55,000 runners, 6.2 miles and no beer

The Peachtree race could learn much from other cities

The Peachtree Road Race has become an Atlanta institution. At least that's what we're to believe if we read the fawning coverage given the annual race by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which, not coincidentally, is also the event's main sponsor). Each year, we're reminded that the Peachtree, organized by the Atlanta Track Club, is the world's biggest 10K road race, an event unlike any other. Runners from virtually every state in the union, not to mention dozens of countries, descend on Atlanta in a sea of tank tops and running shoes.

To be sure, the Peachtree is a spectacle. How organizers stagger the field of 55,000 into nine groups is a masterpiece of planning. Thousands of spectators line the route, from the roofs of Buckhead bars to the manicured lawns of Midtown apartment buildings. Bands set up speakers and play from the sidewalks. For 6.2 miles, the Peachtree is a big party.

But cross the finish line on 10th Street, right at the entrance to Piedmont Park, and the party comes to an end. Runners are funneled through the park to pick up their commemorative T-shirts and grab a bottle of water. After that, there's not much to do — maybe get your picture taken from one of the photographers, or hang around and wait for the race winners to be announced. By late morning, cleaning crews are already moving through what's left of the crowd, picking up trash and dismantling the stage. By early afternoon, race director Julia Emmons notes with some pride, you'd hardly know the Peachtree had ever come to Piedmont.

Compare that with mammoth foot races elsewhere in the U.S. In Colorado, the Bolder Boulder is sneaking up on the Peachtree in terms of size. For this year's race, held on Memorial Day, some 48,000 runners registered, and organizers figure twice that number cheered them on. The race ended at the University of Colorado's Folsom Field, where thousands gathered for Memorial Day observances, followed by a party at a nearby hotel.

In Utica, N.Y., of all places, the country's largest 15K ends practically at the steps of a brewery. In San Francisco, this year's Bay to Breakers race, the largest 12K in the world, attracted around 70,000 runners. The race ended at Polo Field in Golden Gate Park, where Bonnie Raitt headlined "Footstock," the cleverly named post-race celebration. Admission was free for runners; others were charged $15. Once inside the park, cold beer was on sale at beer gardens to those who could prove they were 21 or older.

"People have come to expect it," says race producer Rita Barela of Footstock. "They look forward to it as much as they do the race."

In New Orleans, the Crescent City Classic fetes its 20,000 runners — and about 10,000 additional guests — with a party in Tad Gormley Stadium, complete with numerous bands, heaping plates of gumbo and all the beverages (alcoholic or not) a runner can drink. For non-participants, organizers charge $5 a head.

"The difference is very simple: When you come to the Peachtree, you get your bottled water, the T-shirt, the pat on the back, and a few hours later, everyone's gone," says Gary Gomez, the Classic's elite athletes coordinator. "You come down here and we're like a rock show after."

There are, explains Peachtree director Emmons, several compelling reasons why Atlanta's race isn't the party that the others are. First, there's liability. The Peachtree for years served beer at the race's end, but increased scrutiny by the state convinced organizers to cut off beer sales a few years back. "Underage drinkers would get beer. You can't control that."

Emmons says also that the sheer number of participants precludes any kind of food service. Even something as simple as bananas one year led to a mountain of peels at Piedmont Park.

Finally, there's the heat. Atlanta on a typical July 4 is sunny and sweltering outside — not the place, Emmons says, where dripping runners want to hang around.

"You're extremely hot, you're very sweaty, and you really want to go and have a shower."

It becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument: Does the runners' early exit from Piedmont Park mean they really want to leave, or are they leaving simply because there's nothing else to do? Could Atlanta capitalize on the Peachtree so that it's not only the nation's biggest 10K, but also one of the biggest parties?

Kevin McNerney thinks so. He's a Peachtree veteran himself, and figures about "90 percent of the people I've overheard make some comment about the beer they'd enjoy either before, during or after the race."

Of course, he's also a co-founder of Sweetwater Brewing Co., so he's probably biased.

Nevertheless, as a race director from another city says, "You don't have 55,000 hardcore runners there. You have participants. You've got to give something back."