The Peachtree Road Race reminds me of a visit I took to a National Parks site. Not the history, certainly not the majesty, but a visceral image. A ranger at a former Confederate-run prison camp shared that overcrowding was so horrible, its 30,000-some prisoners in the stockade could only stand shoulder-to-shoulder, without room to sit or move singularly, so that it was like looking on the undulating skin of a single organism. And damn if that doesn't perfectly describe what it’s like to look on the Peachtree Road Race.
Many of us have done the Peachtree Road Race, some of us repeatedly, touted universally by tourism boosters as an Atlanta “must-do.” We’ve stood in the corrals, tens of thousands deep, shuffling incrementally for hours nearer the mall-adjacent start, single-organism-style. Waiting for the jingoistic flyover fanfare to rattle our sternums. Shambling the first mile before finally finding space to weave through the crowd at a slow trot, the specter of an almost-certain trampling death lingering behind our shoulders.
I did it for years, swearing I’d quit once I cracked the top 1,000, which actually happened. And so, kaput: no more. It was much-ballyhooed by everyone after I moved to Atlanta in 2007, any time I voiced pleasure at running. “You’ll love the Road Race,” they’d gush. “It’s so big and fun and everyone finishes at the park and you get The Shirt.” Yes, The Shirt. The MacGuffin toward which we all for some reason slouch with grasping claws, 10 kilometers’ worth of ill-fitting, poorly-designed cotton.
After a year of hype, of training and progressively greater efforts, I entered the Peachtree lottery, rising pre-dawn to get the AJC paper form that had to be mailed in. This was an analog journey, friends, before online registration became de rigueur. My joy at getting in! My thrill to toe the line! My waxing frustration at being constrained by the press of bodies. My waning pleasure at the whole stuttering endeavor. My finish in the sizzling Civic Center blacktop parking lot, the park off limits for a terrible drought. My t-shirt “prize” that looked like it was dredged from the bottom of an Old Navy outlet’s fire sale bin. The finish has since returned to Piedmont Park, but it’s the same race every year otherwise.
Yet think back to its roots, the spoonful of sugared folklore we’re fed to help swallow the rest. Just 110 determined folks running down an open Peachtree Street at their cross country coach’s behest, dunking their heat-blasted bodies in a fountain to cool off mid-race. Jostling for position with one another as well as the occasional bus on the open streets. Someone found a gun on the course and had the sense to scoop it up (groundscore). The finisher’s prizes were cases of Carling’s beer.
Now the Peachtree Road Race is a massive commercialized property, where you get yelled at by a guy wearing a peach costume and Crocs if you take too many pieces of fruit from his crate.
Runners were pitted against the city, their compatriots, and their own wills, which is the spirit we’ve endeavored to carry into the Atlanta Snack Club. We wanted more than this, so we needed to have less. We started doing the Peachtree Road Rage in 2014, a small gathering the evening of July 3 in the spirit of the original. We gathered 50 people by a line of port-a-potties, gave them a brief lecture to watch their six and look both ways before crossing streets, then launched the race with a tinny safety whistle. That sent them scrambling south through open streets to Piedmont Park, some confused onlookers along the way understanding it to be some kind of rogue race, and offering half-hearted, muted cheers.
Finishers trickled through the quiet finish in clumps, grinning to our applause as we recorded times on a stopwatch. Eventually we’d shoo them up the hill into the park, where every finisher got a peach and a beer (or several), and a finisher shirt with some actual panache. The top winners got a homemade peach pie, and were heralded to fanfare atop our beverage cooler-turned-podium. This was the simple, runner-focused event we wanted.
We gave every cent of profit to the community food bank, and shared subsequent years’ takes with hospice care orgs, inspired by a friend’s loss. We only wanted money so we could give it away. Our benefit was in doing this for Atlanta running, at seeing others step away from the crowd, and be in some way wild and rowdy. Room to move with freedom, not smothered and stymied among the press of thousands.
This continued for four years, but interest grew annually with it and that became a problem. We were on the news twice, both television and radio. We took in some more registrants, up to 65, a thousandth the size of the other 10k. But it had to die, y’all. The Peachtree Road Rage had to go when, in order to keep it small by design, we also b
egan keeping a wait list. And the wait list grew each year. This might have been the progression that slipped away from the original race’s spirit, bloating to what we now watch spill down the street each July 4.
The Peachtree Road Rage is a fond memory, one we’re inevitably asked annually to resurrect, but it would be like promoters’ feeble efforts to do so with Freaknik, or moving large running races during the pandemic to a race car track: less-than and pitiful. The zeitgeist has left the Peachtree Road Rage and we should let it lie, not grasp for some facsimile to fill that space. It’s an ev
ent we’ve outgrown but whose seeds bloomed into alleyruns, solstice outings, Friday Night Lights, Quad Qamp, the Second Helpings half marathon, the Atlanta Grand Prix, and more. (If these are unfamiliar, our newsletter croons this feral magic to your wild heart.)
Atlanta needs events like this, not just by us, particularly as the city’s spaces become ever more feckless and tame, renamed by developers to suit their marketing desires, blanched of character until they’re a stucco-covered Anywhere. Our mission as a club is to show you what’s stuffed between the seams, help you find the feral magic around neighborhood corners and tucked into wild pockets of woods. If we can show you one exciting scene or new street, then we’re successful.
To help show you the individual freedom of the city, rather than a shifting cell of a single organism.