Bill Thorn is part of an exclusive club with no dues but plenty of cachet. He’s one of 110 runners who finished the first Peachtree Road Race in 1970.

Both the race and Atlanta have seen huge changes over the past half century. But Thorn, 91, is still plugging. He’s run — or more recently walked — them all, and he plans to take art in this year’s 52nd edition of the city’s signature road race.

Bill Thorn, center, has participated in every Peachtree Road Race.

For the inaugural Peachtree, the field was measured in the dozens, the course differently configured, runners shared the streets with traffic and in what now sounds like heresy, there were no T-shirts for finishers.

Thorn’s 2021 race day will also be vastly altered. He’ll walk virtually in his Tyrone, Ga., hometown and use a specialized walker. Family members will closely shadow him to watch for any problems.

As to why he’s hanging in, he says, “I don’t know. If you can figure it out please tell me,” before adding, “I know that when I quit anything fully, you know you’re on your way out and heading downhill after that.”

Thorn won’t be braving heartbreak or any other hill this year. But other seniors will tackle the grueling stretch near Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. They’ll celebrate life, friends and family and Independence Day, bolster their aerobic health and in in some cases, build on consecutive years of participation.

Streaking towards 50

Randy Stroud will run his 49th Peachtree in July.

The 2021 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race is number 49 for Cobb County resident Randy Stroud, who is 66. “I like competition and even at my age still like to run Atlanta Track Club races. I have a [Peachtree] streak going and I want to keep that,” he said.

A runner since high school, Stroud says he’s battled through scorched, sticky weather, a lightning storm and knee surgery over the decades.

And he celebrates an event that brings together a diverse crowd, “everyone from the common, every day-walker runner to world class athletes and everyone in between.”

Phillip Ozell, 71, tells a similar story. He’s run more than 40 times, accompanied by wife Terry. Even being hit by a car in 1996 and landing in the hospital for a week with broken limbs didn’t deter hm.

Ozell said “I told my doctors that the one thing you have to do is make sure I can run the Peachtree in 1997. “

COVID accommodations for 2021

Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah said that almost 20 percent of this year’s participants are aged 60 or older.  Some have laced their running shoes up for decades on end while others took up pavement-pounding after retirement or the departure of grown children.

Addressing COVID- leery seniors Kenah feels feel a good protection plan is in place including two days of racing, smaller starting waves, face coverings and “giving (participants a sense of comfort and safety that everyone reaching the starting line has been vaccinated or screened for COVID.” 

The revised message: “This year we want to be known as the world’s safest (not largest) 10K. “

Ozell said the pandemic isn’t weighing on him, in part because he and his wife have both gone through a bout with the ailment. He attributes their relatively mild three days of COVID to a high fitness level.

He said of his return this year, “a little is [for] bragging rights.  But, also, “when you’re running downhill on Peachtree, heading for Peachtree Battle, you can look ahead of you and see thousands running and you turn real quick and see thousands behind you, you get a lump in your throat.”

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.