Giving the command to start the AJC Peachtree Road Race was once a dangerous job. Before the days and safety of the announcer’s stand, the official starters would quickly find themselves in peril, at risk of being trampled by a stampede of runners. Swiftness of foot was necessary, as the starters would drop either their hand or a flag as a silent “GO!” and then had to quickly dart out of the way as a sea of adrenaline-filled runners set off to race.
“I had to run like hell,” said Tommy Owens, the start coordinator of the Peachtree until 2006. In fact, in almost every picture of the race’s start from the 1980s you can see Owens in midstride, with some of the best runners in the world nipping at his heels. The retired dentist said he used to have to warm up for his sprint to the sidelines as if he were running the race.
He recalled his reason for staging a fellow volunteer at a break in the fence: “As I was running full blast he would grab me by the arm or the waist, which was better than crashing into the fence.” After a few years of close calls, Owens said, he changed his position from the middle of the road to closer to the curb in front of the elite women, who used to start at the same time as the elite men. “If I was going to go down, I’d rather go down in a pile of women,” he said with a laugh.
Even though Owens made the flawless start of the AJC Peachtree Road Race happen for more than two decades, he was a behind-the-scenes guy. Often, the title of “Official Starter” was ceremonially bestowed upon local dignitaries. Of course, Atlanta Track Club officers and leaders were also among those who gave the starting command. Executive Director Julia Emmons; race founder Tim Singleton; and founding members Buddy Fowlkes, the Georgia Tech Track and Field Coach, and legendary Westminster coach Paul Koshewa all started the race at least once. But, as noted exercise-physiologist, running historian and Atlanta Track Club member Dr. David Martin noted in a short history of the race written in 1979, the list of race starters is no less impressive than the list of runners. Here is a look at some of the more notable names on that list.
The man who gave the command to the Original 110 runners of what would become the world’s largest 10K was a world-champion 110-meter hurdler. Forrest “Spec” Towns, then the track and field coach at the University of Georgia, sent the runners on their way into the history books on July 4, 1970. Towns won the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and held the world record in the event three times. He retired from UGA in 1975 and passed away in 1991, but the Bulldogs’ track still bears his name.
Arguably the most famous person to serve as official starter did so in 1971 at the second running of the Peachtree. Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, lived in the neighborhood and made a short trip from the governor’s mansion over to the start line. According to Karen Rosen’s history of the race published in 1989, Carter knew race director Tim Singleton through Singleton’s job at Georgia State. Carter was no stranger to running. He ran cross country at the Naval Academy and in 1979 told The New York Times, “If I don't run, I don't feel exactly right. I carry a watch, and I can click off a mile in 6½ minutes when I really turn it on."
The Lt. Governor
Carter’s one-time Lieutenant Governor and later political foe followed in his footsteps at the start. Lester Maddox was the starter of the third running. At the 1972 start line, he reportedly told runners, “Have a good time and remember, if you lose the race, it’s your own damn fault.” Maddox would go on to lose the 1974 governor’s race and the 1976 presidential race.
In 1976, the Atlanta Journal Constitution became the title sponsor of the Peachtree. In the first two years of the partnership, two of the newspaper’s most famous sportswriters started the race. In 1976 it was Furman Bisher, a locally and nationally known columnist who wrote for the paper from 1950 to 2009.
The following year, the race was started by Jesse Outlar, who retired from the AJC in 1988 after 41 years at the paper. Bisher passed away in 2012, Outlar in 2011.
Atlanta’s mayors have long played a part in kicking off the Peachtree, with mayors from Sam Massell to Keisha Lance Bottoms sending runners on their way down Peachtree. Massell, who was mayor at the birth of the Peachtree, started the race in 1973 and is now 90, noted earlier in this series that he still sits outside his home on Peachtree Street to cheer on the runners.
Mayor Andrew Young was a fixture on both the start line and the course during his time in office from 1982 to 1990. Runners would look for him along Mile 5 near the High Museum. “The race has made Atlanta a fitness city,” Young told The Washington Post in 1985. “Everybody but me runs it.”
In fact, no Atlanta mayor ran the race until Shirley Franklin made it a tradition in 2003, as Atlanta’s first female mayor ran alongside race director Julia Emmons. Emmons had served on Atlanta’s City Council while Franklin was the city manager.
The city’s second female mayor ran the Peachtree before ever taking office, including the 2017 race when she accompanied her predecessor, Kasim Reed. But in 2018 Keisha Lance Bottoms got to welcome the runners, give the start command and then jump into Wave A. She finished in 1:15:58, about thirteen minutes behind the world-famous rapper that helped her kick off the race. Which brings us to …
In 2018, Jeezy became the first entertainer to start the AJC Peachtree Road Race. Jeezy was there to run with Mayor Bottoms while raising money for his Street Dreamz Foundation and Atlanta Track Club’s Kilometer Kids program. The Atlanta-based rapper, who has embraced running as part of his attempt to live a healthier lifestyle, finished in 1:02:14.
The official starter for the 50th Running of the AJC Peachtree Road Race has yet to be named. We have a few candidates, but please give us yours!