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Helping Atlantans find their own pace: The year-round work of Atlanta Track Club

Atlanta Track Club is the second-largest running club in the U.S., boasting 22,000 members of all skill levels and walks of life, and a program including clinics, socials, a full-color monthly magazine, and some thirty races annually—including the AJC Peachtree Road Race, the world's largest 10K and a 46-year-old Atlanta tradition bringing more that 63,000 participants and volunteers (not to mention thousands of spectators) into the heart of the city every July 4th.

The finish line of the 2014 AJC Peachtree Road Race - credit Tim Easterday 

An annual event circled on calendars across Atlanta, and recognized as the world’s largest 10-kilometer race, the AJC Peachtree Road Race is one of the events that truly defines Atlanta, a 46-year-old tradition that now draws 60,000 runners every year. It might be hard to believe, but just one nonprofit makes the day possible. Atlanta Track Club doesn’t stop there, however: all year, the organization works to support communities and people in need of healthier, more active lifestyles.

In fact, Atlanta Track Club is the second-largest running club in the U.S., boasting 22,000 members of all skill levels and walks of life, and a year-round program including clinics, socials, some 30 races, and a full-color monthly magazine, Wingfoot.

“From member services, to putting on events, to executing programs, we’re busy throughout the year,” said Executive Director Rich Kenah. “Our vision is to get everyone involved in our running community.”

 

Lowering the barriers to fitness

For staff and board, running is an integral part of their identities. That includes Kenah, a decorated athlete who came to Atlanta Track Club by way of a national executive search in 2014. Kenah ran his first race when he was just six years old, and went on to medal at the World Championships and represent the U.S. at the 2000 Olympic Games. Many of his colleagues have also competed at a high level, fueling a lifelong interest in the sport.

Despite competitive backgrounds, Kenah and his team see their mission as a matter of meeting the needs of people anywhere on the spectrum they call the “running life cycle,” which accounts for all age groups and ability levels. That means lowering barriers to entry and welcoming all runners with an invitation to set their own pace.

“We’re a solution for anyone,” Kenah said. “Just because we have fast runners at the Peachtree doesn’t mean there isn’t room for walkers. Just because we have an Olympic coach spearheading our training programs, that doesn’t mean participants have to be Olympic athletes.”

Though the personal fitness movement became a part of the culture decades ago, Kenah notes, their work has been made harder by technology, diet fads, and other shortcuts promising instant gratification. To push back, Kenah and his team deliver a consistent message of discipline and persistence: “The reality is, it takes time to get fit through running or walking—it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment. It’s about getting people to learn patience.”

Kilometer Kids One Mile Fun Run and Dash at Tribble Mill Park, one of 6 such events in the spring 2015 season - credit Eugene Schulte 

Fostering early involvement in the running life cycle is another key strategy. Each year, the 11-week Kilometer Kids program introduces 7,000 young people to the sport, getting them motivated through an incentives system based on key milestones. Kenah said this program has been especially important because of Georgia’s high youth obesity rate.

Atlanta Track Club measures impact through a number of quantitative variables—the number of kids participating in youth programs, the number of event participants, engagement on social media platforms—but that the true measure of their work, said Kenahm, is simply “to impact fitness and health through running and walking.

“We measure ourselves against our ability to get people from the couch into a race or a program—into a place in their lives where they are happy with their fitness.”

 

Running an Atlanta tradition

Still, there is the matter of the world’s largest 10K, the AJC Peachtree Road Race, which will see its 46th running this July 4th. Though the top finishers cross the line in less than a half hour (the record, set in 1996 by Kenyan runner Joseph Kimani, is 27:04), managing “the Peachtree” is a year-round job. To put on the big day, Atlanta Track Club manages sponsorships, race registration, more than 3,500 volunteers, and logistics for moving 60,000 runners down Atlanta’s main thoroughfare. (Naturally, Kenah describes the effort as “more like a marathon than a sprint.”)

Participants take part in the AJC Peachtree Road Race on July 4, 2014 - credit Paul Kim 

What is the mental state of the Atlanta Track Club leadership team on race day? Kenah said it can change from minute to minute: “If things go the way we planned them, you feel an incredible sense of appreciation for how much work went into it. Then you can sit back and watch 60,000 story lines play out. Some people come to run fast. But many others come because it’s a family tradition, it’s something to do with their friends. It’s what Atlanta does on July 4th.” 

 

A comprehensive corporate partnership

In a sport where delivering value to sponsors through visibility—logos adorning racing bibs, t-shirts, and event signage—is a major priority, Atlanta Track Club has developed a partnership with athletic equipment company Mizuno that goes much deeper. It’s what Kenah calls “a first-of-its kind relationship for Atlanta Track Club, and potentially one of the only of its kind in the industry.”

By showing Mizuno, headquartered in Norcross, how much more the organization does than the Peachtree, the international manufacturer came to understand there was room to integrate new ideas and approaches into a wide range of programs, reaching members of all skill levels. Now, said Kenah, Mizuno “is involved in every element of our organization, from events to outreach to member services to youth programs. It’s a long-term partnership, and we’re getting better at it every day.”

Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah high fives a 2014 Peachtree Junior participant - credit Dan McCauley

Atlanta Track Club also partners with like-minded nonprofits through their Adopt a Mile program, which provides donations in exchange for help staffing the Atlanta 10 Miler race held each fall. And to support youth running organizations, they established the Atlanta Track Club Foundation in 1997; to date, it’s granted more than $425,000 for equipment, uniforms, individual scholarships and other needs.

 

From a race to a lifestyle

Atlanta Track Club works hard to convert the exposure generated by their big yearly event into sustained public interest in running, a springboard for year-round engagement.

“People only interested in racing in the Peachtree, or who have it on their ‘bucket list’ as something to do once—we want those people to see it differently,” said Kenah. “We want running to become part of their routine throughout the year. It’s about using the race to pull people into the fitness lifestyle, and making sure they know where to go for support after July 4th.”

 

Brian Carr is communications consultant for GCN.

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