Clinton trots out fast finish, gives athletes a run for it

May 05, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two miles into a three-mile jog around Hains Point, a few of the marathoners are starting to sweat.

To their great surprise, the 46-year-old amateur runner with thunder thighs, a spare tire and what has often been described as the world's toughest job is picking up speed.

"How much have we got left to go here?" comes the slightly anguished question from a group that includes six top finishers of the Boston Marathon and another half-dozen athletes who thought a run with Bill Clinton would be so easy they didn't even take off their warm-up suits.

Cautionary note to those already worn out by the hectic pace of Bill Clinton's presidency: He finishes faster than he starts.

In the jargon of track and field, they call this running negative splits: not just a flashy sprint at the end, but a steadily building momentum that makes the last half of Mr. Clinton's run faster, stronger and more confident than the first half.

The president's shuffling stride and plodding running style are deceptive. He's a whole lot faster than he looks.

Bernardine Portenski of New Zealand, the first woman over age 40 to finish in Boston two days earlier and among those unexpectedly straining to keep up with Mr. Clinton near the end, said it felt as if the president ran the last of his three miles in 6 1/2 minutes, about two minutes faster than the first.

Breathing got heavy and talking ceased as the commander in chief took the lead and all other eyes in the once leisurely presidential party started searching for a finish line.

Presidential joggers always set the pace, of course. No one wants to leave them behind. Secret Service agents would sometimes complain that they had to take tiny steps to keep from lurching out ahead of George Bush, who took 9 1/2 to 10 minutes to complete a mile.

Mr. Bush, who is about 20 years older than Mr. Clinton but 30 pounds lighter, may have looked better in his jogging shorts -- as he often bragged during their election battle. But Mr. Bush didn't have that urge to push out in front that seems to drive his successor.

Mr. Clinton likes to warm up on the jogging trail, starting slowly to work out the kinks and then building up speed as he goes along.

The blazing speed with which Mr. Clinton took off on his first 100 days makes it appear that he hasn't applied his exercise techniques to his presidency. Some political analysts contend he went out too fast and lost control.

"That's the way I feel half the time," the president acknowledged to his jogging partners as he passed "The Awakening," a sculpture of a giant arm and leg.

Clearly, Mr. Clinton sees a parallel between the dogged effort it takes to design and sell major policy changes and the early morning panting and wheezing he puts in five or six days a week to keep fit.

He cited the 1992 presidential campaign as his only previous marathon. Now, with the delaying tactics and guerrilla warfare that Republicans are using against his legislative agenda, Mr. Clinton said: "I think I'm about to run another one."

On the running trail at least, Mr. Clinton is still just warming up.

A regular runner since his law school days at Yale in 1971, he is working at getting back in shape after being knocked off his training in the very first presidential primary.

"I got sick in New Hampshire last year," he recalled. "I had a virus that apparently was very common across America, where I couldn't breathe and I couldn't sleep at night. I coughed all night long. It lasted for two months."

"I couldn't run," he said. "I gained a lot of weight. And I periodically had problems with that. So I didn't do very well.

But over the past few months, despite the demands of the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton has actually improved his physical condition.

Like most runners, Mr. Clinton says he finds this aerobic exercise to be a perfect antidote to stress. "And," he adds, "it keeps my energy level real high."

Running is not all relaxation for Mr. Clinton, though. Like Mr. Bush, he often uses his exercise outings for political and public relations purposes.

For example, he has invited several key members of Congress to join him in recent months, including Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who ran against him for the Democratic presidential nomination last year and more recently voted against his economic stimulus bill.

And when he was in Vancouver, British Columbia, last month for his summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Clinton tried to make peace with the Pentagon by inviting along as his jogging partner Army Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who had been insulted at the White House by a Clinton staffer a few weeks earlier.

Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn was among those in the jogging party that morning with the marathoners. He suggested that the president set a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon in 1996, the 100th anniversary of the famous race.

That would be no small trick, since Mr. Clinton, to compete in Boston, would have to have run an earlier marathon in three hours and 25 minutes or faster. That is about an eight-minute-per-mile pace for 26.2 miles.

The president was optimistic, though. "I've got four years to train," he said.

Top speed by the next election year. That would be about right.

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