In 1970, 110 runners set off into the 80-degree, early-morning heat to complete a 6.2-mile course along Atlanta's Peachtree Road. Now 45 years later, more than 60,000 participants hailing from 48 states and countries around the world will lace up for the 46th annual AJC Peachtree Road Race. More than 500 times its size since its inception, the 10-kilometer race remains the world’s largest of its kind. Inclusive of all, runners range from 10 years old to this year’s oldest competitor, a 95-year-old woman.

For 2015, the July 4th race brings numerous exciting new sponsorships, including Dasani as the official water sponsor. And it's the “year of the team,” according to Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah. This year's race features the Inaugural Peachtree Cup, the second-annual Kilometer Kids Charity Chase and the Shepherd Center Wheelchair Division.

Kicking off tomorrow at 7:20 a.m., the Inaugural Peachtree Cup Competition will pin four elite international teams against one another—six professional athletes each on Teams USA, Africa, Asia and Europe—hailing from nine countries. Led by captains Shalane Flanagan, Gebre Gebremariam, Yuske Hasegawa, and Daniel Meucci, the teams will feature both Peachtree veterans and newcomers, with each team competing for the lowest cumulative time to capture the cup and the $42,000 cash prize.



Team Captains

“Last year, it was U.S. only in the championship... we wanted to celebrate America,” said Kenah of the 2014 elite competition. “But this year, we want to challenge Americans and bring in the best of the best.”

Also at the heart of Peachtree is the attempt to put “kids front and center,” said Kenah. In 2014's inaugural Kilometer Kids Charity Chase event, 2004 Olympic Marathon Silver Medalist Meb Keflezighi edged out 22,500 participants. This year, the Atlanta Track Club decided to incorporate members of the armed forces.



Kilometer Kids

“We thought it was appropriate on the Fourth of July to create a collaboration partnership with service men and women in the state of Georgia,” said Kenah. This year’s charity competition is between the branches of the military—Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, National Guard and Navy—who will start bright and early at 6:53 a.m. with six athletes from respective branches on each team.

They are “racing for bragging rights of the fastest military branch in the United States,” said Kenah, in addition to competing to see which branch can receive the most donations for Kilometer Kids.

The donations will be geared toward improving the scope and reach of the Kilometer Kids organization, whose mission is “to inspire youth to achieve health and fitness through a fun and supportive running program, empowering children with the knowledge they need to make smart lifestyle choices” according to the AJC Peachtree Road Race press release.

With incentives such as free t-shirts, backpacks, and water bottles, the Kilometer Kids programs encourage kids to run 26.2 miles over 11 weeks. With over 6,500 youths ages 7-14 participating over the last year, the program has grown enormously since its beginnings in 2007. Kilometer Kids now has programs in 112 schools and sites, with fall and spring events, and summer programs in Kennesaw.

According to manager of the Kilometer Kids, Todd Liscomb, the organization hopes to expand as much as possible throughout schools in the Atlanta area.

Participants in the Kilometer Kids program will have the opportunity to be at the finish line of the Peachtree on the awards stage, and to assist with the awards ceremony. On Thursday, the kids also had the opportunity to engage with the elite athletes, asking questions, receive autographs, and taking photos. From questions about the Olympics, to favorite American foods and sports teams, the kids were curious to learn about life as a professional runner.



Kilometer Kids

“What’s it like being one of the fastest runners in the world?” one young boy asked Gebre.

“You have to follow your trainer, everything they say…And working hard. If you are disciplined, training hard, and working every day you can be one of the best and fastest runners in the world,” Gebre told him.

“What about your favorite American food?” another young boy asked.

“The bread,” Gebre laughed. And though Yusuke relied on his translator for responding to questions, he knew the answer to that one without assistance. “I love pizza he said.”

Flanagan shared with the kids what it’s like competing on the world stage at the Olympics. “Wearing a Jersey that has your country, that says USA across your chest gives a sense of pride. You want to make your country proud. And then it’s fun to meet other athletes from around the world. I’ve made a lot of great friends through running. It’s more than just competing, beating people, and winning medals. It’s all those friendships you make.”



Kilometer Kids

Liscomb said the gathering was a great opportunity for the kids to learn about how the athletic careers of the elite athletes all began. “It really ties everything together with what they’re trying to accomplish and to hear stories and backgrounds of the elite athletes, maybe some of the injuries or problems or issues that they’ve gone through in the past really helps them understand that it’s not always smooth sailing, there’ll be bumps along the road but they’ll be able to keep moving forward and keep with the sport.”

The program encourages kids to look at running as a foundation for any sport, Liscomb added. “If the kids don’t necessarily stay with running, running can be the foundation for baseball, soccer, or football," he said. "It’s really to get them started at an early age. Introduction to the sport is one of our main goals.”

2004 Olympic 1500m runner Carrie Tollefson, who now works as a sports broadcaster, covered Peachtree for USATF.tv and ncbsn and was involved in yesterday’s Kilometer Kids event. After moving to Atlanta, she became involved with the Kilometer Kids program, and instantly fell in love with the effort.

“I love the sport and being with kids. And it was a no-brainer. When I heard about the Kilometer kids, it’s just so much fun being around the little ones, learning how to be physically fit and active, starting at such a young age, and introducing the sport in a different way.” She said



Peachtree Road Race

In addition to the Kilometer Kids event, the Shepherd Center Wheelchair Division team competition will also take center stage on Saturday morning.

“Wheelchair race has always been more exciting that most of the regular roadraces I’ve seen in the country. The Atlanta Peachtree Road Race has always brought the very best,” said Creigh Kelley, the beloved Peachtree finish-line announcer.

Specializing in brain injury and spinal cord rehabilitation, the Shepherd Center celebrates its 40th year in August. They’ve added their own Peachtree Cup twist this year with a USA vs. the World competition in the Wheelchair division. The top two times from the open men’s and women’s races as well as from the open quad division for both the USA and the World for each will be added up with the lowest cumulative time determining the champion.

Becky Washburn of the Shepherd Center spoke to the importance and meaning of the inclusivity of the wheelchair division.  “What’s special about this race is Peachtree is able to embody the Shepherd Center mission which is to rebuild lives with hope and dignity”

We have always been a strong advocate for community embracement and inclusion. Our athletes can go to any race and be included, but that wasn’t the case 34 years ago,” she said. “We continue to bridge that gap, and be one of those races where people see what they can do when they build their own community.”

16 first-timers will compete in the wheelchair race this year, the 34th year of the wheelchair competition, the youngest being 15-year old Jacob Mogan. The division will also feature several distinguished professionals, including top-seeded female 26-year-old Tatyana McFadden, a four-time Peachtree Champion and 10-time Paralympic Medalist as well as top-seeded male 52-year-old Kurt Fearnley, a two-time Peachtree Champion and triathlete.

McFadden, who is coming off of a triumphant year with wins at the Boston and London Marathons says she’s in her “peak of training” and looks forward to the Peachtree race as a step towards her hopes to competing in the Rio Olympics in 2016.  “Things are just really falling into place and I’m having so much fun. I want to see the sport grow, and it’s becoming really really competitive”

Elizabeth Conway is a summer intern on the Coca-Cola Journey team. A rising junior at Brown University, Elizabeth is a member of both the cross-country and track-and-field teams. She was named New Hampshire high school runner of the year in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.