Barbara Huebner

The Greats at Peachtree

Barbara Huebner
The Greats at Peachtree

With Rhonex Kipruto, Brigid Kosgei, Fancy Chemutai and Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui headlining the 2019 elite open fields, the 50th Running of the AJC Peachtree Road Race follows in its own footsteps of bringing the best athletes in the world to Atlanta every July 4 for the past five decades.

Kipruto: the second-fastest man in history over 10K. Kosgei: winner of the 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon and 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon. Chemutai: the second-fastest woman ever for the half marathon. Kipkirui: the fastest woman in the world over 10K on a legal course last year. All four Kenyans, making their Peachtree debuts, will join the pantheon of the world’s best athletes who have graced the race since its inception.

That they will be chasing a $50,000 bonus for breaking the event records set down by two of the greatest road racers in history – Joseph Kimani (27:04, 1996) and Lornah Kiplagat (30:32, 2002) – is only fitting.

But Kimani and Kiplagat are far from the only running legends who have broken the Peachtree’s victory tape. The 75 winners of this race have amassed at least 28 Olympic or World Championships medals, 27 World Cross Country Championships medals and 24 world records. Among them, they have also won at least 49 World Marathon Majors.

Gilbert Koech, Martin Lel, Evans Rutto, Felix Limo 2003.jpg

And those are just the race’s champions. At least 41 Olympic, World Championships or World Cross Country Championships medals have been won by men and women who have competed in the Peachtree but never managed to take home a victory. The list is highlighted by Lasse Viren of Norway, a four-time Olympic gold medalist (5000 and 10,000 meters, 1972 and 1976), and Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia, whose lengthy medal tally includes golds from the Olympics (two), World Cross Country Championships (three) and World Championships (one), but it also includes the likes of Gete Wami of Ethiopia, a two-time World Cross Country Champion and three-time Olympic medalist; Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, a two-time Olympic medalist and four-time Boston Marathon winner; Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the marathon and a three-time Boston winner; and John Treacy of Ireland, a two-time World Cross Country Champion.

As Kiplagat put it recently: “The Peachtree Road Race is a monument, something you have to run.”

It didn’t take long for the little July 4 race to start attracting the best of the best.

When Jeff Galloway won the first Peachtree in 1970, he was 25 years old and just out of the Navy. The second winner, Bill Herron, was a student at Pensacola Junior College in Florida; the third, a 4:02 miler named Bill Blewett from Texas, in town to visit an Army buddy. The next year saw Wayne Roach, an Atlanta Track Club member, become the last man from Atlanta to win the race. In 1975, Irish Olympian Ed Leddy came down from East Tennessee State University, where he was a student, and took the victory.

Quickly ratcheting things up, Galloway had made a lot of friends on his way to running for Team USA at the 1972 Olympics, and in 1976 he convinced a couple of them – Bill Rodgers and Don Kardong – to do the Peachtree. That turned out to be a prelude to the 1977 extravaganza that saw Galloway bring in not only those two pals but also Viren, who would be racing in the U.S. for the first time, and 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter. Added together, there were eight Olympians in that all-star race, which would be won by Shorter, in 29:19. (Viren, slowed by the heat and humidity, finished ninth.)

While nine different men were winning the first nine editions of the Peachtree, Gayle Barron was dominating on the women’s side. In those pioneering days, when the longest distance for women in the Olympics was 800 meters (the 10,000 meters didn’t make its debut until 1988), Barron was a novice when she won in 1970 – in her first 10K ever – in 49:13 in 1970, over two other women, but by 1975 had shaved almost 11 minutes off her time in winning for the fifth time in the race’s six-year history. She would go on to win the Boston Marathon in 1978.

The year after the Shorter-Rodgers-Kardong-Viren show, Galloway persuaded a 19-year-old named Mary Decker to run her first 10K. Already an international star – and on her way to owning every American record from 800 meters to 10,000 meters on the track – Decker won in 33:52, shattering the course record by over two minutes.

The next year saw Craig Virgin predict that he would win the Peachtree in his race debut, and he did. The American record-holder at 10,000 meters on the track would win the next two, as well; his 28:03 victory in 1981 is still the fastest Peachtree ever run by an American and was the fastest overall Peachtree in history up to that point, with 14 men – including runner-up Rod Dixon, whose 28:11 would be the New Zealander’s career personal best – breaking 29:00. Only one had done so the year before.

“We all knew that we had just done something special,” Virgin said recently. “It was an historic, epic moment in American distance running.”

The year Virgin won for the second time, another American powerhouse – Patti Lyons-Catalano – was making her mark. Catalano (now Dillon) had already twice won the Honolulu Marathon, and a few months after her Peachtree win would become the first American woman to break 2:30 in the marathon when she finished second in the 1980 New York City Marathon behind the world-record performance of another woman who was soon to play a role in Peachtree’s history, Grete Waitz.

But first, a pair of Kiwis would have their day. Allison Roe, fresh off a win in the Boston Marathon, was the first big-name international winner of the women’s race, in 1981, followed the next year by countrywoman Anne Audain, a 1976 Olympian and major force on the roads.

For the men in 1982, Jon Sinclair – considered by many to be the best American road racer ever – would win, and in 1983, Michael Musyoki, the half marathon world record-holder, would become the first African winner of the Peachtree, edging fellow Kenyan Joseph Nzau in the closest finish in race history up to that point, 28:21.6 to 28:21.8. Male winners of note over the next few years included Ibrahim Hussein (1989), who the year before had become the first African to win the Boston Marathon  and Dionicio Ceron in 1990, who would go on to win the London Marathon three times.

Meanwhile, the legendary Grete Waitz – already a five-time World Cross Country Champion when she stood on her first Peachtree start line – would win the women’s race four times between 1983 and 1988, in the midst of recording her nine New York City Marathon victories. In 1991, she was named female runner of the quarter century by Runner’s World magazine.  

By this point, the race’s credentials were well-established. “Word travels fast among the athletes when they go home,” said Elizabeth Unislawski, who has been involved in elite-athlete recruitment for the race since 1996. “They want to be here.” The best runners in the world continued to make the annual pilgrimage to the Peachtree, sometimes in such numbers that the fields read like the start list of an Olympic final. To wit:

Elana Meyer, Catherine Ndebera  1999.jpg

In 1999, the women’s race was won by Elana Meyer, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters and half marathon world record-holder from South Africa. The runner-up was Ndereba. Also in the Top 10? Margaret Okayo, who three years later would set a course record in winning Boston, as well as Kiplagat and Tulu, considered among the best athletes in the history of the sport.

The 2003 Peachtree was won by Robert Cheruiyot, who would go on to become a four-time Boston Marathon champion. He was challenged by Paul Koech, the 1998 World Half Marathon champion; Evans Rutto, who that fall would run the fastest debut marathon in history (2:05:50) in winning Chicago; Martin Lel, who would win the New York City Marathon a few months later before his three London victories; Felix Limo, the 15K world record-holder; course-record holder Kimani; and marathon world record-holder Khalid Khannouchi.

And speaking of marathons, the 2010 race was won by Gebre Gebremariam,  the 2009 World Cross Country Champion who would win New York that November. Finishing third was Lelisa Desisa, who turned in a silver-medal performance at the 2013 World Championships as well as winning Boston twice and New York once; while placing sixth was Wilson Kipsang, who was warming up to earn an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, win five World Marathon Majors and set a world record. The seventh-place finisher that year, Wesley Korir, would go on to win Boston in 2012.

Said John Curtin, who began recruiting elite athletes to Peachtree in 1990 and still assists: “What was really cool was, you’d tell them who else was coming and they’d say ‘great!”