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Mel Wages is a Peachtree Road Race expert.
This will be his 40th consecutive year running the race.
Wages, a Flowery Branch resident, first ran the 10K race held annually on the Fourth of July in midtown Atlanta in 1977. He was one of about 1,200 competitors. This year, the race has nearly 65,000 participants, and Wages has seen the growth and changes to the event firsthand over the years.
“I actually started on the front line in 1977,” he said. “You didn’t even have to have a seed like you do now. You just muscled up, they shot a gun and off to the races you went.”
Today, runners are sorted into seeds, lettered A-Z, starting in waves throughout the morning. The course follows Peachtree Road, from Lenox Road down to 10th Street, where it turns and ends at the entrance to Piedmont Park. But Wages said that changed several times over the years.
“One of my favorite periods was when it would finish through Piedmont Park,” he said. “It would actually go around the lake and all through the park. But because of the increase, it would eventually logjam in the park, so they couldn’t go down those narrow parts of the park anymore and they had to bring it the way it is now.”
Wages described the race as “a big party going down Peachtree Road.” Many people dress up in costume, with American flags draped over their shoulders or their faces painted. An estimated hundreds of thousands of people line the streets to watch the race each year, according to the Atlanta Track Club, which hosts the event.
“Once you do it one time, you’re hooked,” Wages said. “You want to do it over and over.”
He’s had his own fun running the race. Two years ago, when Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi ran the Peachtree for charity, Wages stopped mid-race to talk to a newscaster on the lookout for Keflezighi.
In 2007, Wages also stopped mid-race, as he neared Piedmont Hospital. His mother was a patient there with cancer.
“We knew she was going to pass, but I decided to run the race anyway,” he said. “As I started up the hill I said, ‘You know, let me just leave the race course and go say hey to my mom.’ It just made her day that I had stopped. She went on to pass in August.”
The most difficult year for Wages was 1995, after suffering a full-force collision and head injury in a softball game the year before. He was diagnosed with onset multiple sclerosis from the trauma, after weeks of seizures and illness.
But he still walked the Peachtree the next year. He was determined to keep the streak going.
When asked his favorite thing about the race, Wages had a hard time narrowing down the highlights.
“All the people who line the race course and cheer you on,” he said. “When you don’t feel like making it up ‘Cardiac Hill,’ they get you on over the top. And at about the two and a half mile mark, there’s a Catholic church where the priest throws the holy water. That’s a great memory every year.”
Ten years ago, to mark his 30th anniversary running the Peachtree, Wages’ wife, Kim, had a quilt made of his Peachtree Road Race T-shirts over the years, including a panel on the back of the quilt in which he wrote his story.
“The road race means a great deal to me every year,” Wages wrote, “and has actually become an important part of me and who I am.”
The quilt includes the very first T-shirt he earned in 1977.
“Every T-shirt means something,” he said. “It’s a coveted T-shirt. People will do whatever it takes to get to that finish line on a hot July Fourth.”
But the quilt doesn’t include every T-shirt from every Peachtree he ran. Two T-shirts were placed in the caskets at both his parents’ funerals, as tokens from one of their sons.
Wages said he believes the race is one of the best ways to celebrate Independence Day in the country, as runners start the race under a massive American flag suspended from a sky-high crane.
“The start looking at that American flag and knowing what it represents,” Wages said. “It’s about our freedom each and every day as a country, that we’re even able to do something like this each and every year. Just to be an American on our birthday, it makes you feel like it’s everybody’s birthday when you start running that race, and that flag is there for you.”