Psyched-out lawmakers battle through another Capital Challenge

Perhaps it was the gray skies threatening rain, or maybe the dour economy had finally gotten to them. Whatever the reason, several members of Congress just didn’t feel at the top of their game for Wednesday’s 28th running of the ACLI Capital Challenge road race.

“I feel awful,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), stretching a quad before the race’s 8 a.m. start time. “I don’t know why I’m doing this.”

His team, the Serrano Peppers, wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red-and-blue imprint of the congressman modeled after the popular “Hope” campaign image of President Obama.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) was equally hopeless.

“I’m tired already, and I haven’t even started,” he said.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who won the title of Fastest Man in the Senate in 2008, had this bleak analysis of his physical condition: “I was in better shape last year.”

Many lawmakers blamed their creaky knees for their dismal outlook on the contest.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) wore tan bands around both knees. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) considered himself still on the “IR” — the injured reserve list — on account of his knee surgery last year. And Reichert recounted his doomed experience in this very race two years ago, when he “fell into a chuckhole” and tore his meniscus. That injury resulted in two surgeries.

But Congress members are often loath to back down from a challenge. So approximately 40 of them lined up at the starting point in Anacostia Park alongside hundreds of staffers, reporters, executive- and judicial-branch employees, and special guests District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi for another chance to compete against each other.

“Be careful of the course — there are a number of potholes,” announcer Phil Stewart warned before the start gun went off — advice Reichert could have used two years ago.

Then, during the race, Stewart declared, “With the brisk wind today, I don’t think we’ll be setting any course records.”

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the 20-time congressional champion of the race, must’ve taken Stewart’s words as an affront. Gordon, whose 60th birthday in January bumped him up to a higher age bracket this year, said he set a course record for his cohort.

Still, at approximately 18 minutes and 45 seconds, he finished about two minutes slower than his personal Capital Challenge best.

“It’s the slowest time I’ve had in a while,” he said.

{mospagebreak}Despite Gordon’s perceived sluggishness, his colleagues still consider him the premier congressional runner.

“Bart is like the Sinatra of running,” Serrano said. “I’m like the Frankie Avalon of running.”

“I’m going to run with Bart Gordon in a geographic sense,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said, hoping before the race to finish under the 40-minute mark.

Thune took away Ensign’s title as fastest Senate man with an approximate time of 19 minutes and 35 seconds, but Ensign saw that coming.

Thune’s absence in last year’s race was “the only reason I won,” Ensign said.

There were a few lawmakers and staffers whose enthusiasm couldn’t be dampened.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt’s (R-Kan.) office provided another cheerful trio of spectators, waving the same “We Love T♥” sign from last year.

Tiahrt deputy chief of staff Amy Claire Brusch boasted that her boss is the only member of Congress who participates in congressional football, basketball, baseball and running contests, prompting press secretary Wendy Knox to chime in, “Whenever he competes, we bring out these signs.”

Team Tiahrt also changed its name this year to Achy Breaky Tiarht.

“We came with a good, strong name this year,” Knox said.

Freshman Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) also felt good about the race, despite little training.

“I did better than I thought,” he said. “I try to run one or two times a week, but this Congress gig isn’t too kind on the workout routine.”

The race wasn’t a total loss for Serrano, either, whose communications director, Phil Schmidt, came in second place overall for the second straight year. Schmidt was apprehensive about his chances before the race, acknowledging that he had run the Boston Marathon a week earlier, but wore the same American-flag shorts that brought him success in 2008.

Rain began to fall as the final participants approached the finish line, and as the skies opened wider, the two unofficial monarchs of the race, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), came into sight. Lugar crossed as the only member to run all 28 races, and a smiling Hutchison finished surrounded by 15 of her aides and teammates in light-brown T-shirts.