For years this special day has meant that me and the lovely Miss Wendy were out of bed and out of the house before the sun had even thought about rising in the east. We weren’t alone. There’s a certain madness in the Land of Cotton on Independence Day that has nothing to do with history, national pride, beer or BBQ. Well, maybe beer! Let me explain.
In the early 1970s, a few folks had the idea that it might be really fun to get together on July 4th each year and, well, run down Peachtree Street. The first years they gathered together, only a few hundred hearty souls made the trek. Each year a few hundred additional nuts, I mean joggers, joined the celebration.
By the time I caught the bug in the early 1980s, The Peachtree Road Race had grown to a staggering 25,000 runners, become an Atlanta institution and the largest 10K road race in the nation. Those stunning numbers seem oh-so tiny these days, now that the annual trek through Buckhead from Lenox Mall to Piedmont Park has grown to 55,000 men, women and teens, attracting elite world-class runners and weekend joggers.
The first year I entered the race I had been running for six months or so, had gone from a sluggish, wheezing pace of 15 minute miles to a reasonably decent pace of eight minute miles – not great, but certainly respectable. The good news is I managed to run The Peachtree for the next dozen years or so. And I was nothing if not consistent. My pace never slowed. It also never got any better.
In those early years when the testosterone level in my body still had me suffering with alpha-male syndrome, I was out on the road at least five days a week, doing sprints and speed work at a track in my neighborhood, spending hours each weekend pounding the pavement for 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles.
I managed to lose 25 pounds, occasionally knocked a few seconds off my racing pace, and began running longer distances – half-marathons and, eventually, full marathons. But then something strange happened. Independence Day rolled around about five years after I had begun running and I was back on Peachtree Street once again.
Miss Wendy and my darling daughter – why, let’s just call her Nerual … yes, that would be Nerual Natevel today – were at their usual spots, waving signs and flags, shouting for me and the other runners as we made our way up a smallish hill toward the end of mile 5 of the race.
It was a splendid day, the sun still low on the horizon and the sky a deep blue. Thousands of runners filled the streets, thousands of spectators and volunteers nearby on the sidewalks and curbs. A local radio station had set up shop in the area, a disc jockey shouting nonsense and playing the theme from Rocky.
As the music blared and the crowd cheered, I spotted Miss Wendy and Nerual off in the distance, waving hello and shouting encouragement. For an instant time slowed and if there was music playing, it was the theme from Chariots of Fire. I had one of those epiphanies that gurus atop mountains offer up to their followers or therapists hunt for while you rehash your childhood. Why, I had already won the race, in fact winning really wasn’t part of the equation any longer.
It was Independence Day and all of us here were free, sharing the bounty and enjoying the gifts – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – promised by our forefathers. I continued to run for years, but with a different sort of passion. The joy came in the running, spending time on neighborhood trails, mountain paths and distant cities, often left alone with my thoughts, occasionally sharing the moment at races with hundreds of others.
The icing on the cake was always knowing that when the training was done and the race completed, Miss Wendy would be waiting for me at the finish line and that, ahhh, Nerual was happy and safe in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
HOLIDAY HAPPENING: It's hot and humid in the Land of Cotton in July, but these runners and thousands more take part each year on Independence Day in a bit of madness called The Peachtree Road Race.