It’s not even 5:30 a.m., but the buzz has started. As the MARTA train from College Park heads toward the AJC Peachtree Road Race start line, word is spreading quickly: the guy who runs every year is on here. The one who’s never missed a race. In 49 years. Bill Thorn.
“People will come up randomly and say ‘Great job!” said Thorn’s granddaughter, Kenzie Bayman, who has run the Peachtree with him for the past 14 years or so.
It’s a milestone that finds no small degree of good fortune running alongside decades of health and fitness. (As Thorn himself said recently, “You have to be OK that day, out of all the other days.”) Even the great Johnny Kelley, who completed the Boston Marathon 58 times from 1928-1992 and in 2000 was named “Runner of the Century” by Runner’s World magazine, missed a year – 1968, after hernia surgery.
And on July 4, Thorn expects to cross the finish line for the 50th time. Over the past half century, neither an ankle sprain, a heel gash nor prostate cancer has stayed him from completion of his appointed rounds.
“All I know,” said the 88-year-old from Tyrone, “is that none of this was ever planned from the beginning.”
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the era when coal mining was a prime industry – with the air so full of soot, he recalled, that clumps the size of golf balls needed to be swept off the porch – Thorn played football, basketball and baseball in high school. After his father, a barber, died of an infection at the age of 47, “we had nothing.” For a year, as well as a few summers, Thorn worked in a steel mill, where he glanced to his right and left and realized that he could easily be looking at his own future 40 years hence.
“‘Boy, that could be you, right there the rest of your life,’” he remembers thinking. “Those are the things that would drive you if you want to be driven.”
Thorn accepted a scholarship from Athens College up near the Tennessee border. But when the Korean War began, most of his older teammates shipped out and the football program fell apart. He headed back home to finish up at Birmingham-Southern, majoring in physical education; among his odd jobs in college was coaching a multisport YMCA youth program that included track.
Looking back, he said, that may have been where his love of coaching was born. In 1954, the same year he graduated and married his wife, Patty, they packed up for a move to Atlanta and the start of what would be a 64-year coaching career. He will retire this spring from Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, where he has led his boys’ and girl’s track-and-field and cross country teams to 37 Class A state championships since 1995 and where the stadium of the school he co-founded already bears his name.
“When you talk to Bill about his Peachtree streak, his eyes light up,” said Rich Kenah, executive director of Atlanta Track Club and race director of the Peachtree. “His 49-year attendance record is clearly a source of pride for him. It seems so appropriate that one of the most accomplished coaches in state history is the one person who has had the mental focus, physical stamina and emotional commitment to find the Peachtree finish line each and every year.”
Despite playing a variety of sports in high school and college, Thorn didn’t become a runner until the late 1960s, when he picked up a new book by Dr. Kenneth Cooper titled “Aerobics.” The book, which became a classic, featured a point system for various physical activities, and Thorn decided to aim for 30 points a week by running a mile day. At first he would run between the classes he was teaching Monday-Friday, but found it hard to re-start after two days off so looked around for something to do on weekends.
Once he discovered road races, he quickly fell into a small-but-dedicated crowd that included Tim Singleton. The quest for points ended, but the miles began piling up as his distances increased. Then one day Singleton told him about this new Fourth of July race he was starting up.
Thorn’s sons, Bill Jr. and Terry, ran that first race with him. Bill Jr., 59, ran for the next few years as well, but as a teenager his interest turned elsewhere. He’s not surprised that his father’s never did.
“He has a way of doing things and does not change it unless he thinks it’s for the better,” he said.
Not long after that inaugural race in 1970, family plans started being made around the race. Year after year, Thorn was on the starting line; year after year, fewer of the Original 110 finishers from 1970 were there with him. One day in the late 1980s, according to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Thorn began to take the streak seriously after he bumped into Singleton in Piedmont Park and the race founder told him that if he kept going “one day there’s not going to be anybody [else] left.”
Heading toward the race in 1993, there were only two: Thorn and good friend Don Gamel – who missed the race for the first time that year, with arthritis in his knee, as Thorn finished despite running on a badly sprained ankle.
As recounted in the book “25 Years of the Peachtree Road Race,” written by Karen Rosen:
Did it ever cross [Thorn’s] mind to skip the race? “No.”
Did his family encourage him to skip the race? “No. They knew I’d do it anyway.”
As the years went by, the Thorn family decided that one of them should run the Peachtree with their patriarch. Granddaughter Kenzie Bayman became, as she termed it, “the chosen one.” She has aged a few years herself along the way, and not just because of birthdays.
Thorn always starts in Wave A, and Bayman is given a bib that allows her to accompany him. A few years ago, she said, realized too late that her bib was for Wave B. “Pop pop, you need to come back to “B” group with me,” she remembers telling her grandfather. “He wouldn’t do it.” Off he went on his own, with Bayman “freaking out the whole time. It took me two miles to get to him. He’s so stubborn.”
Another year, around Mile 3, Thorn began leaning forward in his power walk, and the angle kept getting sharper. He was not feeling well. Bayman linked arms with him, trying to keep him upright as they moved. “Get him off the course,” people yelled. “Call an ambulance.”
“You don’t understand,” Bayman recalled telling race officials as Thorn sat for a bit to rest. “He’ll be so mad at me. He’s done all the races; he has to finish.”
Accompanied the rest of the way by one of those officials, he did.
Bayman, now 26 and living in Dallas, did the Peachtree with her grandfather again last year. So did Thorn’s great-granddaughter, Brenna, who was born a few weeks later.
As the 50th approaches, Thorn is following his usual fitness routine. Working out 365 days a year, he begins the day by doing static leg exercises in bed, so that he’s warmed up before he puts a foot on the floor. After another static series, he heads to the kitchen to find the space he needs for leg swings; then, it’s back to the bedroom to do 120 bounds on a mini-trampoline (“And I’ve got one of the best because my daughter bought it for me after I wore out so many of those cheap kind.”) Pushups follow, up to 40 in a row. Three days he goes out for a 2.5-mile run/walk, three days he runs for 15-30 minutes on the trampoline. He does a couple of ab workouts, too.
On Sundays, he gives himself a break: he cuts the workout in half.
“I would be doing that even if I didn’t do the Peachtree,” he said.
Speaking of which, will the 50th Peachtree be Thorn’s last? Will he cross the finish line and say, ‘that’s it’ to go out in the milestone year?
“Oh no, no,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll be able to do [in the future]. The only time I’ll know is when I get to that point. I’m just trying to accomplish one thing at a time.”
When Amy Cragg – a two-time Olympian, the 2017 IAAF World Championships bronze medalist in the marathon and the 2014 AJC Peachtree Road Race champion – was asked what she thought of Thorn’s longevity, she was taken aback.
“I’m having a tough time answering that because I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to run the same race every year for 50 years,” she wrote in an email. “Bill Thorn is absolutely incredible! Staying motivated year in and year out is one thing, but keeping your body healthy enough to race every single year is even more amazing – and then never having anything go wrong?! That kind of consistent dedication is so inspiring. Maybe he can share some of his secrets with me.”
To Thorn, there is no mystery ingredient.
“It just happened to be me who made it to every one of them,” he said, “and that’s just the way it is.”