When Randy Shreiner decided to register for the AJC Peachtree Road Race lottery last March, he didn’t realize it was a decision that would fundamentally alter the fabric of his life. How could he? He weighed 265 pounds and had never run before, so the chances of him becoming a road racing fanatic were slim.
“I just wanted to have some kind of goal to shoot for,” he said. “I was way overweight and I needed something to push me.”
But he also didn’t realize that the Peachtree tends to have a life-changing effect on its participants. Every summer, it turns paraders into walkers, walkers into joggers and joggers into runners through some combination of celebration and commiseration under the July 4 sun. When Shreiner crossed the finish line and made the turn into The Meadow, he could feel that shift starting to take place. Four months, 70 pounds and 18 5Ks later, he recognizes what happened: The Peachtree was his gateway race on a journey to health and fitness.
In 1970, the concept of a road race on July 4 was, frankly, crazy. There’s a reason only 110 people showed up to race down Peachtree – those weirdos and diehards were the sum total of the few people unconventional enough to actually enjoy running.
“It was mostly a cult,” added Lee Fidler, who was third in 1971 and is still a member of Atlanta Track Club.
But as the years ticked by the race continued to grow, augmented by a running boom that followed Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic gold medal in the marathon. The Peachtree emerged as a citywide jumping-off point for that boom, growing to 25,000 participants within 10 years.
That explosion continued throughout the decades, hitting 40,000 participants in 1990 and 55,000 before the turn of the millennium. For many, the Peachtree served as an introduction to the concept of running outside of gym class; for others, it was an event that marked the culmination of a year of training. Now at 60,000 participants, the race has become an Atlanta institution and emerged as a midyear goal for Atlantans looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
“A huge number of our trainees come to the program with no running experience and use the Peachtree as a turning point for their lives,” said Sue Payne, Atlanta Track Club’s director of outreach and manager of the In-Training for Peachtree program. “Amy [Begley, the Club’s coach] and I love seeing those transformations start with us and seeing the impact Peachtree can have.”
That growing impact is evident both in the numbers – the training program has swelled from 300 to nearly 900 participants in the last decade – and in the stories Payne and Begley hear on a regular basis.
Chief among the successes is Pennie Eddy, who trained for the first time in 2015 and lost 140 pounds. Peachtree morning was her first time riding MARTA, as she had previously been too uncomfortable taking public transportation. Tina Tait also experienced a radical change, dropping 130 pounds as part of her training and eventually running the TCS New York City Marathon. Even former NFL player Hugh Douglas experienced a Peachtree transformation, as he joined in on the race as a way to connect with Atlanta after becoming a host for 92.9 The Game and has since become an avid runner and Peachtree enthusiast.
This simple story of trying the Peachtree and becoming hooked on running is a common tale: On July 4, 2018, 148 people registered to become Atlanta Track Club members; on July 5, 367 more did the same, making a commitment to a healthier lifestyle within 36 hours of the race’s conclusion.
Among them was Shreiner, who epitomizes the gateway Peachtree creates each summer for so many participants.
Heading into the race, Shreiner’s longest run had been two miles. “My goal for the race was just to finish,” he said.
Pumped up on adrenaline, he was able to do the first 5K of the Peachtree in 32 minutes, but slowed in the second half to finish in exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes. As he crossed the finish line, he didn’t just feel healthy: he was cruising and wishing he would have pushed a little harder.
He took that motivation home and signed up for an Atlanta Track Club membership at 7:38 p.m. that night. What came next was a flurry of event registrations – his own “explosion” – and a commitment to running that lifelong runners would struggle to match.
Since July 4, Shreiner has done a 5K nearly every weekend. On its own, the tally is mind-boggling: four races in August, five in September and six in October, including a weekend in October where he pulled off three 5Ks in two days. But on top of that has been a significant improvement in his time, as he started at 32 minutes and now holds a personal best of 23:48.
“When I started my goal was a 10-minute mile,” Shreiner said. “So when I ran a 23:48 that meant a lot because I never thought I’d be able to do that.”
Over that stretch, Shreiner has dropped 70 pounds and seen his shirt size shrink from an XXL to a medium. He’s fallen in love with running simply for the feeling of accomplishment and the chance to compete against himself. He traces it all back to the Peachtree.
“It kick-started my running life,” he said.