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Congress’ Fleet-Footed Runners

Every spring for the past two decades, Tennessee Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon has laced up his road flats to win his division in the American Council of Life Insurers three-mile race in Washington.

While thousands of runners have competed in this Beltway tradition since its inception 29 years ago, the 61-year-old Congressman has always dominated the event’s “lawmaker” class in much the same way Michael Jordan conquered hoops. Gordon became the gold standard, setting the meet’s record in his class at 16 minutes, 59 seconds (in 1995), and finishing first in his category every year since 1989.

This year’s ACLI Capital Challenge will feature several hundred runners — agency heads, journalists and judges — as well as 36 lawmakers, including the returning champion on the women’s side, Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt.

But on Wednesday, those who line up along the starting line at East Potomac Park for this year’s race will not get to see Gordon. For the first time since the first Bush administration, Gordon, Capitol Hill’s fastest lawmaker ever, will not run in what would have been his final ACLI. Last year, Gordon announced he would not seek another term to represent Tennessee’s 6th district. And this year, an Achilles’ heel injury has sidelined him.

This means the end of an era for Gordon and his team, the Mercenary Highlanders. Now, a new Member of Congress will take over the gold medal podium and walk away with the bragging rights that come with winning the popular event.

“I’m going to miss running the Capital Challenge this year. It’s a great event, and I’m looking forward to cheering my colleagues on,” Gordon said.

Those colleagues include Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who will compete for his 29th straight year, says organizer Jeff Darman. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the longtime female Senate winner, will try to hold onto her title, while Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will also aim to lead the Senate male runners for a second year in a row. This year, he faces a stiff challenge from Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) as well as from the 2008 male Senate winner, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

In the women’s division, Schmidt has surpassed her competition, setting the meet record in the female lawmaker category in 2007, with a time of 22:41. She is confident she can defend her title this year.

“I’m prepared and focused to push through again,” Schmidt said. “I feel strong and confident.”

Their styles differ: Gordon runs (when he runs) with a fluid mid-distance sprinter’s stride; Schmidt muscles through every stride.

Schmidt does not consider herself a gifted runner with “good genes,” like Gordon.

She started running three decades ago after her daughter was born and recalls that the farthest she got on her first run was about a half-mile. She kept pumping those arms and legs the next day, and the next, and eventually she developed a talent for the sport.

She now has established an impressive running résumé that includes 82 marathons, including 14 Boston Marathon appearances. ACLI is an important event for Schmidt, who sees the three-mile race as an opportunity to raise awareness for the sport of running and a way to increase the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington.

“When you’re standing at the starting line in shorts and your racing shirt, it’s a very humbling experience that brings people together. I have a lot of fun and so does my staff,” Schmidt said.

The race starts at 8 a.m. Roll Call is a sponsor, and proceeds benefit the D.C. Special Olympics.

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