For 60,000 people on the morning of July 4, Ken Berger is the voice of God. For the past ten years as the start line announcer, he’s told participants of the AJC Peachtree Road Race where to find their corrals, how to get to the bathrooms, how much time they have until they start and, in one extreme case, where to find shelter from the storm. For more than three hours on race morning, Berger is on the mic – alone – providing pertinent race information, welcoming elites and dignitaries and doing what he says is the most important part of his job, getting people excited to run.
As Berger prepares for the 50th Running of the Peachtree, it has become a mainstay on his calendar full of road races, triathlons and wrestling matches that he hosts each year. But as a retired marine helicopter pilot, this celebration of running and the United States of America holds a special place in his heart. “As a marine for 20 years, there is pride the minute that flag goes up,” said Berger. “There is nothing better than being in Atlanta on the 4th of July and celebrating the birthday of our nation.”
Before Berger stepped behind the mic, he was behind a turntable. He started DJing in 1982 while in the military and learned that not only did he have a knack for knowing the latest popular tracks, he was also pretty good at hyping up a crowd. A former wrestler at the Naval Academy, Berger was a wrestling referee when he got a shot at DJing and announcing at tournaments. He was such a natural that USA Wrestling started taking him to the Olympics in 1996. He hasn’t missed a Summer Games since.
Through a wrestling connection, he got the gig at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. There, he met Tracey Russell, then the Director of Events for Metropolitan Richmond Sports Backers. She liked what she heard and hired him for the Richmond Marathon. When Russell left to take over as Executive Director at Atlanta Track Club, she brought Berger with her to voice the Club’s marquee event – the Peachtree.
Now, the team at the start line could not imagine the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. without his booming voice in the background. “Ken is the soundtrack of the morning,” said Enrique Tomas, who handles start line logistics for the Club. “On the operations side, we can go into race day knowing that all the information we need to get to the participants is going to be delivered on time and in a way that gets people to listen.”
For every race Berger does, he takes a three-step approach to his start line announcements. “You don’t want to get runners fired up too early,” he said. First is what he calls “the arrival period” where he just shares important information and “brings runners into the fold.” Second is when “they have got to start thinking about the race.” With about an hour left before the race, Berger picks up the tempo on his music and starts interjecting words of excitement and encouragement. With thirty minutes before the race, it’s onto step three: The hype.
He has a signature track, “Apache Rap” which he plays at every start line. “Everything is for the athletes,” said Berger. “You want to get them off the line motivated, knowing that they are going to have a great race. If you can give them proper excitement, that carries through to the finish.”
Berger is quick to point out that while he is the only one you hear at the start line, he is part of a two-man team. In the months, weeks and days leading up to the race he works closely with long-time Peachtree volunteer Hal Crisp. Crisp, a retired marketing executive at AT&T, has been building the start script for the past 37 years, writing all the key talking points and timing out everything to the exact second. It’s Crisp who makes sure Berger is announcing the singer of the National Anthem at the exact time needed to ensure the military flyover happens as the “Star Spangled Banner” reaches its climax. It’s Crisp that tells Berger when to send each start wave down Peachtree St.
“We just work like we have grown up together,” Crisp said of Berger. Until July 2, when they both arrive in Atlanta, the two are in constant communication – Crisp from his home in Maryland, Berger from Virginia. When they finally meet face-to-face, they spend hours in the host hotel pouring over the script, working out any last-minute changes and doing their best to prepare for the unexpected. “He and I just tick,” said Crisp. “We know things are going to go wrong, but he has an incredible ability to reset.”
Things went wrong in 2015. Lightning forced race organizers not only to delay several of the start waves, but to move tens of thousands of people off the roads and into nearby buildings for cover. “We were prepared for that,” recalled Crisp. Berger immediately began executing the emergency weather plan that Crisp had put in the script. But “nobody was moving,” said Berger. So Berger, the Marine Major, made an announcement asking all military personal to step up to the front of the corrals and help the race volunteers. “I said, ‘I know you can follow orders and I know you can lead.’” It worked.
Runners and triathletes can hear Ken’s voice all year if they travel to enough races. Through his company, KennyBZ Productions (B.Z. stands for Bravo Zulu which in military speak means “well done”), Berger keeps busy nearly every weekend welcoming hundreds of thousands of athletes to start and finish lines. For him, it is of course a career, but he also sees it as a calling. “When I leave, I want to feel good. If I know the people felt good, then I felt good.”