minutes faster than my previous personal-best 10K time. After a few minutes trying to catch my breath, I realized that the Peachtree Road Race was indeed a great race that could be run fast.

The return

Now the hard part of my day was about to begin. I had 50 minutes to get back to Buckhead so I could make the start of the last wave, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. I grabbed my running vest from AJC photographer Hyosub Shin, who was covering the finish line, and hit the road.

Because I had a media pass for the race, I was able to skip Piedmont Park and take Ninth Street toward the MARTA station. It looked as if I would cut it close, so I broke into a slow jog as I downed a recovery drink I had stashed in my vest.

When I got to the MARTA station it was nearly deserted, but I had to wait 10 minutes before the next northbound train pulled in. While I hated having to wait that long, it did give me an opportunity to stretch my legs, which were a little sore from the run.

The train, mostly empty save for a few folks late for their start wave, pulled into the Buckhead station, and I hopped out and took off. I was still worried that I would miss the 9:05 start for the final wave, but as I neared the start line, I heard that the race was on hold because of a lightning delay. It was raining harder now, so I grabbed an umbrella someone had jettisoned at the start line and popped it open for my walk to the back of the pack.

The Fun Run

The 40-minute delay and buckets of rain did absolutely nothing to dampen the energy of the last-wave runners. As the announcer counted down the last minute to the start, people talked, laughed, cheered and yelled, then gushed through the start gate. This wave seemed to be the polar opposite of the first wave. A few people took off at a full run, but most walked, jogged or trotted. This wave was all about having fun.

I crossed the line with my head on a swivel, looking left and right to find interesting people and scenes to photograph. This run was all about having fun and documenting the event. I stopped to photograph Atlanta icon Baton Bob, a couple of guys offering runners free hugs and Dean Sam Candler, who always stands outside The Cathedral of St. Philip to bless runners with holy water.

The crowds along Peachtree were pretty thin compared with previous years because of the storms and the lightning delay, and many organized tents were packing up and calling it a day. I had worked up quite a thirst, so as I worked my way down the course, photographing runners and walkers, I kept my eye out for anyone offering beer. Unfortunately the Sweet Water truck had turned off its taps and most other people along the course had run out.

Four miles into the run I asked a group of folks on the sidewalk if they had an extra beer they could spare. It turns out I used to go to church with them and, being good Lutherans, they immediately whipped out an ice-cold can to quench my thirst. After catching up for a few minutes, I continued on toward Piedmont Park.

After an hour and a half I crossed the finish line and collected my T-shirt. It had been a whirlwind day, and I had run the 2015 AJC Peachtree Road Race twice.

Did I answer the question of whether it’s a race or a celebration? Yes, it’s both, and the beauty of it is that you can decide which you want it to be.