Celebrating Bill Thorn's Peachtree Era
By Jillian Broaddus and Chuck Cusumano
There are a few things you can guarantee at every Peachtree Road Race: sweltering humidity, red-white-and-blue-clad patrons packed onto MARTA, and everything from local bands to free beers lining the infamous 6.2-mile course from Buckhead to Midtown.
However, one prominent inclusion throughout 53 years of the “world’s largest 10k” was in a notably different capacity at the 2023 Peachtree last week: Coach Bill Thorn crossing the finish line.
The now-60,000-strong race had humble beginnings in 1970, when 150 racers toed the line to share the streets with Atlanta traffic on July 4th. More than five decades later, the Independence Day 10k is world-renown, attracting top runners from around the globe to brave it out for the Peachtree Cup – or to simply survive Cardiac Hill and enjoy the thousands of cheering onlookers lining Peachtree Street.
Bill Thorn was one of those “Original 110” – (because while 150 started, only 110 finished). While working as a high school football coach, he took up running as a weekday hobby. When friend Tim Singleton – a standout athlete at Druid Hills High School, a subsequent star athlete at Georgia Tech, and the soon-to-be founding father of the Peachtree – told him about a little Fourth of July race he was starting up, Bill decided to join with both of his young sons, ages 10 and 6 at the time, by his side.
And then, he simply never stopped.
Bill – who would go on to coach thousands of athletes over more than six decades (earning a record-setting 42 state championships) in high school football, track & field, and cross country – ran the Peachtree each and every year without fail. He ran the Peachtree through a badly sprained ankle. He ran the Peachtree through a cancer battle. He ran the Peachtree through rain and shine, in sickness and in health. Even when the race went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic and took place on Thanksgiving in 2020, 90-year-old Bill showed up (on both July 4th – for tradition’s sake – and again in November) at the starting line of a predetermined, 6.2-mile route he’d meticulously mapped out in his Tyrone, Georgia neighborhood.
The road to becoming what Atlanta Track Club’s Janet Monk calls “Our Iron Man of the Peachtree” not only wasn’t easy; it wasn’t even intentional. “All I know is that none of this was ever planned from the beginning,” Bill related of his accolade. “You just do one, and you don’t stop. You put one foot in front of the other and keep going.” Even when Bill became the only man to run every Peachtree in 1993 when Don Gamel – the only other man to have done so – sat out due to arthritis pain in his knee, Bill didn’t take that as his stopping point. In fact, he wasn’t even halfway through.
Prior to his final Peachtree in 2022, Bill was still adhering to his strict 90-minute daily workout routine (with a half-routine on Sundays) of strength and cardio training, mixing up weights, push-ups, bouncing on his cherished trampoline, stretching, running, walking, and core work. “I don’t know how to quit,” Bill repeated in June, leading up to the big day, in the midst of alternating a swollen ankle between dunks in ice baths and bouts of hot water treatment.
And, just as he’d done 52 times prior, Coach Bill Thorn pushed through unforeseen obstacles, health issues, and the natural aging process to cross the finish line for what would be the 53rd and final time.
In the words of Rich Kenah, Executive Director of the Atlanta Track Club, “It seems so appropriate that one of the most accomplished coaches in state history is the one person who has had the mental focus, physical stamina, and emotional commitment to find the Peachtree finish line each and every year.”
Now, for the first time, Bill hung up his sneakers and tied the bow on the neat little package of his Peachtree story. However, he wasn't missing from the race entirely; Bill paced runners just like he always had, albeit in a different capacity – from the official Peachtree race car!
For Bill, the Peachtree wasn’t just a tradition; it was a lifestyle. It was the culmination of his lifelong commitment to health and fitness, a testament to his tenacity, and proof that the lessons he preached for decades as one of the winningest sports coaches in Georgia High School history were not just taught; they’re lived.
The Peachtree won’t be the same without Bill running from now on, but it also wouldn’t be what it is without him. As Mike Mitchell – one of Bill’s football alums from Headland Highschool in the 1960s – expressed, “He’s Thorn, and I think it’s a good name for him – after all, you don't mess with [a thorn].”
If you've read our blog, the name Bill Thorn might sound familiar to you. The Joshua Group has been honored to write Bill's life story and the culmination of the project is almost here! For more on Coach Bill Thorn, the book THORN: The Scrappy, Relentless, and Inspiring Story of Legendary Coach Bill Thorn by Jillian Broaddus will be published in Fall 2023 by Genesis Publishing House. Visit CoachBillThorn.com for more information.