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Atlanta's teams embrace Atlanta's race

The involvement of Atlanta's pro sports teams in the AJC Peachtree Road Race over the years.

The sign “Keep Cool and Chop On” provided a succinct summary of the task facing 60,000 participants in the 2018 AJC Peachtree Road Race. 

Visible before their ascent up Cardiac Hill, those five words reminded the runners and walkers of the conditions, the challenge and the cheering — in this instance, from dozens of employees and season ticket holders of baseball’s Atlanta Braves, who turned out as aid-station volunteers.

Brad Meriwether, the Braves’ director of marketing, was there doing the chop with the rest of the crew, and described the fun factor as even higher than the temperature (74 degrees at the race’s 7 a.m. start).

“The Peachtree is synonymous with summer in Atlanta,” Meriwether said. “It’s a staple, and we love being part of it. We love how much fun people have with it. There are a lot of smiling faces.”

The Braves and Atlanta’s other three major professional sports teams – the basketball Hawks, the football Falcons and the soccer United FC – are all supporters of the Peachtree and maintain close ties to Atlanta Track Club, which puts on the race. 

“The ongoing Peachtree engagement from the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and MLS champion United along with their diverse fan bases is, to me, reflective of the larger impact that the Peachtree has on the city of Atlanta,” said Rich Kenah, executive director of Atlanta Track Club and Peachtree race director. “No event, sporting or otherwise, brings us together annually like this little 10K down Peachtree.”    

At the 2018 Peachtree, the Braves also were represented by their Heavy Hitters drumline, which pounded out a rhythm near the finish line, and by mascot Blooper, who greeted the race’s finishers in Piedmont Park and posed with them for selfies. Jaime Kaufman, the team’s senior coordinator of marketing, pulled it all together.

When the schedule has called for a Fourth of July home game – as it does in 2019 – the Braves traditionally have hosted the men’s and women’s Peachtree winners, involving them in the ceremonial first pitch, the chop and even some of the fan-oriented in-game contests. 

In 2017, Peachtree participants needed only their coveted finisher’s T-shirt for entry to a pregame party at the Coca-Cola Roxy near the Braves’ SunTrust Park.

Elizabeth Unislawski, Atlanta Track Club’s manager of elite athlete services, won’t forget 2015, when Britain’s Scott Overall and American Alexi Pappas were the respective winners and a contingent of international athletes went to the game in the Braves’ penultimate season at Turner Field.

“We had box seats,” Unislawski recalled, “and we took a van of athletes to the game. They had a blast. The team had Scott Overall do ‘Race the Clock,’ where you run out and grab a base and try to beat the clock. The Japanese runners did every cheer. On the ride back to the hotel, they just kept on chanting.”

In 2017, men’s winner Leonard Korir of the U.S. led the chop at the game and said the fans were “so great,” surprising him with their sincere appreciation of his efforts earlier in the day.

“Atlanta is a very nice place,” said Korir, a 2016 Olympian who lives and trains in Colorado. “They are such good people there. They are so supportive. It’s an exciting race because of that.”

The women’s winner in 2017, Aliphine Tuliamuk of the U.S., hammered the golden spike at the United’s soccer game. (Before kickoff, someone is chosen to hammer the spike, a link to the city’s railroad history, three times as the crowd chants “A-T-L” in unison.) The United also has made a special ticket offer available to Peachtree participants.

The team’s ticket operations manager, Stuart Pease, got into the act in 2018 by running his first Peachtree.

“I thought it was cool,” Pease said of the experience. “I was surprised by how many people actually run it, some for a time and others just to be a part of it. And so many people turn out to cheer everybody on.”

Matt Haley, the Falcons’ manager of football communications, is a former collegiate runner who covered the Peachtree course in 34:12 in 2018 – which was good for an impressive finish of 66th overall. He has run the race five times since moving to Atlanta in 2010.

“I’m originally from Massachusetts, and I think the Peachtree has a similar feel to the Boston Marathon,” Haley said. “The whole city revolves around the event for the day, and Atlanta comes together really well for big events like that.”

Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons and the United, is a member of Atlanta Track Club. And the Falcons and United offer their opulent facility – which will host Super Bowl LII in February – for the 50-yard-line finish of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium 5K/Walk Like MADD, in which both teams and Mothers Against Drunk Driving partner with the Club. 

“Since we are in professional sports, fitness [and] health and wellness are pretty common interests for a lot of people in our organization,” Haley said.

The Hawks, who partner with the Club on the Atlanta Hawks Fast Break 5K presented by Sharecare at State Farm Arena in February, have hosted AJC Peachtree Road Race Night, discounting tickets for Peachtree participants and Club members. Former general manager Pete Babcock, the architect of the Hawks’ success in the 1990s, was an avid runner who ran the Peachtree. 

Add it all up, and it’s the kind of heavyweight enthusiasm for a road race that few other events could dream of approaching.

The Braves also are involved with the Club, in staging the annual Braves Country 5K presented by Mizuno in June. But the Peachtree is in a class by itself.

“Every year, we see people from our front office who run it, and I’m pretty sure we’ve had coaches and baseball staff run it when we’re at home,” Meriwether said. “This race is more about being with people than it is about your time. Everyone is enthralled by it.”

Even for serious runners such as Haley and others who have lined up for countless races in various places over the years, it holds a special distinction.

“The Peachtree is kind of a rite of passage for any runner in Atlanta,” Haley said. “It’s a race that you have to do if you live here. Normally, the most common question you get as a runner is ‘Do you run marathons?’ But in Atlanta, it’s ‘Are you running the Peachtree?’