The AJC Peachtree Road Race, a 4th of July Atlanta tradition, is less than two weeks away.
Nearly 60,000 people will race 6.2 miles down Peachtree for a treasure: That coveted t-shirt at the finish line.
But miles away and weeks before, at her home near Stone Mountain, Linda Hart Patton unleashes a hearty laugh.
There is joy in her soul and steel in her resolve.
Patton is the volunteer responsible for getting those t-shirts into the hands of the runners at the finish line. She is responsible for getting it right. Every year for every runner. She’s been volunteering with the t-shirt crew since 1985, since college. And for most of time, Linda Hart Patton has been in charge.
“It’s as if I’m planning a party that kicks off on July 4th,” she told 11Alive's Jon Shierk.
It is a party for the 60,000 runners who are running to get their official t-shirts – a treasure many will keep for a lifetime.
FULL COVERAGE | AJC Peachtree Road Race
But how seriously does Patton take this responsibility? She works at it every year for months.
“I’m responsible for maintaining communication with over 200 volunteers," she revealed. "Communicating with them from the time we start recruiting at the beginning of the year, until the Fourth of July.”
"T-Shirt Central" is Patton’s headquarters. It's her dining room table at home, with files as detailed and organized as General George Patton’s Top Secret war plans.
“I have at least 15 crew chiefs with me," she explained. "They help manage each pod of t-shirts [at the finish line], so all of us, our main goal is making sure that each runner that comes through receives the utmost of service and care and thank-you’s. We really stress [to the volunteers] that this is all about having fun.”
Weeks before the Fourth, Patton coordinates with the group at a secret location in Atlanta, that packs the t-shirts into gift bags — the t-shirt design is a secret until runners get them on the Fourth.
Then Patton arranges to load the boxes onto trucks where the t-shirts are kept at another secret location near the finish line at Piedmont Park, under police guard.
And then, before dawn on the Fourth at the finish line, she unloads all the t-shirts according to size, just before the tidal wave of runners arrives.
She makes sure her volunteers offer a cheerful word of congratulations to every single runner: “Smile, be very, very courteous, look for signs of fatigue with the runners.”
And Patton knows that to the runners, these are not just t-shirts.
“The thing about the Peachtree Road Race is, because it is such a global thing now, that it’s really bringing everyone together," she said. "And after you've taken the time to train for such a hard race, especially with the conditions that we can have race-day morning, it’s fulfilling. Not only for the runner to cross the finish line and to get that coveted t-shirt, but it’s fulfilling as a volunteer to see the end result, to see the tenacity that people have, to see the runners coming through. I mean, it’s an amazing thing. We’re mini-ambassadors. I’m handing them a piece of the heart of Atlanta.”
And a piece of Linda Hart Patton’s heart, too.
“This is unique to Atlanta. It’s a part of who we are. And I look forward to the Fourth of July," she said. "I don’t know if I will do anything else than [volunteering at] the Peachtree Road Race for the Fourth of July. It means a lot.”