The oldest marathon in the Southeast and one of the ten oldest in the country, The Atlanta Marathon on Thanksgiving Day is also the only U.S. marathon run on an Olympic course—approximately 90% of the course is the same as that run by the world’s best at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Runners pass under the Olympic Rings on their way to the finish line, an exhilarating end to a challenging event. The accompanying half marathon is among the largest in the U.S., and while slightly less demanding is still guaranteed to work up runners’ appetites. Together, the two races have become a holiday tradition for thousands of runners and hundreds of friendly and dedicated volunteers.
History of the Race
The Atlanta Marathon is the oldest in the South, and among the ten oldest in the United States. And as we are celebrating its 48th running this year, it seems apt to weave together the historical threads of the event, threads that pull back to before the ATC was formed in 1964.
THE PRECURSOR: The first 26.2 mile run ever directed in Atlanta took place in March of 1963 at the North Fulton Golf Course. It was not a formal event: there were no trophies or race T-shirts, few volunteers. It was accurately measured, however, with ten loops making up the standard marathon distance. Arthur Armstrong, cross-country coach at North Fulton High School, decided to keep his talented cross-country team in shape over the winter. So he got Billy Daniel, Bruce LaBudde and Dale Smith and a few others to run the distance event. Billy Daniel recalls that the team, though willing to take on the challenge, did not take it seriously, certainly not seriously enough to forego a dance the night before. Daniel’s one recollection of the marathon was that it was boring; ten laps around a golf course would be. At least, he says, it was run on grass.
THE INAUGURATION OF A FORMAL EVENT: The first running of the Atlanta Marathon as an event with such niceties as entry forms and trophies occurred the following year. Its director, Jim Pepper, devised a double-loop course in North Atlanta, which began and ended on the track at Westminster School. It was no course for sissies; the loop began with a three mile climb up Nancy Creek Road to the crest of Mt. Paran and then rolled along up hill and down for the next ten miles. That loop completed, you got to do it all over again. The race took place the last Saturday before Christmas, and the heavy traffic from last-minute shoppers added a certain piquancy to the experience. In 1966, Tim Singleton took over as director; Singleton would later become famous as the founder of the AJC Peachtree Road Race.
From 1964 to 1980 the race remained on the Westminster double loop. Given the tough character of the course, the race never attracted a large following, though those who regularly ran it developed a certain fondness for its challenges. Under Singleton’s direction, and later under that of Bruce LaBudde, who took over from Singleton in 1974, the race nonetheless attracted some remarkable runners. A glance at the accompanying list of winners makes this clear: Ireland’s Neil Cusack did a 2:16:18 on the hills in 1971, while Mike Clark in 1979 ran the fastest marathon run in Atlanta until the Olympic Marathon: 2:14:49. Singleton also recalls that the late Fred LeBow ran the event in the late ’60’s, before he became the rich and famous founder of the New York Marathon. He was working at the time as a waiter.
It took women awhile to get around to doing the event. The first woman to finish the race was Gayle Barron, who took somewhat over four hours to accomplish the task. She’d soon, however, be traversing the hills in under three hours, showcasing the talent that eventually led to her win at the Boston Marathon in 1978.
In the mid-seventies, the Atlanta Marathon allied itself with the local football game that took place on New Year’s. Its name changed to the Peach Bowl Marathon and it took place between Christmas and New Year’s. The name change did nothing to alter the toughness of the course; the number of finishers remained small.
THE DOWNTOWN COURSE: Despite some grumbles from Westminster course veterans, ATC Executive Director Royce Hodge moved the marathon downtown in 1981. The late December traffic was increasingly horrendous, and the event had yet to attract over 200 runners. Hodge also moved the date to Thanksgiving morning. Hodge’s ploy to increase participation worked: double the number of runners finished the downtown inaugural race over the year before.
