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Family on quest to run race in every county in Georgia. All 159 of them

Helena Oliviero, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Parenting News

In early 2016, John Coleman of Decatur, Georgia, met a local runner who completed a major feat: running a race in every state in the country. All 50 of them.

“It sounded like so much fun,” recalled Coleman’s wife, Ashley, who had recently taken up running.

But reality check: “Logistically, we had small children, and well, that wasn’t going to happen.”

So the couple came up with an alternative plan that would still take the family on an awe-inspiring, running adventure exploring new places with natural beauty, fascinating history and regional treats.

It would just all be closer to home.

The Colemans would run a race in every county in Georgia. All 159 of them. They recently reached their 101st county with Walton County’s “Good Hope Coffee Run.”

Starting their journey in the spring of 2016, the races have taken the family to an American Indian mound site in Early County, the Monastery of the Holy Spirt in Rockdale County, and the Okefenokee Swamp in Charlton County.

They’ve enjoyed small-town festivals you can only find in Georgia: a wild chicken festival in Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County; a grits festival in Worth County; a strawberry festival in Taylor County and a Vidalia onion festival in Toombs County.

All the while, the family bonded while running and visiting yet another swath of the state, ranging from majestic Blue Ridge Mountains to miles of coastline to wildlife sanctuaries. They also ran along the Providence Canyon in Stewart County – county No. 42.

Running mostly 5K races (3.1 miles long), they’ve won multiple medals, not to mention other prizes with a local flavor: a bag of Vidalia onions (Toombs County), a bottle of cane syrup (Decatur County), a piece of handmade pottery (Crawford County) and a Santa Claus bobblehead (Hall County).

“It’s so much fun, and as a parent, it feels like a life hack,” said John Coleman, 42. “People talk about getting your kids healthy and spending more quality time with your kids. We’re going on these little road trips with the set purpose of running these races, but really it’s a lot more than that. We wind up exploring and seeing lots of places we never would have seen otherwise.”

While John is a longtime runner and the former captain of his high school cross country team, the rest of the family developed an affinity for running little by little.

Ashley Coleman, now 39, was a “lifelong couch potato” before deciding to run after the birth of her second daughter, Libby, in 2015.

The first race was within walking distance of their home in Decatur — the “Beat the Street” 5K which gives every runner a coveted T-shirt featuring Pete the Cat.

Ashley and John run most of their races with their children, Abby, who is now 12; Libby, 9; and 5-year-old James, who gets pushed by one of his parents in a jogging stroller (they take turns). John Coleman’s son from a previous relationship, Callan, 18, has also joined some of the runs.

While they’ve run an average of 12 races a year, the pace has varied due to pregnancy, an injury, and the COVID pandemic, which put many races on ice.

The AJC Peachtree Road Race was the largest race they’ve run in Georgia, with tens of thousands of runners. That’s Fulton County, run No. 3. And they’ve also run in races with as few as eight people, counting the Coleman family’s four runners.


So is there even a race in every county of Georgia?

So far, so good. But they are not always easy to find. And there’s a bit of strategy involved. They look for opportunities to run two races in one weekend in neighboring counties. They are also spreading them out throughout the state and saving some counties, including some in metro Atlanta where races will be easy to find closer to the end.

They scour running and community websites looking for races throughout the state. So when they learned a race in Calhoun County, a rural county in the southwestern part of Georgia with fewer than 6,000 residents, might be having their very first race ever, they had to seize the chance.

“That was a ‘Hold the presses; clear the schedule,’ so we make it down there,” he said.

So last fall they drove to the rural county — No. 87 on their journey — for a “slime” run around school property. The Coleman family were among a handful of runners.

“Everyone was super friendly,” said John Coleman. “Down home southern hospitality. Everyone was excited we were visiting their small town. I remember people literally giving us their extra clothes to use to wipe off the slime since we weren’t really prepared for such an overwhelming slime barrage.”

Coleman says he thinks it will take the family another two years to complete a race in all 159 counties. Recognizing they may not be able to find a race in every county, they are prepared to organize a race for a county if need be.

“Abby has really taken to it, but it is not something that came overnight,” he said about his daughter. “She’s had her ups and downs with running, but we’ve seen steady progression.”

“Now she’s developed into a leader of her middle school cross country team. Running a race at 7:30 in the morning doesn’t seem like that big of a deal,” he said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to learn how to face challenges with a positive attitude and creativity.”

She’s also been getting faster and winning races. In April, Abby won the Big Marsh 5K in Americus, finishing first among all female runners. She ran the 5K in 22 minutes, 47 seconds. She also beat her mom for the first time; her mom finished third.

The project takes them to parts of the states that won’t likely make a tourism flier, including some struggling tiny towns with buildings boarded up, but even so, they continue to see something special, something uniquely Georgia in virtually every stop of this undertaking.

They always check out the Explore Georgia website before visiting a new county. Ashley Coleman recalled that’s how they learned about a vintage kitchen museum in Ben Hill County.

“I tell my husband about it and he’s like, ‘That sounds like the lamest thing I’ve heard about in my life.’ But then we get to the festival and we meet a woman talking about it. I talk him into going, and this lady has this huge warehouse. She has different rooms set up and each room has a different decade with all of the appliances from then. ... My husband was amazed. He ended up giving the lady a hug and was like, ‘This is the coolest thing.’”

“This running project has been so amazing for our family,” Ashley Coleman said. “Quality time together. Exploring new places in our state, seeing hidden gems we would have never seen otherwise, meeting awesome people, and bettering our mental and physical health through running. One hundred and one counties strong and 58 to go.”

After they meet their goal in every county, the Colemans plan to keep running races throughout Georgia. But they will also be up for another challenge. The kids will be older, they will be more experienced runners. Maybe it will be time to start running a race — in every state in the country.

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