It’s the morning of the 2018 Anthem Peachtree Junior and Ray, wearing bib number 258, is preparing for his big race. First, he warms up in the Clif Wrapper Grab booth, then moves on to a miniature slackline. Next up is a lesson in how to toss a foam javelin before heading off to tackle – in his own unique way – the hurdles.
Ready for the main event, Ray lines up for the 50-meter dash and takes off, employing an arm motion more reminiscent of Michael Phelps than Usain Bolt. After crossing the finish line, he cools down on a playground slide and then stops to feed a duck whose face feathers match his new bright red race T-shirt.
“When I see Ray maneuver over, under and around the hurdles, I can’t help but smile,” said Rich Kenah, executive director of Atlanta Track Club, referring to the family YouTube video in which Ray stars. “I see a kid who will no doubt find ways to maneuver around any barrier that life throws in his way. It’s a great example of how I see Peachtree Junior as more than a kids’ race. It’s an introduction to the sport, but it’s also about kids and their parents learning that there are many creative ways to have fun through aerobic fitness. It’s one of my favorite events – the emotions the kids feel are so pure, so innocent.”
What quickly evolved into a celebration began three decades ago out of concern.
In 1985, Julia Emmons directed her first AJC Peachtree Road Race after taking the helm as executive director of Atlanta Track Club. Afterward, she received a letter from a woman who asked if she realized that many of the children running were in tears by the time they reached Mile 5.
She hadn’t. The next year, she ran the race to investigate, and what she saw matched the letter. Small children were struggling in a sea of giant adults, who in turn had to dodge the little ones.
“Peachtree is to be a joyous event; it wasn’t for most of these kids,” wrote Emmons in the April 1987 issue of the Club’s Wingfoot magazine, in which she announced that the inaugural Peachtree Junior, a 3K for children 8-12 based on a similar kids’ race at the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, WA, would be held on May 30 of that year. (Concurrently, children under 10 would no longer be allowed to enter the Peachtree.)
Thus, 32 years ago, the kids got their own Peachtree, separate from the adults, where they would be center stage. At the 2019 Anthem Peachtree Junior – for which registration is now under way – the children will move a step closer toward being part of the “grownup” Peachtree again, as the race moves to July 3 and ends at the same finish line as the next day’s AJC Peachtree Road Race.
“As we celebrate all things Peachtree in its 50th year, it seems only appropriate to give these kids the same finish line and T-shirt experience that the adults will enjoy the next day,” said Kenah.
The event will also be streamlined to a Mile (ages 6-14) and a Dash (ages 6 and under), in keeping with other Atlanta Track Club youth events. About 3,000 children are expected.
Back in that first year, 600 children took part in the 3K. After receiving their numbers, they assembled behind signs labeled with their age. Organizers had expected the assembly process to take 20 minutes. It took two.
“We had forgotten that kids are far better practiced at lining up than are adults,” Emmons wrote afterward.
By the second year, 1,200 kids took part. By 1995, about 2,500 youngsters – divided into age groups – were running the 1.86 miles. Schools were conducting training programs even before Kilometer Kids was launched in 2007.
Back then, and for most of the race’s history until recently, times were not kept and winners were neither announced nor recorded.
“We didn’t call it a race,” said Penny Kaiser, for many years the technical director. “We called it a run.”
Of course, not every kid was convinced. Jeff Glenn ran his first Peachtree Junior in the early 1990s.
“I always pictured it like a race that you could win,” recalled Glenn, now 33. “I’d start out at a dead sprint with the other kids who thought they would win, trying as long as I could to stay up front. I remember the nervous anticipation of waiting for the gun to go off.”
On July 4, young Jeff would help his mother at the Mile 4 water station, waiting for dad Gary to run past. When Jeff became old enough to run the Peachtree, mom lost her assistant. His father, now 64, still runs it every year, and Glenn does, too, when he’s in town.
Soon, Peachtree Junior may be enticing the next generation. “I have a 14-month-old now,” said Glenn. “Maybe when the time comes, we’ll get him to run.”
In an effort to keep enthusiastic kids like Glenn from going out too fast, the volunteers who formed a human chain in front of every start wave would let go of each other’s hands at the start signal and then turn sidebars to serve as human traffic cones around which the eager runners were forced to slow. Other volunteers were stationed along the course in such numbers that “there was never a point where a child couldn’t see an adult,” said Kaiser. “Every second of the event was monitored.”
John Prevost, a member of Atlanta Track Club who has been volunteering at Peachtree Junior for at least 15 years, can’t hide the delight in his voice as he describes the scene at his water stop.
“I just love to see the kids, how they enjoy each other,” said the longtime Peachtree runner. “How they’re just oblivious to the fact that it’s a race, running along holding hands or stopping to just leisurely drink their water. Kids who have always been told not to throw their trash on the ground are looking around for trash cans. When we tell them they can just drop the cups, they look so surprised. ‘Really?’”
Each year, schools involved in the Club’s Kilometer Kids program use Peachtree Junior as a goal in training. Two of the longest-serving and most-active coaches are Dawn Jones of International Community School and Ken Almon of Baldwin Elementary; each brought around 50 kids last year.
“We’ve never gone and not had a blast,” said Almon.
Both coaches extol the opportunity for their youngsters to get a chance to run with kids from other schools and other places, as well as the chance for them to meet Olympians: In recent years, the event has featured Olympic medalists such as Gail Devers, Dwight Phillips, Terrence Trammell, Chaunte Lowe and Adam Nelson helping introduce the young runners to disciplines such as the hurdles, long jump, high jump and shot put.
Jones will often print photos taken on the day and post them on the school bulletin boards.
The kids “love to see themselves,” said Jones.
Almost as much as the grownups in the crowd love to see them.
Said Prevost, who will be volunteering again this year: “It’s just a fun time watching kids be happy.”