EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Atlanta Track Club’s Rich Kenah on planning the AJC Peachtree

Atlanta track club’s Executive Director Rich Kenah near their indoor track at the track club’s office in Atlanta June 4, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Atlanta track club’s Executive Director Rich Kenah near their indoor track at the track club’s office in Atlanta June 4, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

While other sporting events and leagues have canceled or postponed games out of concern for the spread of COVID-19, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race continues to be scheduled for the Fourth of July, as it has every year since its inception in 1970.

Atlanta Track Club executive director Rich Kenah, supervising his seventh AJC Peachtree, spoke with the AJC on Tuesday to explain that decision and other matters surrounding the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the world’s largest 10-kilometer race.

Q: When everything is in flux, how do you proceed on the race and track-club matters in general?

A: I'll start with track-club matters in general. The health and safety of our participants in the running and walking community has always been our No. 1 priority, so we have proactively communicated with the community to say that all of our programming for the month of March and April has been suspended. We have no in-person programming through May 1, and as we get to April, we have told everyone that we will re-evaluate and make decisions from there.

We do between 30 and 40 events and programs a year, so there have been a significant number of our activities that have already been impacted. So that’s holistically, the organization.

With respect to Peachtree, we’ve divided this almost into two sections: Our day-to-day planning for the Peachtree, which we always do, so some percentage of our staff are working on the Peachtree as they always would and working through the registration process.

And some percentage of our staff are working through contingency plans in the unlikely scenario that we’re unable to host the event as we normally do on the Fourth of July. So, (we’re) thinking through all the options that we should be considering around the 51st running of the Peachtree.

Q: When you made the announcement about the track club’s plans to go forward with the race as planned, I think you said something about how in talking with experts, you had not received any guidance that the Peachtree was at risk of not happening. Does that remain the case?

A: It has not changed. Before we hit go, we consulted with the constituent groups that are involved with helping us organize and execute the event every year. And without exception, we got the green light and said, 'Yes, that is something that we should all look forward to.'

Now, all of those people are rightfully focused on other things at the moment, more important things that are built around the health and the safety of the community today. We recognize that we’ve never been through something like this, but we also recognize that it is important for us as an organization — our mission is to make Atlanta healthier through running and walking — that we shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines and wait.

We should plan for Independence Day such that we will deliver the best Peachtree to date. And if for some reason, this pandemic is not sufficiently in the rearview mirror for the city of Atlanta, then we will re-evaluate as we get closer.

Q: I don’t know how much you got in the details with the experts you’ve spoken with, but does that mean that their expectation is that by that time, or even earlier, as you’ll need to have your people together to prepare for the race, that the pandemic will be sufficiently under control by then?

A: I think the one thing our country has learned in this last 10-day period is we now know what we don't know. And to make predictions about what will be happening more than 100 days from now is just reckless. So, absent information that says, 'Hey, listen, there's a very good chance that this won't happen,' or, 'Hey, you're 100 percent a go,' it's our obligation to plan the best Peachtree possible, and that's what we're doing – with the understanding that we have a significant number of our staff who are spending every day figuring out sort of what the impacts could be on this year's race.

Q: Have you gotten, whether informed or otherwise, feedback of, “I’m not sure this is a good idea” from participants, leaders in the community or elsewhere?

A: As we've communicated with many hundreds of thousands of people who have participated in the Peachtree over the last number of years, another thing we've learned is the power of the Peachtree remains profound. The tens of thousands of people who have already registered in this environment of uncertainty shows how important the Peachtree is to the community.

So I would say tens of thousands of people have indeed spoken by registering. We have received feedback from a very small number of people who have questioned why we are continuing. And our focus has been to try to respond to every single one of those people, to explain the process that we’re following. And once we have that conversation, they seem to understand and support what we’re doing.

Q: Have the registration numbers tracked with other years?

A: I think it's important for me to be totally transparent with our community. I see this conversation with you as the opportunity to talk directly to our community. We were, in the first few days, pleasantly surprised that registration was actually tracking ahead of every year with the exception of last, which was the 50th year and then there was just increased interest.

So that was over the first three or four days. Over the last three or four days, we’ve started to see some of that weaken. But the reality is, in every registration period, every lottery that we have, the last 24 to 48 hours of that period are the busiest. So it remains to be seen on where we will land with registration totals for this year.

Q: I’m sure you’re following the protocols for social distancing and work-from-home and so forth. With the logistical matters that you have to handle, you’ll have to get together at some point. What is that point?

A: So our staff of almost 35 people have gotten intimately familiar with Google Hangouts over the last two weeks, and so we've been working remotely just like most of Atlanta has been. And our message has been clear to our staff and to our volunteers and to those runners and walkers out there who are looking for some guidance. We're saying, 'Hey, go out, get your aerobic exercise, but do it in a socially responsible way and socially distanced way.'

As a matter of fact, we have our Northside Hospital Atlanta Women’s 5K on April 11, which we have now turned into a virtual 5K, so we did not cancel it. We turned it into a virtual race so that the women of Atlanta can participate with each other in a way that is socially distant, and they’ll receive their T-shirt and their medal in the mail.

So right now, we’re feeling our way through how we do our work and conduct our business. As we get into the month of May and June, to your point, it’ll be critically important that we are able to conduct our business in a way that is sort of more like we do in an everyday year. We’re not there yet. With each day that passes, we incur more cost around the Peachtree. So that’s a factor in terms of how we make our decision-making process.

But I’d say the primary two drivers are, can we do this safely? And, two, what sort of communication is our participant base looking for from us based on what’s happening in the world today?

So I think that the two primary drivers will not be the costs incurred. It will be what do we anticipate the Fourth of July to look like in terms of the environment that we’re operating in? And, two, are those who have registered continuing to be patient and do they want us to continue to wait to make a decision if we were to have to make some adjustments to this year’s plan.

