ATLANTA — What does the Fourth of July mean to you? Fireworks? Hot dogs on the grill? Triumphant John Philip Sousa marches? Endless parades of red, white and blue?
For me and tens of thousands of others in the South, the Fourth of July means sweat. Asphalt. Lukewarm beer. Sore legs. And a T-shirt that, for one day at least, holds more cachet in Atlanta than any street address. Around here, the Fourth of July means the Peachtree Road Race.
Run every July 4 since 1970, winding from the tony gleam of Buckhead through the corridors of Midtown and onto the vast green expanse of Piedmont Park, the Peachtree is a 10-kilometer/6.2-mile testament not just to fitness, but to Atlanta itself. The T-shirt you get from running the race is a signifier; you’ll see other runners wearing theirs later that day along the streets, at the pool, at fireworks shows, and you’ll nod at each other. You both know what you went through to get that shirt. It’s a bond that transcends all differences.
This year, though, there will be no race, no crowds, no Peachtree T-shirts on Independence Day. For the first time in half a century, a Fourth of July will dawn in Atlanta without a Peachtree. It’s scheduled to run on Thanksgiving morning, but it won’t be the same — not on Saturday, not in November. Postponing the race amid a pandemic was absolutely the right thing to do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.
Look, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not going to miss the running. The actual running of the Peachtree Road Race, even when I was in peak condition, sucks. It’s hilly and crowded — you can’t escape traffic in Atlanta, even in a holiday morning race — and by the time most runners get started, the heat and humidity are braising you and 60,000 other runners in a sweaty, funky stew.
What I will miss is everything surrounding the running. The city comes together on that day, young and old, male and female, the whole glorious spectrum of races and classes and creeds and orientations joining in a shared journey down Peachtree Street. Some of us run, some of us wheel, some of us walk, some of us stagger. But all of us are surging forward as one; all of us have the same goal in mind.
It took me a long time to recognize what a miracle this race is. Back when I was younger, each race was an exercise in cascading stupidity. My brothers, my friends and I would stay up late the night of July 3 and run the race on three hours’ sleep. We’d load up on sausage biscuits and orange juice minutes before the starting gun. And when we got to Piedmont Park, back when the course narrowed from six lanes down to one, we’d duck and weave between other runners, just trying to snag that last bit of advantage, not caring whether we might trip someone and send half a dozen people sprawling.
We thought we were invulnerable. We figured the rules applied to other, slower, older people. And for a long time, we got away with it.
Eventually, though, we grew up. We didn’t stop running, but we started running smarter. We got married and had kids who eventually joined us along the way, and we tried to be adults and set a better example for those kids.
Well, mostly. We still swill beer that the bars and residents along the route hand out by the double-fistful. (To this day, one of my proudest athletic achievements is catching, in stride, a full can of beer thrown from a third-story apartment in Buckhead during one Peachtree a few years back. I was like Julio Jones, if Julio cracked open the football and drained it before spiking it.)
I’m a lot slower now. The younger me would be done with the race, beyond the T-shirt line, and halfway through a plate at the Waffle House before the current me finished the race. But that’s OK. I now know what I didn’t back then: these moments of supreme joy and togetherness only come along every 12 months — and not even that, in the case of 2020.
I know the route of the Peachtree as well as you know the route back to your home. The start is a mass of quivering energy and anticipation — let’s go, let’s go, LET’S GO! — and everyone is whooping and hollering, heedless of the fact that we’re 10 steps into a 10,000-meter race. A couple miles down the road, there’s a curve where everyone can hear the peal of church bells — at least, you hope everyone else can hear them — and you see this rippling mass of humanity ahead of and behind you, all pointed in the same direction, all with the same mission.
A mile or so later, you’re climbing Cardiac Hill, and along the road you see patients at the Shepherd Center, men and women in wheelchairs and gurneys, their spines wracked or ruined by disease or trauma. Some are able to wave, some are only able to watch, but they’re all cheering for you, and my friend, it’s a good thing you’re already sweating because that way the tears in your eyes don’t burn as much.
And then you crest the hill and you cross over Interstate 85 and you see the skyline of Atlanta there in front of you, and there’s no feeling in the world quite like knowing you’re almost there, that you’ve almost made it. You’re four miles into a six-mile race, and this is where you learn whether you’ve prepared well enough. The people who didn’t train, who didn’t stretch, who ignored basic common-sense medical recommendations, who thought they could cut corners, who didn’t hit the most elementary benchmarks for running a smart race — this is where they tap out.
The rest of us, we’re on to Piedmont Park, that finish line, and that T-shirt. The race finishes on a slight downhill, and no matter how tired you are, you always seem to find that tiny last bit of energy to surge forward across the finish line.
In the Peachtree, much like in the first half of 2020, time is a pointless illusion. It’s all about finishing the race, staying in there, step after step, knowing that there’s no shortcut, knowing that you accomplished something just by putting one foot in front of the other.
I can feel the rush of the finish as I type these words. It breaks my heart I won’t feel it Saturday. And I can’t wait to feel it again.
This time next year, I plan to be running the streets of Atlanta. And I’ll raise a warm early-morning beer to everyone who does their part over these next 12 months to make it safe to run together once more.
Happy Fourth of July, friends. Let’s never celebrate it this way again.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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