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AJC Peachtree Road Race: Riding the wave of success

Over the years, intervals have been tweaked according to how much space is needed between waves to keep participants moving and safe.

With 60,000 people in one race, could you imagine everyone trying to start all at once? Not only would it be virtually impossible, it would be dangerous. That’s why the AJC Peachtree Road Race has 22 start waves – plus a separate wave for the female pro runners – that go off at set time intervals, to keep participants moving along the course and across the finish line in Piedmont Park. 

Start wave assignments are performance-based. During registration, participants have the opportunity to enter a qualifying time from any USATF certified road race from one mile to the marathon. Nearly 200 races that take part in Atlanta Track Club's AJC Peachtree Road Race Qualifier Program have historically been listed in a drop down registrants can access when signing up electronically. With the faster runners starting in front and the slower participants lined up in order behind them, traffic jams are avoided.

“We actually had one year when the race came to a halt at the finish because it wasn’t as structured,” recalled Lisa Tanner, director of events. 

By 1990, the race had reached 40,000 participants, from 25,000 participants in 1980. So, with the help of Jack Grosko, who managed race logistics from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, and some research into other large races such as the Bolder Boulder, a time-group system was implemented in 1990 that sent runners off at three-minute intervals. Over the years, those intervals have been tweaked according to how much space is needed between waves to keep participants moving and safe.

“As we continued to grow, it was important that we were responsible for that growth,” said Tanner. 

Janet Monk, manager of special projects for Atlanta Track Club, remembers a time when paper applications all listing 55 minutes as the entrant’s qualifying time would pour in. Why? Back then, runners who took more than 55 minutes to finish would not receive a coveted T-shirt. 

Hired for the 25th Running of the Peachtree, Monk was one of a few staff and volunteers who hand- sorted all 50,000 printed applications, with which entrants were requested to include proof provided by their qualifying race of the time they ran.

“And people would CHEAT!” Monk laughed, recalling the white-out and other obvious alterations. “Oh boy, would they cheat! Change their times just to seem like they were faster so they wouldn’t get stuck in the back.”

Luckily, today registration is done online and neither Monk nor anyone else has to handle potentially falsified qualifying documents: With online registration has come electronic verification tools. Runners who submit a qualifying time that does not match race results are randomly assigned to a late wave, as are runners who submit no time.

With the option to submit a time from any race on a USATF-certified road race course, participants have a long list of races to choose from. But for races in the AJC Peachtree Road Race Qualifier Program it has become a mark of prestige for these races to be officially associated and recognized by the Peachtree. To create more clarity for participants and make the registration process for the Peachtree more efficient, the term “Official AJC Peachtree Road Race Qualifying Event" was coined and the process for becoming one was formalized in 2017. Races are given the opportunity to apply to the program but must meet certain standards to be accepted, the main requirement being that it is held on a USATF-certified road race course. 

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Said Tanner, the Club’s director of events: “They work with us and they use our name to give their race credibility.” For meeting the Club’s standards as a Peachtree Qualifier, the races are given access to a logo that signifies affiliation with the Peachtree. “To say you’re affiliated with one of Atlanta’s most iconic events, we think that’s pretty special.”

The Atlanta Mission Race to End Homelessness presented by Aetna is among the races to which top-tier runners have been drawn, and being a Peachtree qualifier has driven its numbers up each year, according to Atlanta Mission Manager Bonnie Beauchamp. “We’re one of the last qualifying races before lottery registration begins and we’ve heard from runners that it’s one of the main reasons that drove them to run our race,” she said. The Atlanta Mission 5K is in February, with lottery registration starting in mid-March. 

“There is extreme value … because everybody knows the Peachtree,” said Brenden Bergin, race director of the Berry Half Marathon, 10K and 5K. “We consider ourselves to be a representative of the race and we take it seriously and with great honor.”

Joseph Longoria of the Birmingham Wine 10K echoes Bergin on the value. “Several weeks out from the event, Official AJC Peachtree Road Race Qualifier will appear on just about every marketing tool leading up to race day,” he explained. “The Peachtree is just the mark of all 10Ks. When you get to associate with a race like that, it brings validation and credibility to your own event.” 

To be considered as an Official AJC Peachtree Road Race Qualifying Event for the 50th Running, events must be registered with Atlanta Track Club by February 1, 2019.