It was mid-May in 2004 when the call came in to Atlanta Track Club: “Line 2; it’s Baghdad.”
The year before, Lt. Col. Robert Quint has run the AJC Peachtree Road Race, and loved it. Now, he was deployed in Iraq. He had read in Stars and Stripes about a half marathon in Indianapolis that offered a Memorial Day version in Bosnia, and figured that he could round up 100 runners in Baghdad to do a 10K. So he picked up the phone and pitched the idea to the Club’s executive director, Julia Emmons.
From there, the Overseas Division of the AJC Peachtree Road Race was off and running. The Peachtree had nine start groups at the time; suddenly it had another: Time Group 10 – Baghdad Division. The Club sent 150 bibs and finisher’s T-shirts, 30 volunteer shirts and a finish-line banner to Camp Victory. Despite his early skepticism at finding a measuring wheel (“We are in the middle of a war zone and American soldiers are dying here every day… measuring wheels are hard to come by,” he wrote in an email), Quint found one to lay out an accurate course.
So at 9:30 p.m. on July 3 – 5:30 a.m. July 4 in Baghdad, where it is already 85 degrees – race founder Tim Singleton stood on the start line at Lenox Square and yelled “Go!” into his cell phone. At Camp Victory, on a landline phone, Quint heard the command and gave the signal. Almost 250 military personnel (the Club had to send more T-shirts) took off on a measured 10K loop around a lake on the grounds of a former palace of Saddam Hussein.
Afterward, everyone signed the finish banner, which Quint would present to the Club the following September.
The overseas races aren’t the Peachtree’s only connection to the military. Often over the past dozen years, the race start has been marked by a flyover out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. From 2015-2017, in partnership with United Military Care, the race hosted a Military Team Division, with a competition among military branches that was also part of the Kilometer Kids Charity Chase. Last year, the race offered specially designed race bibs to all active-duty and retired military members to celebrate and honor their service, and will do so again this July 4.
But it’s the flat, desert races overseas run “within the wire” of military bases amid the potential of choking dust storms – so starkly different yet emotionally connected to the Atlanta spectacle – that most resonate.
On the same day the Baghdad runners made their way in the predawn darkness, a lone Georgia man followed his own 10K route in Kuwait.
In 1980, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) William Johnson ran his first AJC Peachtree Road Race, and – having never missed a year – he already had his 2004 race number when he deployed to Camp Arifjan that June. He took his race packet with him, and on July 4 he ran 6.2 miles. His wife sent a photo to Atlanta Track Club, which credited him with his finish, sent him a T-shirt and asked if he would organize a race there the next year.
He wasn’t surprised that 1,000 runners signed up: Fort McPherson in Atlanta was the home of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, and many Atlantans – already familiar with and missing the Peachtree – were deployed with the Third Army forward in Kuwait. They named their version “Patton’s Own Peachtree Road Race.”
And there was at least one more demographic in its favor, as well.
“When you’re in the military, physical training is always a big part of a soldier’s life,” he recalled. “Everybody’s running. The problem was moving people from different camps, because of security. We were in a war zone.”
When asked about his favorite part of that Kuwait race, Johnson said, “Just being able to pull it off. It took a lot of convincing. There’s concern about the temperature, the distance (the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center organized regular 5Ks, but not 10Ks) and security. There was concern about bringing everyone together and becoming a big target. We weren’t sure if we could pull it off until the very last minute.”
There was another security concern, as well. Johnson warned his runners: “Do NOT send pictures of the T-shirts until after the race. The design is a big secret.”
In 2007, wearing his dress uniform, Johnson stood at the Buckhead start line at 10 p.m. on July 3 and declared “on your mark, get set, go!” into his cell phone. The next day, he was in his running clothes, keeping his Peachtree streak alive. This year, he will be running the race for the 40th consecutive time.
After the first race in Baghdad, Emmons told the AJC that the Club would support it as long as there were American troops in Iraq. “Of course,” she said, “we all fervently hope it is the one and only time we have to do it.”
It wasn’t: Iraq was the site of overseas races until 2011. This will be the 16th year the Peachtree goes overseas, as military personnel stationed in Afghanistan, Kuwait and at an undisclosed location will help celebrate the 50th Running of a race back home. About 1,500 runners are expected.
After the successful 2004 overseas debut in Iraq, involvement expanded. In January of 2005, the same year Kuwait came on board, Col. Tom MacKenzie had emailed the Club from Kabul, Afghanistan, requesting help in launching an overseas edition there. When the three countries were totaled up, there were more than 2,000 participants. Egypt and Qatar have also hosted races over the years. Yearly participation grew to about 3,000 before the number of troops deployed began to decrease.
Rich Kenah, who became executive director of the Club in 2014, echoed Emmons.
“As long as there are service men and women in forward deployed bases, Atlanta Track Club will continue this relatively new tradition to show our appreciation to all of those who are spending the Fourth of July in service to our country,” he said. “It’s the least we can do to provide them that bit of home, whether home is elsewhere in the U.S. or right here in Atlanta where they would be running down Peachtree Street themselves if they could be here.”