Perhaps it was a measure of Jimmy Carter's political guts that he chose to make his debut as a road racer at this shaky juncture in his Presidency. The best he could hope for was to finish 350th or so in the field of 750 that started in last week's 10-kilometer Catoctin Mountain (Maryland) Park Run. That's not bad for a man in his 50s who's been running for less than a year, but it's hardly heroic. At worst, he could look foolish, a matter of little consequence to the average middle-aged jogger, but one of some importance to a man whose future hangs on his public image.
But there he was Saturday morning, jogging down the road from Camp David, with Rosalynn in a blue warmup suit on one side and Dr. William Lukash, the White House physician, in running clothes on the other, moving toward the starting line where hundreds of impatient runners bobbed in place. As the President's party approached, the runners and spectators, most of them relatives of the competitors, burst into cheers. Mrs. Carter peeled off into the crowd, while Carter removed his blue warmup jacket, pinned on his No. 39, pulled up his black (yes, black) socks and donned a yellow headband that drew his eyebrows upward and gave him an anxious and vulnerable look. Then he slipped under the rope and headed into the pack, right where a 50-minute 10-K man is supposed to be. Photographers and cameramen craned their necks and squinted through their long lenses, trying to locate their target. But Carter had melted into the crowd.
Don Kardong, the fourth-place finisher in the 1976 Olympic marathon, was ushered into the front row along with other world-class runners such as Herb Lindsey and Herm Atkins. Kardong began bouncing on tiptoe, trying to see Carter over the mass of heads. "I finally spotted him," he says. "He looked like any other novice runner, worried about the miles ahead and his own ability to handle them."
On a scale of difficulty of 1 to 10, the Catoctin Mountain course is an 8, according to veteran road runners. Its first mile is up a hill, and though not an extraordinarily steep grade, the climb requires a well-tuned sense of one's own pace. After that, the course is all uphill or downhill, except for four-tenths of a mile, which is fiat. "There'll be no record made here," said Dave Theall of TrackMaster magazine. "This is a survival course."
Carter, Dr. Lukash and Tom McFadden, the superintendent of Catoctin Mountain National Park, which includes Camp David, had dreamed up the race while out jogging one day last spring, and Carter had since run the course, informally, four times. His best clocking, he said, had been 50 minutes. On the day of the race, he said afterward, he was trying to cut his time to a personal best of 46 minutes.
"The course should be an advantage for him," said Glynn Wood, the editor of TrackMaster, the night before the race. "He'll have no trouble finishing. It's just a question of how fast he'll do it."
Off Carter's record, Wood's prediction seemed sound. The President is a serious runner and an instinctively fierce competitor at everything. Since early last fall when he took up running regularly on the White House grounds and, on some weekends, at Camp David, he has increased his daily distances to as many as seven miles. His longest runs, usually on park roads around Camp David, were up to 10 and 12 miles. While increasing his distance, Carter reduced his weight from 157 to 149 and his pulse rate at rest from 60 to 40.
The President is a typical born-again runner—his last fling at the sport had been in 1943, when he was a member of the plebe cross-country team at the Naval Academy—and an enthusiast who, according to Dr. Lukash, has "probably read and absorbed every popular book on the subject." In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said, "I start looking forward to it almost from the minute I get up. If I don't run, I don't feel exactly right. I carry a watch, and I can click off a mile in 6½ minutes when I really turn it on."
As the field started up the first hill on a cool, clear morning that was perfect for running, Lindsey, the silver medalist in the 5,000 at this year's Pan-Am Games, led the pack. Somewhere to his rear, Colman McCarthy, a 41-year-old columnist for The Washington Post, was running as close to Carter as the Secret Service men, who were keeping to Carter's pace, would let him get. McCarthy says that Carter's time for that first uphill mile was 8:25, and after that the President picked it up to about a 7:45 pace. All went smoothly as the runners approached the turnaround, about 2⅖ miles from the start, where the course doubles back on itself.
After that, the course starts up another long, rather steep hill, and Carter's pace slowed. While he passed the only water station on the route he reached out for a cup, but as often happens in races, he came up empty and kept going. Some of the runners around him walked on that hill, but Carter did not. Approaching the crest, the President began to stagger. McCarthy, now running on Carter's right, wrote in the Post the next day, "His face was ashen. His mouth hung open, and his eyes had an unfocused look."
Dr. Lukash and a Secret Service man who had been running immediately behind the President hustled over and supported him under the arms. Carter tried to continue, but his legs were obviously no longer in working order. Still supported by Lukash and the Secret Service man, he staggered to the top of the hill, where, about 100 yards short of the entrance to Camp David, he stopped.
An ambulance arrived, but no move was made to put Carter in it. A few minutes later, assisted by Dr. Lukash, the President got into a private car, which turned into the entrance to Camp David and disappeared.
Meanwhile, back at the finish line Lindsey had won in 30:00.1, 37.4 seconds ahead of Dan Rincon, who came in 37.5 seconds ahead of the third-place Kardong. The first to finish in Carter's division, the 50-59 age group, was 53-year-old Herbert Chisholm in 36:43. Then came 56-year-old Glenn Coleman. The crowd had heard nothing of Carter's difficulty. "If the President is going to get an award, he's going to have to hurry," said the man on the P.A. microphone. "There are two guys in his age group in already."
Reporters interviewed the First Lady as she waited for her husband's arrival. "He had liquids, I know that," she said when she was asked about his pre-race breakfast, "but he was up before I was, so I don't know what they were."
Kardong, again hoping for a glimpse of the President, was standing nearby when he saw a message being passed by a White House staffer to the announcer. "He's not going to finish here," the announcer told Kardong quietly. Then the word was out that Carter had been forced to drop out of the race after 3½ miles. Mrs. Carter was escorted away and rumors began to fly.
A Washington internist said he had come upon the scene as Carter faltered and had been shocked at how bad he looked. "If a man came into my office looking like that, I'd assume he'd had a heart attack," he said.
"He could have been hyperventilating," someone else said. "He just went out too hard," said another. "Poor guy. He has such bad luck," said a third.
After a time, the commotion quieted. Word had come from the White House staff that the President was O.K., and the crowd settled on the grass to listen to a bluegrass band and to await the awards ceremonies. At about 2 p.m. there was a stir on the hill behind the audience. Turning, the crowd saw the President approaching the platform, smiling broadly and apprently as fit as a blue-grass fiddle. Dr. Lukash, who had examined Carter, said later there was no concern, that he was "in good physical condition." The voice on the microphone announced that the President of the United States would be presenting the awards, and the crowd cheered.
"They had to drag me off," said the beaming President, still dressed in running shorts and sweat shirt. "I didn't want to stop."
When Kardong came up to receive his third-place trophy, he invited Carter to race in Spokane, Kardong's hometown. "I don't know if you'll enjoy the race more than this one," he added, "but I promise the course will be flat." The President roared with laughter.
After Carter and the reporters and the photographers and, finally, most of the runners and spectators had left, it occurred to Kardong that he should have said more. "I should have told him about my bouts with side stitches and leg cramps and exhaustion," the veteran marathoner said, "and about the times my stomach and I have had violent discussions about running. I wanted to say, 'Hang in there guy,' like I might to any beginning runner who's lost a battle with a hilly course."