Every April, Jack Abbott and his wife hop into their car on a Sunday morning to drive the route of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, from the start line at Buckhead all the way to Piedmont Park.
Abbott, volunteer course director for the Peachtree, does this in the early morning – when few cars are on the road – so he can take note of any potholes that need repair before 60,000 people take to the pavement on July 4. Whenever Abbott spots a pothole, he swerves his car to avoid it.
During this course checkup a few years ago, a police officer noticed the swerving and pulled over Abbott’s car.
“I said, ‘I hope you’ll believe this, and I can show you my notes, but I’m the course director for the Peachtree Road Race, and I’m looking for potholes, and when I see them, I’m avoiding them in the car,’” Abbott recounted. “She went for the story.”
It goes to show that volunteering for the Peachtree takes dedication and perseverance.
To pull off the massive Peachtree every year – including organizing months beforehand, stuffing envelopes, counting T-shirts, helping at the start and finish lines and even supporting the police officers who provide security – the race has more than 3,500 volunteers, who touch every aspect of the event to make it a success.
“They just provide another level of support to the staff during a very busy time of year,” said Lisa Tanner, Atlanta Track Club’s director of events. “We would cease to exist if we did not have volunteers.”
Indeed, even the first Peachtree in 1970 had a robust volunteer force. The race had 110 people participate and 12 folks helping.
Herb Benario was one of those 12 original volunteers. He started running in 1945 when, Benario said, few people did the sport, and continued running for 70 years. Benario became part of Atlanta Track Club in the 1960s, and he knew Tim Singleton, the Peachtree founder, who passed away in 2013.
“When Tim Singleton had the idea of putting on a race on the Fourth of July, he didn’t have very many people who he could ask for help. He asked me to be the timer, I think because I owned two stopwatches,” Benario said, adding a laugh.
The Peachtree has grown many times over since 1970. Today, the Club’s 38 staff members need thousands of volunteers to make the race happen. Committee meetings start in January between staff and volunteer leaders, who manage different groups of volunteers.
Tanner, who was hired in 1996 to manage volunteers, said what most amazes her is their pride.
“They see this as their race,” she said. “There is such an extreme amount of pride that each person has and brings to their position that they want to be a part of something great. And maybe they’re injured and can’t run or maybe their running days are just over or they’re just not runners but they want to be a part of something big in the community. So they give of their time.”
Abbott first ran the Peachtree in 1975, getting involved with volunteering not long afterward. He had a less time-intensive commitment, at the Peachtree Health & Fitness Expo, until 20 years ago when the Club’s director called and asked if he could become the course director, making sure things run smoothly for participants along the race route.
Abbott is still there. He’s still running, too, having finished his 44th consecutive Peachtree this year.
“I can’t even guess at how much time and hours I’ve spent doing the race,” he said of his duties. Abbott starts volunteering in the spring with a meeting or two, and the task picks up speed from there. By June, he spends every day on the Peachtree.
The size of the race has exploded since Abbott first got involved: The 1975 Peachtree only had about 1,000 participants. Now it’s 60 times that.
“Everything snowballs when you get that many people in one place at one time,” he said, adding that he gets two rewards from volunteering: A chance to be part of a successful event and to work with the people he has gotten to know over the years.
Alex Nguyen is part of the newest wave of volunteers. She ran and volunteered at her first Peachtree in July.
“Everybody talks about it, and a lot of my friends did it, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try,’” she said.
Nguyen helped participants get to the right place at the starting line. She is an introvert, so doing this work compelled her to open up and talk with people. Nguyen said the experience was so fun that she plans on volunteering and running again in 2019.
“When I volunteer, I am happier and I become more confident,” she said.
If you’re looking for volunteers on July 4, they have a few shared characteristics. They receive a specially designed T-shirt and pin, along with some sponsor gifts. Waffle House gives discount key fobs, and The Home Depot has aprons for volunteers to hold their keys and phones on race day.
But what volunteers receive from the Peachtree goes beyond physical gifts.
“They just want to be a part of it, and this is the way that makes sense for them if they’re not runners or they just can’t run this year,” Tanner said. “This event is such a part of the culture here in Atlanta on the Fourth.”
As demonstrated by Abbott and Nguyen, however, volunteering and running aren’t mutually exclusive. Volunteer spots at the expo, Tanner said, fill up “crazy fast” because it’s a great way to do both. Still, she said there are always volunteer spots open somewhere, even though some crew chiefs have to turn away newcomers because they’ve done such a great job of retaining their core group.
In fact, just like the people who return to complete the Peachtree year after year, volunteers also have streaks. The Club tallies how many years each person volunteers, awarding a peach service pin every five-year anniversary. Volunteers wear these pins on their hats like a badge of honor.
After the last participant finishes the race and the Peachtree is over, some volunteers are so appreciative that they send gifts to track club staff, but Tanner said it’s really the Club that can never do enough for its dedicated volunteers. Every year, they give their time on a holiday to coordinate one of the city’s biggest gatherings.
“If you don’t have the volunteers to put on the event, the event wouldn’t exist,” Tanner said. “I feel like a successful event begins with the volunteers.”