A Marathon Workout at Capitol Hill Running Club

Posted July 8, 2008 at 5:33pm

With a wiry frame and ever-present running watch, Col. Ray Celeste looks the role of the marathoner he is. Indeed, with 16 of the 26-mile, 385-yard races to his credit, and a personal best of three hours and 34 minutes, Celeste is more than just an avid runner.

He is also the passionate leader of the Capitol Hill Running Club, an ad hoc group of endorphin and political junkies who juggle their legislative duties with marathon training.

“We want to help first-time marathoners,” said Celeste, who works in the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs and helped launch the club in 2000. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Celeste has watched dozens of Hill staffers train themselves into marathon runners through the club, which during peak training season meets three times a week.

The 60 or so club members burn off their legislative steam running through Washington’s humid summers to prep for the Marine Corps Marathon. They convene promptly at 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday to warm up with a team of Marines and then jog three to five miles. Every Saturday, they go for a longer stretch that reaches up to 18 miles.

Some arrive grumbling about late floor votes from the night before, but mostly they come to sweat and banter with friends. The uniform is simple: Most sport plain T-shirts and shorts. A few others — their members include former and current staffers — come out in specially ordered Capitol Hill Running Club shirts — scarlet and gold, in a nod to the Marines who train them.

“Some of the newbies will wear shirts with their boss’s name on them,” said Chris Lu, a 17-time marathoner, pointing out that the club stays decidedly neutral on politics. “After a while, those T-shirts go away. The veterans don’t wear anything partisan.”

Mac McKenney, a former Republican staffer and now principal at Capitol Tax Partners, said he was “a heart attack waiting to happen” before he began running with the club in 2003. A member of the debate team in high school, McKenney constantly makes jokes about his own athletic ability.

“There used to be slow runners in this group, but now it’s just me,” he says.

Although the bipartisan group rarely discusses politics while running, there is the occasional friendly banter that seems more suited for bar talk than marathon training.

“Every once in a while, we rib each other about what their boss is doing, especially at a markup or on the floor,” said Christine Clapp, communications director for Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). “We definitely touch base with each other about what’s going on.”

Clapp is expecting her first baby this summer, so she won’t be running 26 miles anytime this fall. Still, she comes out in the mornings to walk the Mall while her comrades hoof it through the humidity.

Lu, legislative director for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and his wife hosted a baby shower with other club members for Clapp, and in a grand display of their running geekdom, they presented the expectant mother with a pair of baby running shoes.

“They definitely try to start them young,” Clapp noted.

For those training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October, the Marines run a disciplined schedule from mid-June to marathon day. They lead the group in morning warm-ups of jumping jacks and stretches, and post-run cool-downs of difficult Marine-style push-ups, which are the usual point of groans from the bunch.

The Marines also host a pre-training kickoff luncheon every year to find new recruits. They stock the tables with sports drinks, sandwiches, pamphlets and training schedules.

Uniformed Marines are stationed throughout the room and corner any fresh face they see. Endorphins fill the air along with the anxiety of potential marathoners, and to give the hard sell, the Marines have an athletic trainer and crew of staffers turned marathon junkies on hand.

There is a social element to the running club, and the group does get together to hydrate at a Capitol Hill bar every few weeks. Some travel to other cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago for marathons, and a few die-hards are scheduled to run 26.2 miles in Iceland this August.

Three couples have met and married through the club. Gretchen Hitchner, a former press secretary for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), met her husband at the pre-marathon lunch kickoff in 2001. The two trained together that year for the Marine Corps Marathon and got engaged the following year after running the same race.

“We still went out for the Saturday morning runs after our wedding,” Hitchner recalled. “It was a real social outlet for us.”

For Celeste, who proudly tracks the progress of each of the club’s runners and considers many of them his close friends, it only makes sense that so many couples have met through running.

“Marathon runners are more committed,” he said, adding a jab to Capitol Hill’s other popular sport. “We’re in it for the long haul, not like those softball players.”