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Americus Times-Recorder Sports Editor Ken Gustafson participates in Atlanta’s 4th of July tradition: The Peachtree Road Race

ATLANTA – For the last 51 years, the city of Atlanta has enjoyed an annual tradition on the Fourth of July:  the running of the largest 10k race in the world, the Peachtree Road Race.  As a transplanted Atlantan living here in Americus, let me take the time to explain to you what it is like to wake up at the crack of dawn and participate for the 20th time in this much-enjoyed annual tradition.

With the exception of last year, when the race was done virtually due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, an estimated 60,000 runners from the elite level to the “weekend warrior” type gather every Fourth of July outside Phipps Plaza next to Lenox Square Mall at the start line from 6 a.m. till almost 8 a.m. to make the 6.2 mile journey down Peachtree Street through Buckhead and Downtown Atlanta to the finish line at Piedmont Park. They all have one goal: to claim the coveted Peachtree Road Race T-Shirt that symbolizes their accomplishment of finishing the race. Since 1997, yours truly has participated in this treasured tradition 20 times, with this year being the 20th.

According to information gained from Wikipedia, the first ever Peachtree Road Race was started by the Atlanta Track Club and took place back on July 4, 1970. On that day, there were only 110 runners participated and the race course went from the old Sears Building at the corner of Peachtree St. and Roswell Road to Central City Park, which is today Woodruff Park. From that day forward, the popularity of the race has grown year after year, so much so that 70,000 people register in March every year to be put into a lottery in hopes that they will be one of the 60,000 spots available.

Runners in time groups H. I, J, K and L gather at the start line to begin their running of the Peachtree Road Race on Sunday, July 4.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Before the runners begin the race, there is a wheelchair race that takes place around 6 a.m.  Then the seeded runners are the first go sometime between 7 a.m. and 7:30, followed by the sun-seeded runners and runners from several different time groups named after letters of the alphabet. By the time most of the other time groups start their 6.2-mile journey, the actual “race” has already been decided as the winner will have finished the race in well under 30 minutes, but to the thousands of other runners (and walkers) like myself, that doesn’t matter. We just want to finish and claim the T-Shirt.

Unlike most July 4 days in Atlanta, this year was a much cooler day, which is quite unusual.  In past years, it’s usually very humid and muggy, which is not surprising for Atlanta and all of Georgia.  However, being that I hadn’t trained for this race like I have in the past, I didn’t expect to finish under an hour, which is what most average runners want to do.  The Atlanta Track Club, the organization that operates the event, recommends that those who want to run a the race in a good time without struggling train months ahead of time by running 25 miles a week and run 6.2 miles once a week.

Yours truly takes a selfie while running in the early stages of the race.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Back in 2005, I was able to train close to that recommendation and finished the 2005 Peachtree Road Race in the approximate time of 58:47.  However, on all other occasions, including this year’s race, I finished in a time well over an hour, but what matters is that I finished and obtained the coveted t-shirt.

This year, the race organizers resumed the in-person race, but still did something slightly different due to the pandemic. They had two races: One on Saturday and the other on Sunday. I chose to do the one on Sunday to keep with the tradition of running on July 4.  Because of that, there weren’t as many runners on the course, which made it easier to move quicker. My goal this year wasn’t to run under an hour because I knew that wasn’t going to be possible. My goal this year, as it has been every year, was to keep running at a steady pace without stopping.
Due to the humidity and heat in past years, I wasn’t always able to reach that goal, but this year, I was. I finished somewhere in the neighborhood of one hour and 30 minutes, but I did it without stopping.

Left to right: Billy Grace and his wife, Christina Grace, McKenzie Potts and Evan Karavonic pose for a picture after completing the Peachtree Road Race. Christina Grace completed the race four months after having a baby.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

The first three miles of the course are flat. You run through Buckhead surrounded by high-rise condominiums, office buildings, businesses and churches.  You are surrounded on both sides of the street by volunteers and on lookers cheering you on and providing you water at the various water stations along the route. After a mile or so, and sometimes even before that, some will realize that keeping up a steady running pace is not for them and will therefore decide to walk.  Because of this, there is a rule of etiquette in this event: fast runners on the left and slow runners and walkers on the right.

Many participants dress on patriotic colors and will even run with American flags. I also witnessed some fire fighters running in their uniforms.  Along the way, some radio stations set up their booths and do their remote broadcasts while playing music for the runners as they pass by.  There is another tradition that has sprung in recent years along the course. As you pass the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, the Reverend Sam Candler is there to spray “Holy Water” on the runners as they pass by and he gives them a “Blessing from God”.
This year, there was also a “Holy Water misting station” outside the Cathedral.
That was a welcomed sight for me and I gladly ran through it.

Rev. Sam Candler of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip on Peachtree St. in Atlanta sprays “holy water” and gives out blessings to runners as they pass by while running in the Peachtree Road Race.
Photo by Anjali Huynh, Atlanta Journal Constitution

At the end of every mile, runners see the signs that they have completed that mile, which is a welcome site, but shortly after completing the third mile, the toughest part of the course looms ahead. It is known as “Cardiac Hill”.  It’s a long incline that runs along side Piedmont Hospital, which is on the left side of the road as the runners pass by on their way towards Downtown Atlanta and the final 2.2 miles.  I was able to keep a steady pace on this part of the course and managed to make it to the top of the hill without stopping.  Once past Cardiac Hill, with the exception of a slight incline before the course dog legs right into the city, the course is mostly flat. However, it does take some energy out of you, as it did me this year and in years past.

