Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I Run The Peachtree

Submitted to the Peachtree Road Race magazine…

For me the entire Peachtree Road Race is a big adventure, from the entry process, the often tangled journey to the starting line, the familiar sights, faces, and memories along the race, the triumphant finish, and proudly wearing the T-shirt while watching fireworks that evening.

I’ve run 21 Peachtrees, and volunteered for two years before that. It’s become a great fitness habit that’s been passed down to my son: 2011 will be his eighth Peachtree. Much has changed since the late 80’s, and I often use my Independence Day mornings to reflect on many of these differences. For the first ten or so years my race times improved, and I enjoyed starting up front in Time Group One. As the years went by I would drop back to run with friends, neighbors, co-workers, my wife, and son.

The old Saturday ritual of buying a Sunday paper, clipping the entry form, and finding the right mailbox with Saturday afternoon pickup was time consuming, but it was the first steps of the journey. Next came the packet in the mailbox, hoping for a coveted silver number (I actually got it one year!). Chatting with friends about what Time Group we got (now this happens on Facebook). Even putting together my running outfit plays a part. Wearing something different every year, I often “know” when I’ve found just the right shirt.

Living in Morningside made the race commute easy. My wife would drop me off at Peachtree and Piedmont before the race, and afterwards I’d walk home. Now we drive down I-75, park near my old Greenwood Avenue apartment, and walk to MARTA. Even listening to the pre-race on WSB is part of the ritual. With a back-of-the-pack number one year, I determined it’s possible to watch the wheelchair FINISH and still have time to hop MARTA and make the race start, though I’ve never chanced it.

I like to get to in the starting group before it gets super crowded, but not TOO early. The huge American flag flutters in the morning breeze, the Star Spangled Banner is sung, and a patriotic feel sweeps over the masses. Planes pull signs, helicopters buzz about, and I feel part of something much bigger than myself. The race (and the people-watching) begin.

After the first half mile the pack thins, and I’m able to more enjoy my surroundings. The “new” Buckhead skyscrapers keep Peachtree shady and cool, before the bright sun appears as runners cross Piedmont. People line the streets, wearing red, white, and blue. Their cheers add to the excitement and give needed encouragement. In the early years Buckhead sidewalks were packed five deep, and crowds partied on the rooftops of bars. As I pass, I often remember this.

At certain spots in the race I instinctively look for familiar faces, like the elderly twin sisters seated in lawn chairs in front of Peachtree Methodist. Tears came to my eyes the first year one of the chairs sat empty, holding a picture of the twin who had passed away. At the water stop near West Paces Ferry I remember all the years Mr. Hooper passed out cups. I watch runners snag Publix donuts (never me!). Near Lindbergh I look right for Max Cleland, sitting near the brick mansion that was the setting for Anne Rivers Siddons novel, Peachtree Road. My grandmother lived three places along the route, so she also graces my mind.

At the two mile mark I’m welcomed by many familiar faces: my old friends from Second-Ponce de Leon. After over 50 friends greeted me one year, a nearby runner wondered if I was running for office! Lately I’ve stopped to chat, using it as a rest stop.

Peachtree Battle is filled with cheering families, and the long trek up Cardiac Hill looms. Thankfully, half the hill is in the shade. Patients from the Shepherd Spinal Center encourage us to keep running up the hill. As I trudge, more friends come to mind. Patrick lived next to Bennihanas, my doctor friend in his white coat outside Piedmont Hospital, Watson at the four mile mark, the trumpet player near the train station, the Taylors at Equifax, the elderly lady at Peachtree Christian, Harriet at Pershing Point.

The race flows left, for the shady “Olympic Mile.” Bands play. Hoping to get a sneak peek at the T-Shirt design, I look for slender runners who’ve finished the race walking back with T-shirt bags. Most years I’m rewarded for my efforts. The crowds (and cheers) grow stronger at Colony Square. Children hold signs, and its fun to give them high fives as I pass.

Every year I’m amazed at the new buildings and restaurants that spring up. Running makes gawking so much easier than driving a car. The stretch from Colony Square to 10th Street (and on down to Juniper) has completely changed, making the last mile much more pleasant. After the 10th Street turn the photographer’s bridge comes into view, and runners jockey for an open spot with a renewed spring in their step.

A lot can happen over 21 years. It’s only rained once or twice. One year I was sick, but I stubbornly braved the race anyway. In April 1992 I cracked my shin playing softball AND had unrelated outpatient surgery, but recovered in time to run. I’ve run in almost every time group. One Sunday I finished the Peachtree in time to make the 9:30 church service. Having been around long enough to remember the manual finish rope shoots in Piedmont Park, I was one of a few thousand runners with failed chips last year, and our race times didn’t register.

The last half mile seems to take forever. The cheering increases as onlookers encourage runners to finish strong. I crest the final hill, and the finish banner comes into view. Crossing the finish line, the race that seemingly took forever is suddenly over way too fast. Relieved, I continue to look for friends on the stroll to the T-shirt line. The park will only get more crowded, but usually it’s not hard to find my son.

We join a stream of tired walkers trudging up shady streets, past Grady High and refurbished older homes. Following yet another ritual, only when we reach the car do I pull out my T-shirt. It’s fun to wear the coveted Peachtree shirt to the evening fireworks show. The rest of the day, where-ever I go, I’m always amazed to see dozens of other runners wearing Peachtree shirts.

Through the years, despite it’s changes, the Peachtree Road Race is one of the constants in my life. Though some surroundings change, the Fourth of July classic still flows on like a river, 6.2 miles down Peachtree, wave after wave. I’m proud to be one of those little drops.

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