The new course was a tour d’Atlanta. Beginning at the Omni (now Philips Arena), it headed briefly into the Southside, then circled the Capitol, ran through Piedmont Park, out Ponce de Leon to Decatur, and back into town via DeKalb Avenue. The final miles were not runner-friendly; one had to climb the hills to Peachtree Street before heading to the finish at Woodruff Park. Hills or no, runners came, and the 1982 race attracted the events all-time high of 1010 finishers.
In 1983, Roy Benson took over as director from Royce Hodge. During the two years he directed the race, he revived the half marathon that had sometimes accompanied the event during the seventies. He also spearheaded efforts to move the course yet a third time. The downtown-Decatur course crossed dozens of major intersections, and was a technical nightmare. And the major uphill section during the final miles was leading to bleats of lament from runners.
Studying topographical maps with the aid of ATC member Doug Sligh, Benson devised a flatish marathon course that would start in Lithonia and bring the runners down to Piedmont Park. The course paralleled the railroad track much of the way and was thus, at worst, but gently rolling. The accompanying half marathon started in Clarkston.
THE LITHONIA YEARS: The marathon remained on the Lithonia-Piedmont Park course from 1984 to 1991. Runners enjoyed the varying scenery and lack of significant hills. Starting in the small town of Lithonia, eight miles east of the town of Stone Mountain, the route went past horse farms and small communities until it hit Stone Mountain. It then followed 3-laned East Ponce de Leon through Clarkston and the half-way point. It continued to the suburban town of Decatur, took College Avenue to the Victorian neighborhood of Inman Park. After Inman Park, the route went through Virginia Highlands to the finish line in Piedmont Park.
The Thanksgiving morning event caught on, with increasing number of Atlantans running either the full or half marathon. Less taxing and within easily training distance of AJC Peachtree Road Race’s 10K, the Half Marathon was especially popular. From 857 finishers in 1984, the Half blossomed to 3957 finishers in 1991. It’s more challenging 26.2-mile sister event remained steady, going from 565 in 1984 to 615 in 1991.
Though runners enjoyed the east-west point-to-point run, course design had two major flaws which made the event a nightmare to race organizers. The first was the course went across very busy rail tracks four miles into the marathon. Though CSX officials were very cordial and easy to work with, and though we knew there were no trains generally scheduled for the dawn hours of the Thanksgiving holiday, we always worried that an unscheduled train would rumble down the tracks during the race, bisecting the pack. We were right to worry. It happened twice during those years: once we held up the race until the train cleared the area: the second time an obliging engineer halted his train until we had passed through.
The other problem was allied to the increasing popularity of the Half Marathon. As there was no satisfactory parking in Clarkston, most runners were bussed to a small shopping strip near the Half start. As numbers grew, so did the number of busses, and the attendant confusion. Organizers were ever plagued with visions of lost or broken down busses. In addition, the Clarkston community began showing distinct signs of irritation over the growing swarms of runners invading their quiet neighborhood.
Knowing we could not depend on genial train engineers or continuing cordiality from Clarkston, it became obvious that it was time to change course again.
THE OLYMPIC CONNECTION: Coincident to our outgrowing the Lithonia-Clarkston-Piedmont Park course, Atlanta was awarded the Centennial Olympics in September, 1990. As the Atlanta Track Club had been active in the successful bid process, it was obvious that we would be playing a role in the Games, mostly likely organizing the two Olympic marathons. Thus it seemed logical to combine our search for a new marathon course with the necessity to find a satisfactory route for the Olympic 26.2-milers.
Much of 1991 was spent gazing at a full-size wall map of Atlanta, looking for a course that showcased the City, was not overly hilly, and did not snarl traffic too badly. Because the Olympic TV signals needed to be unimpeded, we knew the streets should be broad and fairly free of tree cover; this eliminated our going through our famous shady residential neighborhoods. And we knew the finish should be near Centennial Stadium (then unbuilt) for the finish of the Olympic events would be in the Stadium. We also surmised a loop course would be preferable to a point-to-point; this allowed for easy start-finish coordination and eliminated a layer of pesky organizational difficulties.
