Ron Marinucci July Column: "Running Presidents" Part 1

Ron Marinucci July Column: "Running Presidents" Part 1

President William Howard Taft, the story goes, once became stuck in a White House bathtub.  That’s not hard to believe considering he once stepped on a butcher’s scale and the needle hit 350 pounds, as high as it could go.  Not to worry about Big Bill, though.  A much larger tub was brought to the White House for him, although a hole had to be cut in the roof to do so because it was too big to fit in the doors or windows.

A casual glance at portraits of our Presidents reveals Taft wasn’t the only one not to get much exercise, let alone any running or jogging.

But some of our Chief Executives were not only pretty active, but also athletic.  Many, especially before the 20th Century, were skilled horsemen, as were later-day Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.

John Quincy Adams walked for hours through the young Washington, DC.  Often he headed to the Potomac River for a swim.  Checking to see he was alone, he’d carefully remove his clothes on the bank before entering the water au natural.

Theodore Roosevelt was known for his athletic activities which he used to help him overcome childhood frailties.  He rode horses, regularly did calisthenics, and was an avid walker.   Walking, his mantra was “Over or through, but never around” which often led him to traipse through things like fountains.  He also studied judo and was known to toss around a medicine ball.

Does golf count?  I think it does, especially if Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower walked the courses before electric golf carts.  Ike, by the way, was a football and baseball player before he tore up his knee his plebe football season at West Point.

Michigan’s Gerald Ford was an All-American football player, a center, at the University of Michigan.  His leadership skills were apparent then, too, as he was team captain his senior year.   To help pay his way through Yale Law School, Ford coached football and boxing there.  He continued his athletic activities into adulthood.  Despite media attempts to portray him as a clumsy oaf, he was a pretty decent golfer, skier, and tennis player.

Presidents and running or jogging didn’t come until more recently, the 1970s.  Imagine the headaches running Presidents create for their security detail, the Secret Service.  Of course, the agents are mostly likely very fit, able to keep up with whatever pace the Chief Executive runs.  But they must run with their equipment, namely their firearms.  Enjoy the run, let the mind wander?  Not a chance; they must continually be on the lookout for trouble.  And consider the running routes.  If the President chooses to run in a pristine wooded area, well, the trees and other shrubs provide a potentially dangerous scenario.  Or, if running among the masses, other runners, consider the vigilance required for that constantly on the lookout for peril.  Often, too, the idea of a run for a President is not a planned one, but a spur of the moment decision due to the busy schedule he faces on a daily basis.  No, I don’t think the Secret Service is a big fan of running Presidents.  

The first Chief Executive usually identified with running was Jimmy Carter.  As a midshipman at the United State Naval Academy, he ran plebe (freshman) cross country.  Perhaps it was the running boom and the popularity it generated that led Carter to start running again when he was President.

A fierce political competitor, when he took up running that competitive nature followed.  According to his personal physician, Carter “probably read and absorbed every book on the subject.”  The President himself said, “I start looking forward to it [his run] almost from the minute I get up.”  Echoing many runners, he claimed, “If I don’t run, I don’t feel exactly right.”

On the White House grounds and at the Presidential retreat at Camp David,, he worked up his daily runs to seven miles.  On weekends, he cranked up his mileage to long runs of ten to twelve miles.

Many will remember Carter’s first road race.  For whatever reason, his competitive nature or a rookie mistake?, he selected a pretty tough 10K in Maryland.  The course was hilly, almost all ups and downs; less than half a mile of it was flat.

Near the mid-point of the 10K, the President faltered.  Ashen-faced with unfocused eyes, he was immediately helped by his personal physician and his Secret Service detail running alongside of him.  He couldn’t continue and an ambulance was called, but a private Presidential security car arrived sooner and took Carter to Camp David.

Initially, many other runners, especially those in the lead packs, knew nothing of this.  At the finish, though, the concerning news began to filter back.  Mrs. Carter was informed and was taken from the finish area where she had been eagerly waiting for her husband.  Shortly, word came that the President was all right, that, in the exuberance of his first race, he likely had gone out too hard, too fast on a very hard course.

The crowd cheered, however, as the post-race ceremony was about to begin and it was announced the President had arrived to hand out awards.  And Carter did so, still wearing his running shorts and tee shirt.

Next month we’ll take a look at our more recent Presidents who were runners.