Q: Along those lines, I know you want things to be more black-and-white and less gray, but, in talking with your experts, is there a time in the next three months that you feel like, OK, by this point we should know pretty clearly whether it’s a go or not?

A: At this point, no. To be totally honest, we do not have a pin in the calendar. We've never experienced anything like this, right? We know how to deal with a lightning strike on race day. We know how to deal with a T-shirt shortage. We know how to deal with a drought that prevents us from using Piedmont Park.

But in all the contingency plans that we’ve ever had, this one has never factored in. So short answer is, I don’t have a pin in the calendar to say, ‘This is the tipping point; this is the date.’ Rather, we’re saying, we are planning for the Peachtree. Full stop.

And if at some point, it becomes apparent to us that we’re unable to hold the Peachtree on the Fourth of July, then we’re going to do X, Y and Z.

Q: You had mentioned you have people working on a contingency plan. Do you know what a postponement would look like?

A: No. We have an idea, and if you don't mind, I'll jump right into the question around registration dollars. Organizations that put on endurance events around the world almost uniformly register people under a no-refund policy. And we're in a unique position here in that everyone who is registering for this event is registering with the full understanding that the country is in the midst of dealing with a pandemic.

And historically, we have had a no-refund policy. In our waiver, it says we have a no-refund policy. Three weeks ago, the Tokyo Marathon was canceled. And the tens of thousands of people who participated in the Tokyo Marathon were told, ‘The event has been canceled. There are no refunds. We will guarantee you a slot in next year’s race, but you’ll need to pay again.’

When we launched registration, we came to our community and said the following: While we normally register everyone historically under a no-refund policy, we’re unsure where we’re going to land. But what we can tell you is we’re not just going to take your registration dollars. If, for some reason, there is an adjustment to this year’s race – postponement, cancellation or other – we will come back to you with some options and some consideration.

And those could be a postponement to another date, it could be a cancellation until next year where you have free registration next year and a guaranteed entry. It could be some percentage refund. It could be a 100% refund.

And I would say the one bit of feedback that we’ve gotten from our community is, Can you just tell us whether you will be able to refund our dollars? And we thought it at the time and continue to think that it’s reckless to simply say, ‘Yes, this is what we’re going to do.’

Rather, we’re going to give you the commitment that we’re not just going to take your registration dollars, your hard-earned money and not provide you with options and consideration if for some reason the race doesn’t happen in 2020.

And I know that that’s not a black-and-white answer that some people would like, but I’m hoping that people recognize and realize that that’s an honest answer and we would rather be honest and transparent than play a game where we take your registration dollars and then decide what we’re going to do.

Q: Have you given thought to simply pushing it back to Labor Day or whatever day and going from there?

A: Yes. We have thought, and we have pages and pages of notes with various solutions. But there's no more certainty in Aug. 4 or Sept. 4 than there is in July 4.

So, it makes perfect sense for us to plan the Peachtree on July 4 until such time that it becomes clear that that is not in the best interest of the city of Atlanta and those who are participating in this year’s race. To be clear, we have no indication at this point that that will be the case.

And if you don’t mind, I’ll add to that. In 2001, I had registered for the New York City Marathon. The New York City Marathon happens in early November. So it was less than two months after Sept. 11. As the participants were being driven from Midtown down to the start line on the Verrazzano Bridge, we drove close enough to downtown where we could see smoke still coming from a smoldering Ground Zero. I’m not sure whether it was appropriate at that time to hold the New York City Marathon less than two months after Sept. 11.

But what I can say is it gave New York something to look forward to and it brought that city to life in a way that it had not seen since Sept. 11. And while this is something totally different, we at Atlanta Track Club feel that it is our responsibility to continue to plan for the Fourth of July because this is our annual celebration.

And it would be in many ways reckless for us to fold up our tent and to say, “Hey, you know, we don’t know what the world’s going to look like on July 4. We’re just going to take this year off.”

That’s not what we do at Atlanta Track Club. We put on the Peachtree. And I think if I can draw some parallel to 2001, this is our New York City Marathon, and this is what we are looking forward to.

Q: On a scale of 1-10, what’s your confidence that you’ll be running on the Fourth?

A: As I've watched press conferences both in Washington and New York City and the state of New York and the state of Georgia, the one thing that I've learned is that the smartest people in the world – the experts on infectious diseases and economic impact – don't know what next week is going to look like, never mind what 3-1/2 months from now will look like.

I’ll stop short of saying a number there, but I will say that I am 100% confident that Atlanta Track Club will be ready to bring the Fourth of July to life in Atlanta as it normally does.

Q: As a past Olympian and someone who is obviously paying a lot of attention to this, I'm curious what sort of thoughts you had about where this summer's Games stand? (The Tokyo Olympics were postponed Tuesday morning shortly after the interview was conducted, but after news broke Monday about the impending decision.)

A: I saw the (reports Monday), and I breathed a bit of a sigh of relief. I thought it was a prudent decision by the IOC.

The Olympics are so different than the Peachtree. The Olympics bring together the world. Literally hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, get on an airplane, visit a hotel, visit restaurants, attend indoor and outdoor venues and interact in a grand athletic and social event.

The Peachtree is a local phenomenon. More than 90% of the people who participate in the Peachtree are from the state of Georgia. So I understand when people say, ‘Hey, the Olympics are canceled. Why are you still planning the Peachtree?’ I say it was the right decision to cancel the Olympics because of all the things that I just mentioned.

The Peachtree is a local phenomenon, and the decision around this year’s Peachtree should be driven by local officials, a local organization like the Atlanta Track Club who will understand what is happening locally in the days and weeks leading up to the Fourth.