A water spray was set up outside the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta to give relief to the runners as they ran in the Peachtree Road Race.
Photo by Anjali Huynh, Atlanta Journal Constitution

Fortunately, however, I knew that the hardest part of the race was behind me and all I would have to do is keep that steady pace the rest of the way. A little ways just past the 4 mile marker, Peachtree Street makes a dog leg to the right and goes into Downtown Atlanta. In years past, I knew there were several stop lights I had to go through before the course made a dog leg to the left on to 10th Street for the final stretch towards Piedmont Park and the finish line.  The thing is I wasn’t exactly sure how many intersections I had to run through before that momentous left hand turn.

Yours truly, Ken Gustafson, is approaching the finish line of the Peachtree Road Race.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

As I kept running through the various intersections and still not seeing the runners ahead of me make the left turn, I was wondering when it would come.  This, in a way, is one of the toughest parts of the race. You know you are getting closer. The people alongside the road cheer you on and keep telling you that you are almost there, but you also know that you still have a ways to go and your body is reminding you that it would like to quit soon: perhaps sooner than you would like.

I counted the intersections up until the left turn on to 10th Street from where Peachtree Street makes that dog leg to the right into the city till the turn on to Juniper. It was 10 traffic lights. Yeah! I know what you’re thinking! 10 lights……Dahh.

Runners are pushing their way down Peachtree Street in the early stages of the Peachtree Road Race.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Once I got to 10th Street and saw the runners turn left, it was a wonderful feeling, as it was in previous years.  I wanted to run faster because I knew that I was getting closer and I certainly didn’t want to stop and walk as I was oh so close to reaching my goal of running without stopping. During that last stretch, you run by a blue marking in the road and some think that is the finish line, but it isn’t. It’s where they take pictures of the runners. The finish line is still a short way ahead. However, once I saw the beautiful trees and green grass of Piedmont Park, I knew I was close.

ATR Sports Editor Ken Gustafson takes a selfie of his hard-earned 2021 Peachtree Road Race t-shirt after completing the 6.2-mile race for the 20th time.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Then, I could see the finish line ahead of me. I summoned all of the energy I had left and sprinted the last couple of yards. Then when I saw the finish line right in front of me, I made sure I ran right through the finish line and slightly beyond it. At that moment, I knew that I had finished the course and it was a sweet relief. What’s more, I had also succeeded in reaching my goal. I completed the entire 6.2 miles without stopping at all.
Once I finished the race, I, along with the other runners who crossed the finish line, were funneled into Piedmont Park where we got some much-earned water and, most importantly, our Peachtree Road Race t-shirts.  I then found an official cameraman and got my picture taken of me after finishing the race.

Runners continue their trek down Peachtree St. in the 51st annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

I spoke to some other runners about their experiences running in the race. Stephen Chung and Philip Choi, both of Atlanta, finished the race in a little over an hour. Chung finished the 6.2 miles around 1:09.00, while Choi completed the race in just a little over an hour. For Chung, who was doing the race for the second time, the hardest part of the race for him was around Mile Marker 4, which is about where Cardiac Hill is. For Choi, who was running his fourth Peachtree Road Race, it was simply having to get up in the morning and getting to the start line. “I was thinking about not running it honestly,” Choi said.

Greg Hale of Atlanta has been running in every Peachtree Road Race since 1986, with the exception of one year. For him, the hardest part of the race was not Cardiac Hill. “A lot of people think that Cardiac Hill is hard, but Cardiac Hill is not hard,” Hale said. “The hardest one is coming up through Colony Square. To me, that’s harder.”

Americus Times-Recorder Sports Editor Ken Gustafson pushes his way towards the finish line at the 51st annual Peachtree Road Race.
Photo by Marathon Photos

I spoke with some other runners about their experiences in the race. For McKenzie Potts of Atlanta, this was her first ever Peachtree Road Race, but it was one that she enjoyed. “I enjoyed it. It was tough, but I finished in 1:09.00,” Potts said. “This was my first time running six miles ever.” For Potts, the hardest part of the race was around that 4-mile marker, which is about where Cardiac Hill is. For Evan Karavonic, who was participating in the race for the fourth time, the hardest part for him was right when the course goes into Midtown, a section of Downtown Atlanta. “It’s a home stretch. Luckily, you’ve past most of the big hills,” Karavonic said. “It’s a great tradition of Atlanta and the fact that it was over two days was a great tradition to start of having a weekend full of running and Atlanta celebration. I was glad to do it.” Billy and Christina Grace were both ran in the race, but Christina was doing it after having given birth four months ago. Billy asked his wife what the hardest part for her was and she simply said: “all of it”.

: Yours truly approaches Mile Marker 6. Only 0.2 miles left to go.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

For myself, as well as the other runners I spoke to and thousands of others, the main goal that we all wanted to accomplish on this Fourth of July was not necessarily to finish in a certain time, but to finish so that we would all have that sense of accomplishment and enjoyment that the Peachtree Road Race brings every year at this time. After the race was over, many runners will walk to the nearest restaurant to get some well-earned food and drinks.

Myself and Southland Academy baseball standout Chase Ledger pose for a picture after we both completed the 2021 Peachtree Road Race.
Submitted Photo

As I was walking up the hill on 10th Street watching the other runners and walkers make their way to the finish line, a familiar voice called out my name. It was Chase Ledger, who competes for Southland Academy in baseball, basketball and other sports. He and his family were in Atlanta to take part in the race. I hope that others in Americus and Sumter County will at least once make the trip up to Atlanta to take part in the wonderful July 4 tradition of the running of the Peachtree Road Race. It’s challenging and at times difficult, but it’s a lot of fun as well.