Jack Abbott is perched forward in the passenger seat of a black, city-marked SUV. As the vehicle moves down the road, Abbott examines the pavement before him. His head moves slightly back and forth, like a boat captain surveying the sea.
“There’s one,” he says, spotting a pothole.
He looks down at the clipboard in his lap to see if it’s on the typed list of 42 “repair items” he has already noted on this stretch.
It’s the 6.2-mile span, primarily on Atlanta’s bustling Peachtree Road, that 60,000 runners will trek on the morning of July 4.
The Peachtree Road Race — lauded as the world’s largest 10K — will be held for the 50th time this year. It’s a staple in the city: A steamy challenge and rite of passage for local runners. And a source of consternation for motorists trying to navigate around the busy corridor on Independence Day.
As the race celebrates an anniversary, so does Abbott. He’s one of the event’s most dedicated volunteers.
But after 45 years, he’s hanging it up.
“It’s time to pass it on somebody who’s not on Medicare,” the 74-year-old course director says dryly from the front seat.
He sits shotgun while a member of the city’s Public Works Department drives. Another employee sits behind Abbott.
On this day, the race is still five weeks away, but Abbott has already been prepping “his course” for months.
Abbott is straight forward, meticulous and laser focused on his singular objective: a “smooth and safe” course.
“My goal is to do all these crazy things leading up to and behind the scenes so that 60,000 people can show up and just run down Peachtree, get their T-shirt and go home,” he says.
When he meets the city employees near Piedmont Park, where the finish line will be on race day, they greet each other like old friends.
He hands them each a copy of his checklist. It’s an updated version from the last time they met, including 13 new items (primarily potholes) that Abbott wants fixed.
Abbott spotted most of the additions when he drove the course with his wife, Sandra, at 7 a.m. the previous Sunday. They made the special trip from their Cobb County home because Abbott likes to see the course when it’s less chaotic. “It’s probably one of the few times when there’s nobody on the road,” he says. “We see things we miss when there’s traffic.”
The pair of public works employees are unfazed by Abbott’s tall order. They pile into the car to drive the course in reverse, heading up to the start near Lenox Square.
No. 27 on the list reads: “Very bad/low manhole cover, 10th at Piedmont.” This is the doozy this year for Abbott.
This spot must absolutely be fixed by race day. He’s especially concerned about problems it would cause the wheelchair athletes.
“That’s the only really showstopper,” he says. “I mean, all the others, we want them to be fixed, but that’s the worst.”
Abbott has the gait of a seasoned runner, which (not surprisingly), he is. He dons blue and gray Saucony shoes and a running watch on his right wrist. Despite wearing jeans and a plaid button-up shirt, he somehow still looks ready to log a couple miles.
In 1975, a friend convinced Abbott to sign up for the Peachtree. After just three months as a runner, he laced up some basketball sneakers and hit the course.
From then on, he was hooked. He’s run races around the country, including the ultimate feat for any serious runner: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
“It’s been quite a ride for 45 years,” he says one night in mid-May at a volunteer meeting held at the Atlanta Track Club’s headquarters.
A Team Effort
Abbott is one of 3,500 volunteers who make the annual event possible. Tina Sjogren, the race’s volunteer coordinator, said people like Abbott are indispensable.
“It is pretty amazing the number of volunteers that we have that have given decades,” she said. “They give their heart, their soul.”
Abbott says only his wife knows how many hours of preparation go into his role.
“I’ve got checklists on top of checklists and to-do lists on top of to-do lists,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist, and to be a perfectionist for a 60,000-participant event is impossible, but I try.”
On the drive, in between pothole sightings, Abbott shoots the breeze about the NBA Finals. His money is on Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
He also recalls, in a voice that seems laced with nostalgia, stories of years gone by.
There were the couple of years that a business (or, “past adversary”) threw T-shirts onto the course.
“Just doesn’t work with 60,000 people, and you have people stopping to try to get a shirt,” he says. “So they were pain in my side for a few years until we finally got him to stop.”
Or the time a bank strung balloons across the course, but they were low enough for the first press truck to pull them down.
Abbott has “endless stories.”
But, he says, the good news is most participants have no idea.
And for him, the satisfaction of a successful race far outweighs the small surprises that inevitably crop up in an event like this.
The Final Stretch
Race day for Abbott starts at 1:30 a.m. In the dark early morning hours, he’s joined by a police officer as he puts the finishing touches on the production he’s prepared tediously for.
Five-and-a-half hours before the first wave starts, he ticks items off the final checklist: set up banners, put out traffic cones, spray chalk parts of the course, mark a grate that could cause issues.
“Again, looking for surprises,” he says.
Around 3:30 a.m., he’ll meet a group of people down near the finish line. Cars left along 10th Street need to be towed.
“That has to be totally clear, because that’s the last stretch for runners.”
By 5 a.m., he’s working his way back toward the start. He’ll check in with the coordinator of the race vehicles, change into his running gear, watch the wheelchair athletes start, find a bathroom and down a swig of water.
If all goes well, he’ll be lined up to run when the gun goes off.
For everyone else, that’s when the Peachtree Road Race begins.
For Jack Abbott, after 45 years, his work will be complete.