One suggested course we promptly eliminated was the one in the Atlanta Organizing Committee’s bid book. It seemed apparent the author of that section was no runner for he suggested the course start in Stone Mountain Park, and then take the Stone Mountain freeway/Highway 78 into town. These miles of concrete footing, unredeemed by scenic vista and inaccessible to spectators, seemed to glorify little than the American obsession with the automobile. We also figured no one on the International Olympic Committee had checked out the suggestion, and were thus no way bound by it. (It is interesting to note, however, that as late as 1995, some officials in Stone Mountain still thought the Olympic Marathon was going to start there).
It was Penny Kaiser of the ATC staff who first saw the central structure of what would develop into the Marathon/Olympic Marathon course. She suggested a loop course, starting and finishing at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, going north on Piedmont and back down on Peachtree. As there are stretches of Piedmont which notably lack distinction, aside from being exemplars of scruffier aspects of American culture, none of us had ever thought of Piedmont as viable. But the more we studied the possibilities, the more logical the route seemed.
THE ATLANTA MARATHON 1992-1995: Thus it was. We inaugurated the new route with the 1992 event. The course starts and finishes near Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. It goes north on Piedmont to Peachtree, then north on Peachtree past Olgethorpe to the turnaround point on Peachtree Industrial. The course then heads south on Peachtree, covering five miles of the Peachtree course on the way, back through Downtown to the Stadium. It goes by many of the city’s finest monuments; keeps to broad, accessible boulevards; does not overly snarl traffic as freeways go over or underneath the route at many points; and goes by MARTA stations at 15 points. By lucky coincidence, the start point for the Half Marathon is very close to the Chamblee MARTA station, eliminating the need for busses.
Though far more satisfactory in many ways, the new course was more challenging, with seven hills rather than the bump or two which graced the Lithonia route. We had a contest to give the hills amusing names in hope that runners could not hate something with an amusing name, and we asked noted puppeteer Jon Ludwig to design large sculptures along the course to add interest and get minds off aching legs.
Whether it was hills with names, Ludwig’s delightful designs, or the thought of running where Olympians would run, the change to the through-town course proved immediately popular. By 1995, the marathon had grown to 919 finishers and the half marathon had exploded to 5615, making it the third largest in the United States.
1996: The Atlanta Marathon took place on the 1992 course for the last time in 1996. Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was razed in early 1997. Thereafter, the race will end near Turner Field. In honor of the 35th running of the event, special finishers medals were given to those finishing under 3 hours; under three and a half hours; and under four hours. All other finishers get the traditional finishers medal. We also inaugurated the Mercedes Cup, an inter-aid station competition whereby the various squads of volunteers vie in enthusiasm and thematic presentation. Officials from sponsor Mercedes judged the contest.
1997: In 1997, the Atlanta Marathon and Half Marathon settles down on Atlanta’s Olympic legacy course, which parallels as closely as feasible the course used for the women’s and men’s Olympic Marathons. This marathon shares over 90 percent of the course, so the runners will notice only the slightest changes. We intend to put down permanent mile markers, and other indicators which will harken back to its Olympic connection.
This marathon is the only one in the United States which is run on course used when that city hosted the Olympics. The dusty rural roads used in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics have long disappeared, and the course used in the 1984 L.A. Olympic Marathon incorporated over three miles of freeway, impossible to close down in normal circumstances. The one used in the 1932 L.A. Olympics has long since been paved over.
2008 AND BEYOND: This spring, The Weather Channel signed on to be the first-ever title sponsor of the marathon and half marathon, with the name of the Thanksgiving Day event changing to The Weather Channel Atlanta Marathon and Half Marathon. In the months leading up to the race The Weather Channel is profiling three runners from across the country (including one Weather Channel meteorologist) as they train for their first half marathon. With the addition of The Weather Channel as the title sponsor of the marathon and half marathon, the Thanksgiving Day event is poised for continued growth in 2008 and beyond.
Thus our legacy is one to treasure and be proud of. As we run with our neighbors on Thanksgiving, thankful for the day and its graces, we can savor the thought that we are running where the Olympians ran with such seemingly effortless grace over our familiar roadway.