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For 37 Years, She's Given You the Shirt On Your Back

Distributing T-shirts at the finish line of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race has its moments, stressful and otherwise.

Longtime volunteer Linda Hart Patton recounts one of the "otherwise."

Among the rules for handing out finisher's T-shirts is "one per customer." Participants occasionally ask for an extra, but standing firm is crucial to the tradition - you, personally, have to finish the race to get the shirt. No exceptions.

One year, some guys came through together, asking for an extra. They told their story: a member of their group had passed away while training for the Peachtree that year. The buddies had cut up his race number, each running with a piece of it. At the finish, they pieced the number back together and asked for a shirt, to give to the man's wife.

Their unusual request got bumped up to Hart Patton, the crew chief.

They got the shirt.

"It goes beyond a service," she said. "There's meaning behind it. That T-shirt represents the struggle they invested in getting to the finish line."

There's meaning behind it for Hart Patton, too, who has been handing out those shirts since 1985, when she was a student at Spelman College - where she is now the director of alumnae operations. Her late father, Erskine Hart, ran his first of many Peachtrees more than 40 years ago, and plenty of other kin joined in over the years. (Her brother, Lloyd, and an uncle ran this year.) Hart Patton's mom, Brenda, ran a few times. Aunts, uncles, in-laws, sometimes coming in from out-of-state.

Linda opted for T-shirts back in 1985, and hasn't looked back since. Her mom, 81, helps, too, most years. Hart Patton's ex-husband, Scott, does set-up the day before the race. Their aptly named son Miles, 22, made his first T-shirt appearance- in a pack strapped to his mom - before he was two months old.

"People will come up to him and say, 'I remember when you were born!'" said Hart Patton. While still a preschooler, he decided to help organize an unruly queue by shouting "Excuse me, could everyone please get in one line? Thank you." The crowd, his mother recalls, obeyed. When she talks about retiring, he just shrugs: "OK, no problem. I guess that's when I have to take over."

"Our story is not unique at all," said Hart Patton. "The Peachtree Road Race itself is like a family reunion."

This year's stint at the T-shirt tables was especially challenging. Production issues left a blank on some race numbers where the T-shirt size was supposed to be printed. The new gender-specific shirts proved popular, but their labels weren't always as specific as the shirts. The situation took a lot of sorting out in real time. Notes were taken for next year.

"Linda does her job with unbelievable moxie, patience and commitment," said Jennie Coakley, director of events. "The Peachtree T-shirt is the most prized item of the event, making her area one of the most rewarding but also most frustrating, as Linda deals with questions, confusion and a bit of mayhem each year. But she does it all, year in and year out."

"Whatever the problem is, we can handle it," said Hart Patton. "And the sun will rise the next day."

Maybe, she said, she will even participate someday, given that she is the only family member who hasn't.

"I should do it for dad," she said. "I should do it for me."

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wingfoot Magazine.

Photos: Courtesy of Linda Hart Patton