Ready. Set. GO! It all starts with Debbie Douthit, the Peachtree Road Race that is. The Peachtree Road Race is a 10-kilometer run held annually in Atlanta on July 4, Independence Day. The Peachtree Road Race is the world’s largest 10-kilometer race, a title it has held since the late 1970s. The race has become a citywide tradition in which over 70,000 amateur and professional runners try to register for one of the limited 60,000 spots. The event also includes a wheelchair race which precedes the footrace. The race attracts some of the world’s elite 10K runners and has served as both the United States’ men’s and women’s 10K championship. For the past four years, East Cobb resident, Debbie Douthit, has been the official starter of The Peachtree Road Race. Debbie writes below of how she snagged this special position and what it means to her.

As I stood on the starter stand last year with my son, Spencer Welch, he looked out over the 65,000 runners that were about to start the largest 10K in the USA and commented, “Wow! This really is a cool gig!”

My mind quickly started reflecting and tears welled up in my eyes thinking just over 25 years ago my son was on top of his dad’s shoulders cheering as the runners went by while his younger brother was in the stroller. For us, and for thousands of others, who come to watch the Peachtree Road Race, this event was a family Fourth of July tradition. We would wake up at 5am, drive to Howell Mill, park and then wait with anticipation as the wheelchair athletes would pass us. And then the fastest runners in the world would stride by. It was so exciting to watch runners from all over the world that would come just for the experience of the Atlanta Peachtree Road Race. We would cheer, clap and wish them well.

Fast forward approximately 20 years. I was dating my now husband Jerry Douthit, a real East Cobber (he grew up in these parts). He had run and volunteered for the Peachtree Road Race for over 10 years when we met. He encouraged me to join him in volunteering and running the Peachtree Road Race. I wasn’t a runner but what the heck? So, we volunteered on July 3rd putting out the street signs, waters, getting Old Glory ready to be raised at 5:45 am the next day. It was a full day and then we returned on the 4th at 4:30am to help with who ever needed us at the start line from flag raising to cheering on the runners. Then we would leave and run/walk the “Peachtree”. The first few years tears just flowed as I ran with thousands of people cheering me on.

We would always tell Kyle, the head crew chief of the entire start line area, should you ever need a crew chief in any of the start line areas just give us a call. Then one day, 5 years ago, the call came. Kyle called. They wanted us to be the official starter(s) for the Peachtree Road Race. Ray Ganga had been the starter for 32 years and wanted to retire. He wanted us in his place. They want us to start the race? Oh my goodness! A million thoughts ran through my head: 65,000 runners. What if this? What if that? My knees were wobbling at just the thought of it!

So, the first year, we prepared months in advance and arrived at 3am on race day to shadow Ray. Then the next year, we became the official starters of the Peachtree Road Race. We arrived at 3am to get the start line set up. Our volunteers arrived at 4am. Jerry handled the ground volunteers and getting the waves settled in at the start line. I am up high on the starter’s platform with the announcer and clock making sure we are on time. The Mayor of Atlanta starts the wheelchair athletes and the world class runners and then the flag is handed over to me. I cannot describe the feeling standing up high and seeing 65,000 runners in front of you. . . knowing they have come from all over the world. Wheelchair racers, world class champions, and folks just like you and me just wanted to be a part of the greatest and largest 10K in the USA! Once the last wave of runners passes by it’s clean up time and volunteers are returning Peachtree Road back to its normal state. My heart swells with pride to be an American listening to God Bless America and watching Old Glory sway over Peachtree Road. So yes, it really is a cool gig.

This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of the EAST COBBER magazine, on page 17. Click here to view the digital edition.