By Kris Kitto - 04/30/08 05:28 PM EDT
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), in running shorts and aerodynamic sunglasses, jogged to the starting line of Wednesday’s 27th annual ACLI Capital Challenge road race, ostensibly a friendly competition among members of Congress, executive-branch employees, judges and journalists.
But as he warmed up in Anacostia Park, he felt his heart flutter.
“You know, the race should be no big deal, but all of us are …” he said, taking a breath, “we’re too much of Type A personalities. We’re too competitive.”
Ensign hoped to go head to head with Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) this year, but Sununu was a no-show. Instead, the Nevada lawmaker set his sights on beating one of his roommates, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).
“We have kind of a competition,” he said.
Ensign wasn’t the only one feeling competitive. The three-mile race had no shortage of signs that the Hill is home to a tirelessly ambitious crowd of sometimes eccentric personalities.
Consider the woman in a black running outfit holding a cell phone to her ear while kicking her heels to her backside; the bald man wearing a headband and showing off his flexibility by striking the Warrior One yoga pose during warm-ups; and perennial contender Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who pointed out that he began jogging when many other people start shopping for wheelchairs.
“I started running when I was 65,” the 74-year-old lawmaker said while limbering up for the competition. He typically runs three miles, four times per week.
His goal this year: make Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) eat his dust.
“I hope I beat him,” Grassley said.
Cornyn’s competitive countenance is no different from his Senate-floor face — a big smile — and he mingled with his team a few minutes before the race’s 8 a.m. call time.
“He’s been trash-talking about this all year,” the Texas senator, in a red baseball cap and blue running shorts, said of Grassley. “I cannot let someone 18 years older than me run faster.”
Cornyn said he works out five times a week and has recently been running sprint intervals to get ready for the competition. But this morning he’s trying to manage the expectations of his finish time.
“I’m not fast even on a good day,” he said.
The only thing at stake in the race — other than an enormous amount of pride — is a continental breakfast of grapes, watermelon and croissants for those who cross the finish line. But the event’s announcer, a man by the name of Phil Stewart, informs the approximately 600 participants that even those riches are limited.
To comply with the new ethics rules, members of Congress and Hill staffers will be limited to “not more than one croissant and a modest amount of fruit,” he told the crowd from a microphone.
Moments before the race began, a trio of guys in tank tops emblazoned “Coast Guard” line up in the front of the pack, appearing confident they’ll win. District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, a guest runner and serious triathlete who looks professional in his Fleet Feet outfit, lines up beside them.
After the opening whistle blows, a stream of colors whizzes and trickles by. Among those left waiting at the starting line — which is now the finish line — were Wendy Cook and Amyclaire Brusch of Rep. Todd Tiahrt’s (R-Kan.) office. The two — looking to win the competition’s team spirit award — staked out a spot near the home stretch and now hold up signs that said, “We love T[the shape of a heart],” and, “Team T[heart-shape] Rocks, Sarah, John, Matthew, Richard and Todd Go! Go! Do it for the American Tanker.”
The two weren’t running for Team Tiahrt because, they said, the office’s best four runners were tapped for the competition.
“But we put the best cheerleaders out here,” they added, complimenting themselves. They even managed to remind a reporter that the race isn’t too far from the Hill by squeezing in a policy talking point that explained “American Tanker” is an issue Tiahrt is working on to make sure “an American company … builds American tankers.”
A tall, blond guy from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission named Brandon Cherry won the race, followed closely by Philip Schmidt, communications director for Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.). (Schmidt ran in American-flag shorts and black Che Guevara socks.)
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) blew away his competition, winning the race for fastest male member of the House for the 19th time with a time around 18 minutes and 30 seconds. Ensign won the Senate crown. Expert marathoner Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) predictably won the House female competition, though Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), her exercise hairdo nearly as flawless as her office coif, made a good showing. And as the only female senator in the competition, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who approached the finish line around the 40-minute mark surrounded by approximately 10 of her staffer teammates in what appeared to be full makeup, won her category.
Cornyn beat Grassley by roughly 30 seconds.
After the race, Serrano expressed satisfaction with his own finish in around 26 minutes, but surprise that Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-Ore.) made a last-minute burst to beat him. Serrano, a longtime runner, said his race strategy is like his political career.
“I go slowly, but I never quit.”