Who Was That Man?

Ron Karpinski  1999


By 1979, the Peachtree Road Race had developed into a Fourth of July tradition in Atlanta.  Now in its ninth year, the race served as a rite of passage for many fitness buffs.  Twenty thousand runners arrived from all over the world to compete.

Only the first thousand or so seeded runners had any chance to win.  The rest in the crowd shuffled along at much slower paces.  For most of them, merely completing the 6.2 mile course would be a major milestone.  Those who crossed the finish line received a coveted Peachtree Road Race T-shirt and a lifetime of bragging rights.

The hilly route ran through the heart of the city, on one of the hottest and muggiest days of the year.  If the long steep hills didn't bring you to your knees, the heat and humidity would.  Many Peachtree hopefuls trained for months ahead of time.

Thirty-year-old John Stanley Phillips heard about the race and signed up; but he saw no great need to train for it.  At six foot five and two hundred twenty pounds of rock hard muscle, redheaded John lived life on his own terms.  When he took on a challenge, he just plunged in head first.

Once, he ran a full marathon on only one day's notice.  He finished in a little over four hours.  The next day, he limped around the office with a few sore muscles but nothing worse than that.  His feats of strength bordered on legend.

The day before the Peachtree, John drove to Atlanta and spent the night with a friend.  At daybreak, he emerged from the house to find an empty space in the street where his car had been parked.  A blind thief must have stolen it.

Not the pretentious type, big John didn't care what kind of car he drove, so long as it got him from point A to point B.  This current one looked a lot like a ragged old 1962 Chevy II; but it was hard to tell beneath the rust and grime.

Much more than losing a near worthless car, John steamed over the fact that he had left his race number, shorts, singlet, and nylon running shoes in the trunk; and now they were gone.  Undeterred, he caught a cab to Lenox Square.

The race would not start until eight o'clock; but, at half past six, a sea of runners already milled about the huge parking lot.  Most talked in small circles or stretched their legs.  Others waited in long lines before a row of portable toilets.

With fire in his eyes, John stalked through the crowd, searching for a thief who might have been dumb enough to show up wearing his race number.  If he found the scoundrel, there would be hell to pay; but the search came up empty.

As the gun sounded, twenty thousand runners surged forward and trotted down Peachtree Road.  Nineteen thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine wore rubber soled running shoes.  One tall figure, far to the rear of the pack, joined the race clad in a plaid shirt, white corduroy trousers, and brown leather dress shoes.

Heading southwest, John crossed Piedmont Road and entered Buckhead, barely working up a sweat, as he passed the one mile mark.  For the next mile and a half, the route ran downhill, past West Wesley Road and Lindbergh Drive.  Then began the long climb up Heartbreak Hill.

Crowding the curb in front of Piedmont Hospital, spectators, four and five deep, cheered the runners.  Some held signs while others shouted encouragement or took photos of passing friends.  Loud music blared from open office windows, scaffolds, and grassy hillsides.  The party mood had reached full swing.

Drink stations appeared at regular intervals.  John veered toward the curb and swept a small cup of unknown green fluid from a table top and gulped it down as he loped off.  Squashed paper cups littered the pavement at his feet.

Brookwood Station came up on the right, and the four-mile marker loomed ahead.  Breathing hard now, and drenched in his own sweat, John turned south onto West Peachtree Street.  Other runners looked startled, as he passed them.

At the five-mile mark, John turned left on 14th Street, past Colony Square, and into Piedmont Park.  Once in the park, the route curved to the right around a lake. There, the pace slowed to a walk, as runners backed up at the finish line.

As John crossed the line, he glanced up at the large time clock.  "Hey, forty-six minutes and ten seconds," he said to himself.  "Not bad for my first one."

Twenty yards beyond, a stream of water shot high into the air.  Exhausted runners gathered under the drizzle and hugged, grateful to have made it all the way.  Nylon tops and shorts clung to bare skin, soaked with sweat, salt, and spray.

After he had cooled off somewhat, John got in line to collect his T-shirt.  The official took one look at his soggy street clothes and demanded to see his registration number.  Without it, she explained, he could not receive a shirt.

The official listened intently, as John pleaded his case.  When John pleads a case, it usually draws a crowd.  Other runners spoke up and vouched that they had seen him along the route and that he had, indeed, run the entire race.

As John poured out the details of how his car and race number had been stolen, a chant rose in the background:  "Give him his shirt!  Give him his shirt!"

Ten minutes later, John emerged from the mist, grinning and triumphant.  An extra large Peachtree Road Race T-shirt draped across his broad left shoulder.  Two shapely young ladies in tight blue shorts strolled at his side, one on each arm.


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