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Back in the 1820s, American President John Quincy Adams woke up around 5 a.m. every morning, walked from the White House to the banks of the Potomac River, stripped off his clothes, and jumped in. The daily skinny dip, historians, say was Adams’ exercise and a way to relax.
Some 180 years later, another politician residing in the nation’s capital followed a similar morning routine. Except he wasn’t president. And he didn’t exercise in the nude. But Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington D.C. from 2007 to 2011, was equally as passionate as Adams when it came to starting his day with a workout, rising in the wee hours to swim, bike, or run. After all, Fenty wasn’t just the mayor: He was also an accomplished triathlete.
A runner in college–he competed on the track team at Oberlin College–Fenty found triathlon in his 30s. While mayor, he competed in well-known events like Eagleman and the notoriously tough Savageman, and he was a stalwart supporter of home-grown races, including the Nation’s Tri and the National Marathon. In 2009, Fenty was instrumental in bringing some of the world’s best athletes to the city for a stop on the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Series Tour. The draft-legal race–featuring a swim in the choppy Potomac, a looped bike course past DC’s famed landmarks, and a finish line on Pennsylvania Avenue set against the backdrop of the iconic Capitol Building–drew the likes of Daniela Ryf, Jan Frodeno, Javier Gomez, and a 21-year-old prodigy named Alistair Brownlee, who won the men’s race (and, of course, went on to snag Olympic gold in 2016).
Fenty not only championed races in his city, he competed in them. And impressively so. His 16th-place finish in the elite age-group division of the 2009 Nation’s Triathlon drew breathless media attention; in 2010, he competed in his hometown race just two days before the primary election, in the thick of campaigning for a second term (he was ultimately defeated by Vincent Gray).
As the Mayor and a father of three, Fenty was able to carve training into his nonstop schedule, and he was known to block two-hour chunks on his schedule for “personal time,” when he’d link up with a local cycling team for training sessions in Rock Creek Park or to swim laps at Georgetown University—his aides noting how he’d show up to afternoon meetings with goggle marks. Keen observers spotted him riding loops around Hains Point, a popular cycling spot in the city, or running intervals around a local high school track. The grind brought him balance (“If I’m working to a certain point and don’t get a workout in, I think I’m also not being as productive as possible. Getting in the run, the bike or the swim gives me a great release, and then I can clear my mind and come back to work re-energized,” he told the Washington Post in 2009.) And the ability to endure was a tool he believed could aid him in both triathlon and in his career.
“If you are good at endurance sports, you can wear down the competition,” Fenty told the Michigan Daily in 2019. “That’s the theory and the hope. Whatever the competition happens to be. Whether it’s in business, politics, academics, or sport. Hopefully you’ll outlast everybody.”
Perhaps because of Fenty’s enthusiasm and influence, triathlon in Washington had a heyday of sorts through his mayoral term–and well beyond. While Fenty, now 50, moved on (and out of politics), the Nation’s Triathlon endured for 13 years as one of the largest races in the country. Though hampered by the unpredictable Potomac–the swim was canceled five times, mostly due to poor water quality–the race and its iconic course routinely attracted thousands of triathletes looking for a chance to race along the sprawling, hallowed grounds of downtown D.C. In September of 2018, the race was abruptly and outright canceled after a heavy rainfall, and there have been no public plans to bring it back.