Baucus Staff Works for the Health of It

Posted November 17, 2009 at 4:25pm

Senate staffer Liz Fowler has been pretty darn busy lately.

As the chief health counsel for the Finance Committee, Fowler is among Sen. Max Baucus’ top advisers on health care reform. Understandably, in the little bit of spare time she has, Fowler likes to relax.

You know, like by doing Ironman triathlons.

“Especially during health reform, it’s been a nice release to go work out in the morning and do long training runs and long training rides,— Fowler said, noting that she got into triathlons “after getting bored with marathons.—

Remarkably, Fowler’s intense fitness routine is actually the norm in Baucus’ personal and committee offices. While working for the Montana Democrat involves long hours plugging away on complicated issues such as health care reform, Baucus staffers also make plenty of time for exercise.

Not everybody is an Ironman like Fowler, but most staffers seem to have found a unique routine, from swimmers to hikers to boxers to even proponents of a growing fitness movement called Pure Barre.

Perhaps this shared love of physical fitness shouldn’t be surprising, considering the boss runs “ultramarathons— — events that cover a distance longer than the normal 26.2-mile marathon race, typically around 50 or even 100 miles. And Baucus is very intense — he famously tripped and fell during one such event but chose to run the remaining miles rather than give up, crossing the finish line covered in blood.

But aside from proving their physicality, Baucus and his staff argue that their fitness activities tie directly into their efforts to pass health care reform legislation. Taking steps to stay healthy themselves gives them some perspective, they say.

“In health reform we are really trying to push wellness and prevention, and a large part of that is exercising each day,— Baucus said. “We are starting to see a real shift towards healthier lifestyles, and that is going to pay huge dividends in the long run.—

Baucus’ passion (or craziness, depending on whom you ask) certainly motivates his staff. Press Secretary Ty Matsdorf even thought about the boss at a tough point during a recent race.

“I just felt awful, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll just walk a portion,’— he recalled. “And I kid you not, I imagined in my head Max falling, cutting his head open and running 42 more miles. And I was like, ‘All right.’—

Aside from providing inspiration on race day, Baucus staffers say the Senator is highly involved when it comes to exercise, regularly checking in with those who are training for a big event or taking time to chat about nutrition during staff meetings. He even occasionally joins in, such as when he climbed Montana’s 11,000-plus-foot Lone Peak with Legislative Director Paul Wilkins. (Baucus has plenty of experience traversing Montana — in previous campaigns, he’s literally walked the entire state to meet with voters. Talk about a campaign trail.)

“There’s a few spots where it was really scary, where you’re on a piece of rock that’s about a little over a foot wide, drop-offs on either side, and you kind of have to shimmy across the rock,— Wilkins recalled of his hike with the Senator. “The boss obviously went first on that. He was all for it.—

Knowing that the boss takes such risks probably comes in handy when your preferred fitness routine involves people taking swings at your face.

Cathy Koch, the tax chief of the Finance Committee, is a former ballerina who decided to try a boxing class at the gym where her kids take tae kwon do. The mother of four got hooked and has been taking boxing classes each weekend for about two years.

“You wouldn’t know that a three-minute round is really exhausting,— Koch said. “For a job like this, having two hours to punch something just as hard as humanly possible is actually not a bad release.—

Scheduler Lisa Stark’s routine is a bit more graceful, although she argues it isn’t any less intense. Stark practices Pure Barre, a ballet-based exercise routine that also combines yoga and gymnastics, designed to target the core muscles. “You usually can’t walk when you’re done,— she said.

Stark is such a fan of the growing fitness craze that she became certified in it (although she doesn’t teach it, considering her long hours). But taking time to work out does help keep her going.

“There is a real sense and belief that if you are more physically fit, you will be more mentally fit and prepared,— Stark said. “It’s the truth.—

Baucus agreed.

“While it’s fun to train for races, the real benefit of working out is that I have more energy, I can think better, I sleep better, and I just feel better in general,— Baucus said.

Not everyone in the office follows a specific regimen, however. Catharine Ransom, Baucus’s senior climate and environmental adviser, enjoys swimming and running, but with two young boys at home, she has to be flexible.

“My running and swimming fitness routine often morphs into playing baseball, ice skating, catch, football in the backyard, which is what I did yesterday, coupled with just finding ways of getting fitness into your regular routine,— she said, adding that she takes the stairs instead of the elevator to burn a few extra calories. “Even just those small things make a big difference.—

And all those little things help keep perspective on the big picture that is health care reform, Fowler said.

“Part of the big focus has been on wellness and prevention, and the importance of building it into your life and your lifestyle all of these activities, and thinking about nutrition,— Fowler said. “It’s been a natural flow of events for us and a natural connection in this office for people to think about those issues.—