By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
ATLANTA, GA (03-Jul) — When Rich Kenah took over as executive director of the Atlanta Track Club and race director of the Atlanta Journal Constitution Peachtree Road Race earlier this year, he made a vow.
“When I walked in the door on February 24, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t make any changes in the first 90 days,” Kenah told Race Results Weekly here on Wednesday. “In the first 30 days, that went out the window.”
Kenah, 43, the 1997 World Championships bronze medalist at 800m and a 2000 Olympian, has swiftly enhanced one of the most historic events in America, focusing on the patriotic and communal themes that make the AJC Peachtree Road Race an annual Independence Day tradition in the Peach State.
In his first 30 days in office, Kenah and race organizers made the decision to have an American-only elite field in 2014. Awarded the USA 10-K National Championships for both men and women by USA Track & Field, Kenah believed the opportunity was one that could not only bolster the race’s competitive nature, but also create a more meaningful and lasting connection between America’s best road racers and the Atlanta community.
“The idea of celebrating Americans on the Fourth of July because we have the U.S. Championships, we won the U.S. Championships bid, it’s significant,” said Kenah, speaking with passion. “I believe that if we are going to invest and bring athletes here to Atlanta on the Fourth of July annually, it is our responsibility that our elite athletes become known by the 60,000 people running the race.”
Leading up to Friday’s race, the Atlanta Track Club implemented a number of initiatives with hopes of exposing the masses and 200,000-plus spectators to top American athletes. Between charity events, community outreach, and an increased prize purse, Kenah has taken steps to assure the bond between recreational runner and competitive athlete blossoms.
Kenah describes the process as framing up a narrative and marrying the elite athlete with the everyday runner.
“All too often races don’t understand that it is their responsibility, our responsibility, to make sure the general public here in the host city have a chance to understand who the elites are,” said Kenah. “I’m excited that we’ll have almost 200,000 people as spectators who will hear that there are men and women racing for the U.S. Championships. They won’t have to look at the race this year and figure out, ‘OK, is that person American or are they a foreigner, and what race are they part of?’ They understand that this race is a US Championship event this year.”
The last Americans to win the AJC Peachtree Road Race were Ed Eyestone in 1991 and Joan Nesbit in 1995. It is virtually guaranteed that an American will finish atop the podium in both men’s and women’s contests this year.
On Wednesday, a number of elite athletes including Olympians Ryan Hall and Desiree Linden met with local children as part of the Kilometer Kids Run program in Piedmont Park, answering questions and participating in relay races. On race day, Boston Marathon winner and Olympic medalist Meb Keflezighi –one of the most recognizable faces in the sport– will run with the masses, raising money for Kilometer Kids with each athlete he passes. And at the front of the pack, Americans –and not foreign elite athletes– will battle for the honor of national champion and AJC Peachtree Road Race winner. All of these programs or initiatives serve to promote the connection between runners and community, creating lasting relationships while celebrating the American athlete.
“If you look at photos and look at video at what makes the AJC Peachtree Road Race special, it is all of those 60,000 people celebrating the Fourth of July. The idea that we can celebrate the Fourth of July at the front of the race with the elites, in the middle of the pack with all the folks who come out here every year to run, and with Meb at the back of the pack, it ties it all together nice and neatly on Independence Day,” said Kenah.
In order to further emphasize the Americana theme, while at the same time aiding in the development of American athletes, Kenah and race organizers increased the American prize purse from $60,000 to $100,000 this year. The men’s and women’s winner will earn $15,000, with the next eleven finishers on both sides taking home a slice of the pie.
As a former elite athlete, Kenah knows just how much an increase in prize money can impact an Olympic hopeful’s career, keeping dreams of representing America at international competitions alive.
“I’m a retired Olympic hopeful and ultimately Olympic athlete. I recognize the challenges that athletes face as they move along this journey towards hopefully their Olympic birth, and the financial challenges they may face. To be able to focus on our U.S. Championships both in stated goal but then in action, being able to raise the prize purse from $60,000 for Americans, which it had been, to $100,000 is something we are proud of,” he said.
Kenah was quick to point out that the change in 2014 to go from an international elite field to American-only isn’t a definite for the future. Rather, race management will see how this year goes before deciding whether or not to stick with domestic athletes.
“This is not a permanent shift in our strategy. This is not going to be an American only race for the foreseeable future,” said Kenah, hinting that the reason it is American-only this year is because of the USA Championships. “This is what we are doing this year. Once we get done with this year, we will look at what we can do next year to celebrate world class athletes in Atlanta.”
It appears that having a world championships medalist, Olympian, and past elite athlete manager in Kenah as executive director and race director has brought a unique vantage point to the AJC Peachtree Road Race, one that understands the potential opportunities between community and elite Olympic caliber runners. Yet Kenah is hesitant to say his experience as one of the nation’s best 800m runners has helped him in his current role.
“My background as an elite athlete by itself, I’m not sure has relevance here. But the idea that I started as a 6-year-old, as a kid who ran a road race and finished last in that road race, then was bitten by the Olympic bug,” he said, pausing to reflect on his journey through the sport. “I use the words runner life cycle, to have lived through every step of that life cycle, I think that’s what has prepared me for this job. I love the elite side of the sport and am bullish on the use of elite athletes. But the elite athletes for an event like this need to be weaved into every aspect of the race for it to make sense.”
Less than five months into his position, Kenah appears to be doing just that, intertwining the elites with community efforts and celebrating the nation’s patriotism all at the same time.
“I’m excited to experience my first AJC Peachtree Road Race, but I’m equally excited to have our USA Championships field here,” he said, a very large grin growing across his face.
On Friday, after the Star Spangled Banner is sung and the elites line up on the start line, he’ll watch more than 60,000 runners –many decked out in red, white, and blue– make his vision a reality.