Running with the Marines

It takes discipline to get up at 6 a.m. to go running, especially if it is an icy, gray Saturday morning in the middle of January. Discipline and perhaps a touch of guilt. After all, there’s a crew of people — friends, colleagues and running mates — shivering in the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial, waiting for you to show up.
John Shinkle
A Saturday-morning run begins at the Iwo Jima Memorial. The group typically runs more than 10 miles.

For off-season members of the Capitol Hill Running Club, getting out of bed has become second nature, rain or shine. The people huddled here, grinning in spite of the hour and temperature, come from a wide range of running backgrounds. Some have completed as many as eight marathons and done 50-mile ultramarathons, while others have barely broken the two-mile marker before showing up to run with the club. There’s a range of political affiliations as well, from lifelong Republicans to stalwart Dems. Overall, they have more in common than not: All but a few work on the Hill, or have done so recently, and all have trained for the Marine Corps Marathon.

Officially, the running club begins in June, when Marines from the House and Senate Marine liaison offices canvass the Capitol to recruit staffers for the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October. By signing up for “PT” (physical training) with the Marines, staffers avoid the lottery system, which is used to cap the number of people running the race. They also have the advantage of training with a group of Marines who are committed to ensuring that everyone makes it to race day fit and capable of crossing the finish line.

“It was 80 degrees the day of the marathon” last year, recalls Capt. Ed Danielson, who led the training in 2004, “hottest day on record. There were four times the number of heat casualties and yet everyone in the club finished except one, and [that person] was suffering from asthma!” Last year, more than 100 members of Congress and staffers ran with the club, guided by five to 10 Marines on any given run.

Danielson, the epitome of the square-jawed, all-American Marine, is clearly proud of the club and its success. “We run the group much like a Marine Corps PT session,” he says. “We start with a Marine leading the group in stretches, then we do a condensed version of the ‘Marine Corps Daily Seven’... side straddle hops, Marine Corps pushups, sun gods, cherry pickers and a series of variations on leg lifts. The Marine leading the group counts cadence, while the group shouts out the number of repetitions.”

During the week, the club meets at 6:45 at the Grant Statue on Capitol Hill for runs ranging between three and a half and five and a half miles. The long runs are left for Saturday mornings; starting at the Iwo Jima Memorial, the club covers the ground they will see on race day, gradually building up the distance completed from five miles, to six, to eight and up until the group reaches 23.

“By the time you get to the marathon, you know where you’re going,” says Becky Claster, a legislative assistant on domestic issues for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Claster ran the marathon in 2002, having never run a distance farther than a 10K before that. “I came 15 minutes early the first time, I was so afraid of being late,” she says. “I thought there would be a drill sergeant yelling in my face, but it wasn’t anything like that.”

Claster admits to often being one of the last people back from the longer runs: “There were Marines in every group, and they always waited for me. I was never left behind.” She adds with a laugh, “They waited a good long while on some occasions.” Claster finished the Marine Corps Marathon in six hours and 28 minutes.

For Rachel Post, a legislative assistant for Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), one of the hardest parts of training was waking up. “I couldn’t get up early in the morning, but people kept encouraging me,” says Post. “And the main reason I stuck with it was because I knew a whole group of people was waiting for me at the Grant statue.”
Post, who began working on Capitol Hill in 2003, opted to run the Chicago Marathon instead of a 23-mile training run, finishing in four hours and 30 minutes. A few weeks later, she completed the Marine Corps with her running-club team. Her time was slightly slower, but being able to run with her friends made up for the difference. “I ran with people I knew and it was a lot more fun,” she says. “It’s more than just a running club.”

Mac McKenney, a lobbyist and former staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee, says he had a similar feeling: “When you run for hours with people, week after week, month after month, you really get to know them well. On the Hill, when people work together on a major bill, after spending so much together, they can become fiercely loyal. The same thing has happened in our running group. Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome, but I run with some of the finest people I have ever known.”

McKenney began running with the club in 2003. He was at the time a “sedentary 49-year-old,” with no plans of actually completing a marathon. But 15 pounds lighter, with his good-cholesterol count up by 50 percent and two marathons under his belt, McKenney has become another club success story. His fellow runners say he is one of the main reasons the club keeps going in the off-season.

“The dedication of the Marines is amazing,” says Jim Fenton, an aide on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families, “but off-season, Mac keeps us coming.”

Fenton, who has completed four marathons in the past four years, is one of several people who began running in the winter and kept coming when official training started in July. “I had never run as part of a group and when this friend recommended that I join the club, well, it was smack dab in the middle of the winter and the company helped,” he says.

“You forget that it’s dark and freezing,” agrees Chris Lu, deputy chief counsel for the minority staff on the House Government Reform Committee. “We chit-chat, and there is a huge social component. We’re a close-knit group.” Lu went from never having run a marathon in 2002 to completing the Marine Corps Marathon three times and running in five other marathons around the country.

With such a political crowd, it’s hard to believe that partisan sparks don’t, on occasion, fly. But apparently, they never do. “I can only remember a handful of times that we’ve discussed politics,” says Lu, echoing a sentiment voiced by his fellow runners. “What we do is often very partisan, and when we run it’s not like that.”

That’s a rare thing for Capitol Hill. The Marines seemed to have passed on their motto of “semper fidelis” — always faithful — along with a healthy dose of Marine Corps pushups. For this crew, when you wear a T-shirt that reads “Behind you all the way,” it actually means what it says.

To find out more about the Capitol Hill running club, contact Maj. Bill McCollough or Capt. Brian Sharp at the Marine Liaison office in the House at (202) 225-7124.