For a rookie watcher, Jeff Smith picked the ideal spot — on the shady side of Peachtree Battle, seated on a brick pillar. Then again, he did have some feel for the AJC Peachtree Road Race, having run the event 20 or so times.
But not on July 4, 2011. Smith’s foot had been hurting, and he was a spectator at the 2 1/2-mile mark awaiting his wife and his 12-year-old daughter, who were running/walking the Peachtree. And already Smith, an Atlantan since 1988 who’s a technology manager, had seen something new.
“Those guys up front,” he said. “They really run fast.”
Such is the scope of the Peachtree that you can run the race and see a couple hundred thousand folks along the way without ever espying the elite runners, who start first and are long gone by the time the masses begin their trek. “Those guys finished 40 minutes ago,” Smith said, and still the 42nd Peachtree was in its nascent stages.
The massive race grew even bigger this year, growing to 60,000 participants. Think of this way: If you took everyone in a sold-out Turner Field — counting Braves and umpires and ushers, too — and arrayed them in rows in front of Lenox Mall, you still wouldn’t quite approximate this elephantine event.
“If it gets much bigger,” Smith said, “it’ll turn into a big walk.”
Not that he was complaining. Smith was having a fine time watching the runners and his young son was enjoying himself leaping at a tree branch. For all that the Fourth of July in Atlanta, Ga., entails — runners and watchers and dogs and crazy costumes and blaring music and the army of volunteers and even a fighter-jet flyover this year — griping doesn’t register. “You notice that nobody is upset,” Smith said. “Everybody’s in a good mood. All these people are in good spirits.”
It was hotter and more humid this Peachtree, and the good-spirited participants were sweating harder than usual after 2 1/2 miles. “And they haven’t gotten to the hill [in front of Piedmont Hospital] yet,” Smith said. But still: Over its four-plus decades of existence, this signature Atlanta event has proved indestructible.
Why, Smith was asked, is that so? Why is the Peachtree such a humongous deal?
“People are always looking for ways to celebrate the Fourth,” he said. “I’ll see people at the Peachtree that I only see once a year.”
Not far from Smith’s perch sat Jean Ingram and Blanche Roberts, sisters-in-law from Sharpsburg, Ga. They used to park themselves in front of the big water oak at Peachtree Battle, but a few years ago they scooted up the street because the tree’s roots grew.
When last this correspondent encountered Ingram and Roberts, the year was 2002 and they were accompanied by two of Ingram’s grandchildren, the younger of them in a stroller. On this day those grandchildren — Taylor, 19, and Tiffany, 13 — were running the race. As ever, so was Ferma Ingram, the 73-year-old husband of Jean and brother of Blanche.
“It’s bigger and hotter,” Roberts said, speaking of this installment of the Peachtree.
A few updates: Since 2002, Ingram has retired as postmaster of Sharpsburg and Roberts from her job as a teacher. Their Peachtree ritual, however, hasn’t changed: They left home at 5:30 a.m., were in place by 6 and came wearing red, white and blue. (Although Ingram’s sequined vistor of years past had, alas, fallen apart; it has been replaced by a “Peachtree Road Race Spectator” visor.)
Afterward the family — some 32 members were expected this year — would convene at Ingram’s house for the staple grilling-out. As for her indefatigible husband, who was running the 42nd Peachtree at age 73, Ingram said: “He’s had cancer; he’s had open-heart surgery.”
“About ready for brain surgery,” said Roberts of her brother.
“One year he ran with a kidney stone,” Ingram said. “Another year he ran with a cracked rib. After his open-heart surgery, we had someone run with him to make sure he didn’t fall over.”
Let the record reflect that Ferma Ingram and the other five members of the Ingram/Roberts running party — each of their names were pasted in glitter on a poster mounted on a wall — made the 6.2 miles without wilting Monday. “They’re still coming into the house,” said Ingram, speaking by phone from Sharspburg shortly after noon.
Earlier, someone had wondered when big becomes too big. Not just yet, came the sisters-in-law’s considered verdict. Said Ingram: “They organize it so well.”
Said Roberts: “Sixty thousand is a good number.”
By Mark Bradley