As AJC Peachtree Road Race Turns 50, Light Shines Brighter on Wheelchair Division
Racers look forward to bonuses, broken records and inspiration as this year’s race approaches.
One of Atlanta’s most time-honored traditions – the AJC Peachtree Road Race on July 4 – is reaching a big milestone this year. And, they’re celebrating it in a big way.
In fact, to commemorate the half-century mark, the AJC Peachtree Road Race will award up to $200,000 in bonus prize money to foot racers and wheelchair athletes who break an event record at the race’s 50th running. It is potentially the biggest payday ever for wheelchair athletes in a road race – and one of adaptive sports’ most powerful statements for equality.
“As we prepared for the 50th running, we wanted to celebrate all that has made the Peachtree great, and Shepherd Center is part of that story and history,” says Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club. “Both the Club and Shepherd are pioneers in wheelchair racing, and it just seemed the right time to speak to the need to have true parity between the able-bodied athletes and the athletes participating with disabilities. We can make a statement about what the industry can and should look like at major events around the world.”
Former Shepherd Center patient Colby Higgins, who sustained a spinal cord injury in a fall three years ago, is thrilled to compete for the first time in the historic event.
“With the history and prize money surrounding the race, I’m just excited to be a part of it,” says Colby, 26, from Milton, Georgia, one of 17 members of the Shepherd Center Spinners wheelchair racing team. It’s the hospital’s largest team ever. “Keeping the prize money even across the board is showing we all have equal value, even if we’re completing the same task in a different way.”
Shepherd Center wellness manager Becky Washburn, who has coordinated the AJC Peachtree Road Race Wheelchair Division for 18 years, is excited about the potential to make history.
“I think about the past history and historic moments we’re going to witness this year,” Washburn says of the possibility of record times triggering the bonuses. “I hope those records are broken. That will make an even bigger statement.”
Wheelchair athletes began competing in the Peachtree in 1978, as part of the overall field of runners. Due to safety concerns, wheelchair athletes were not allowed to race in 1980 or 1981, but in 1982 – the same year Shepherd Center moved to its current location on Peachtree Road – the race again accepted wheelchair racers and gave them their own start. Shepherd Center assumed sponsorship from the Georgia Wheelchair Association in 1984, partnering with the Atlanta Track Club.
Since then, the annual July 4 event – which starts in front of Lenox Square, passes Shepherd Center at the race’s most difficult climb and ends at 10th Street in Midtown – has become one of the most well-known wheelchair races in the world.
Seven-time Paralympian and Shepherd Spinners coach Krige Schabort says the race was on his radar back when he was living in his native South Africa. Krige, who became a double amputee after a being injured in a border war with Angola, moved to the Atlanta area in 1997 and has coached the Spinners for the past five years.
“I thought it was so cool before I lived here,” recalls Krige, 55, five-time winner of the race’s Open Division and Masters Division last year. “But it wasn’t until I moved here that I really understood how big it is.”
Krige says a highlight for him each year is passing Shepherd Center, where as many as 100 patients line the sidewalk. Because of the roadway climb’s intensity, he can only peek at patients out of the corner of one eye.
“But I can hear people cheering and I’ll see patients on the sidewalk outside Shepherd Center,” he says. “It’s a chilling moment for me.”
Known to competitors as Cardiac Hill, that stretch, at about the race’s halfway point, has long been an inspiration for both the patients who watch and the competitors who pass them.
“For them to wake up that early to watch, not only those who use wheelchairs but former patients who run in the race, it gives them the hope and knowledge of what can be in store for their futures,” says Jamie Shepherd, the hospital’s chief operating officer.
“It has an impact on the runners, too,” Shepherd adds. “Cardiac Hill is one of the hardest sections of the race, and I’ve heard from a lot of people how inspired they are by all the patients cheering for them.”
That section of Peachtree Road is now part of J. Harold Shepherd Parkway, dedicated shortly after last year’s race to honor the hospital’s co-founder. Harold Shepherd died at 90 last December. Kenah adds that it’s also a vivid symbol of the long partnership between the Atlanta Track Club and Shepherd Center.
“I can think of no more appropriately named road than that,” Kenah adds.
For more information on the race, visit shepherd.org/PeachtreeRoadRace.
Visit us at the Peachtree Health and Fitness Expo July 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. in booths 401-403 and 500-502.
Written by Drew Jubera
Photos by Phil Skinner, Kevin Liles and courtesy of Shepherd Center Archive
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.