A cloud of sweat and designer cologne hung over this bustling southern city today after more than 25,000 people rose before dawn, donned chic running togs and hit Peachtree Street at full gallop.
For a few like Michael Musyoki, a world-class Kenyan runner living in Texas, it was a foot race, the largest 10-kilometer event in the country. He zipped along in record time -- 27 minutes, 59 seconds -- and walked away with $5,000.
For the rest, it was a party, the 16th annual Peachtree Road Race, a rite of passage hereabouts every July 4 for pudgy executives, children of all ages, handicapped athletes and svelte, upbeat yuppie sportsters like Myra Bergen, vying only for a T-shirt prize and a good time.
"I had my nails done for the race," she laughed, showing off manicured pink. Early morning sunlight glinted off a pea-sized diamond about her neck. A wisp of lavender accented her eyes. Cash was tucked snugly into a designer money pouch. Baby-blue Nikes were ready for action.
San Francisco has its Bay to Breakers, the grueling 7.8-mile road race from the bay to the Pacific that draws a large assortment of West Coast crazies. Spokane, Wash., packs in a few more for its longer Bloomsday Lilac. But no footrace in America inspires naked boosterism, personal bests and running chic like the Peachtree. Some liken it to a sort of Gucci marathon.
"You have to look good, no matter how fast you run," said Bergen, a real estate executive who ogled fellow runners as they stretched. It was her sixth Peachtree, and she could hardly jog 10 yards without someone yelling, "HEY, MYRA!" She loved it. After all, there were men all around, some in shape, some out of it, from all over the South, all over the country, all over the world.
"A great place to watch buns," she announced. And plenty were watching back. A crowd of some 100,000 jammed the sidewalks, cheering from rooftops of bars like Aunt Charlie's, waving American flags, chanting "T-SHIRT! T-SHIRT" to inspire the stragglers.
Motorcycle cops, eight abreast, led the way, as news choppers whirred overhead and a small plane, banner in tow, urged one and all to try French champagne. Only one runner had no corks to pop -- a South African forced out of the race at the last moment.
"Legally, no one could have stopped me from running," said Ashley Johnson, 23, a student at Western Kentucky University, seeded number two. "But I didn't want to start a political uprising."
So, he showed up at the starting line in street clothes, shook hands with the Kenyans and melted into the crowd of spectators after the Atlanta Track Club asked him to withdraw from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sponsored race. The Athlete's Congress, which sanctions amateur track and field events, had threatened to strip Peachtree runners of their amateur status if he ran. South Africans are barred from open competition here under International Amateur Athletics Federation rules.
"It's unfair, but we're talking about a country that deprives people of their rights based on race," said Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who prefers tennis whites to jogging shorts. He pondered running, then came the morning of the race. He woke up and shuddered, "Sheer torture." So he simply showed up to play mayor, albeit in a natty white terry-cloth jogging suit.
"This race has made Atlanta a fitness city," he said. "Almost everyone but me runs in it."
Then came the crack of the starter's pistol, and they were off, waves and waves of runners who had to walk about a mile until the pack thinned out enough so they could run. And run they did, beneath thick gray clouds that graciously kept the usually steamy temperature in the high 70s, down from the high 90s of Julys past.
But it was still a Sweatorama, with runners like Ken Haney, 36, stuffing American flags into sweatbands. "Last year, we wore ferns, but we were feeling more patriotic, so this year it's flags," he said. They ran from Buckhead, a sort of Beverly Hills South, down Peachtree Street, past "Go DADDY!" signs, drunks hanging off bar rooftops, rich matrons nibbling from the trunks of Mercedes and Fellini's Pizza, where a local lawyer had mounted a "FOR SALE" sign on the windshield of his red Porsche roadster.
"I'll give you $5,000," shouted one runner.
"Double it, and it's yours," Wilbur Fitzgerald, 36, yelled back.
A platoon of Marines chanted in cadence as they ran under a bank's banner with the slogan, "It Hurts So Good," American flags unfurled. They ran past Longhorn Steaks, locals in lawn chairs, caterer Frank Cloudt (garden hose at the ready), a sidewalk Dixieland band playing "Brother Lowdown."
This is a race for pros and people who can't stand to walk to the mailbox. For weeks beforehand, runners have been a hazard on Peachtree, as crash training began and griping about injuries became standard cocktail banter. Then came the big day and the sidewalk duffers were off.
"Look at them suffering," sympathized novelist Pat Conroy from atop the last incline. "Florida should be the only state in the country allowed to have races because it's flat."
But his father, a tough, grizzled ex-marine, showed no such mercy. "This is a piece of cake compared to Parris Island," sniffed Col. Donald Conroy, 64, an ex-combat pilot and veteran of three wars. "Any good marine would find this only a mild challenge."
Marvin Baker, 40, an Army officer from Springfield, Va., finished the race, then turned around to fetch his wife and help her across the finish line. For four years, he's driven Betty, 37, and their two children to Atlanta to run. "It's a family tradition," he said. "It's a people's marathon."
But it was serious business for George Murray of St. Petersburg, Fla., the first handicapped athlete to ever appear on a Wheaties box. He won the wheelchair division for the fifth straight year. Grete Waitz of Norway whipped all the women in just over 32 minutes. And Musyoki held off two fellow Kenyans for the grand prize.
Many said they missed the naked lady who once flashed runners from atop a building, causing a serious pile-up for gawkers. And officials reported only 93 minor injuries, mostly heatstroke, as runners huffed toward the finish line in Piedmont Park, where they guzzled 175 free 15-gallon kegs of Miller Lite, and Coca-Cola served up 72,000 new Cokes. There were no official gripes about the new formula.
"You want old or new?" teased a server.
"Doesn't matter as long as it's wet," said Herb Cox, 44, a high school music teacher. Then it was off to brunch.