By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009
The morning quiet of the Mall is punctuated by a few joggers and walkers at 6 a.m. on a recent weekday. The sun is barely out, and cars move quickly on the empty pre-rush-hour streets. Arriving at the corner of Third Street and Madison Drive NW in black Crown Victorias with tinted windows and District government license plates are four people about to join the exercise fray.
They are Alfred Durham, a D.C. assistant police chief; George Bolden, head of the police department's information technology staff; Matt Bromeland, a staff assistant to Chief Cathy L. Lanier; and Betty Gene Williams, a staff assistant to Durham.
Wearing shorts and T-shirts with sayings that betray their day jobs ("No Time for Crime 202 I'M BORED"), they stretch their arms to the sky and jump on and off the curb, limbering up before the hour-long workout. The exercise crew is one of almost 200 police department teams taking part in the agency's first-ever weight loss challenge, styled after the popular reality TV show "The Biggest Loser."
Lanier decided one day after taking a rare early-morning jog on the Mall -- and feeling great afterward -- that the long hours and erratic schedules of police work were wreaking havoc on the health and well-being of officers and police employees, including herself.
She called Durham, her executive officer, and told him about her idea. If random Americans on television could get together and lose weight in a friendly competition, why not D.C. police?
Apparently Lanier struck a nerve. Almost 800 officers and civilian police department employees signed up for the competition, which began in June and ended this month.
"It's much, much harder to eat well and to exercise when you work the crazy hours that we work," Lanier said. "But I wanted to improve the overall fitness of our police department."
These being police officers, there is good-natured dark humor in the team names and lots of competitive ribbing. Lanier's team calls itself "The Phat and the Furious." A group of officers working in the explosives unit decided to go by "Half a Ton of Fun."
Durham's team would get together each Tuesday and Thursday morning. They were clear on their goal: beat Lanier's team, lest they suffer the barbs in their close quarters in the department's fifth floor.
They decide on a team name: "Who Dat."
"Because by the time we're done," Durham said, "people will look at us and say, 'Who Dat?' " A former substitute teacher, Williams did plenty of walking as she tried to keep up with middle school students. Then she joined the police department three years ago and her administrative job kept her in her seat most of the day. The candy bowl sits across from Williams's desk at police headquarters, and she would snack from it often.
The pounds crept up.
A few months back, she felt knee pain when she walked downstairs. Her legs would stiffen. Maybe it's arthritis, she thought. Her doctor didn't mince words, telling her that her upper body had too much weight for her 5-foot-7 frame.
"I knew she was telling the truth," Williams said.
She had already signed up for a gym and started going when she heard about the competition. She hopped up on the scale in June and got the verdict, 207 pounds. Her doctor said she should be at most 170 pounds.
During the workday, she is the fixture of calm as the calls come in for Durham and high-level police command staff. Out on the morning runs, Williams is the introspective one in the group, concentrating on the pace of her breathing while the male team members joke about their aches and pains as they jog at a faster pace.
She walked at first, lagging behind the others. The team developed an ethos, "No one left behind," that meant even if the other members ran ahead, they would turn back around and run to where Williams was, and then they'd all continue together.
She started cutting out the sweets and going to the gym on the days that the team didn't meet. "The challenge gave the motivation that I know I can do this -- I can actually lose the weight and come back down," Williams said.
Meetings, paperwork and briefings. After 12-hour days making sure Lanier had whatever information she needed for every imaginable situation, Bromeland would get home late, relax a little with his wife and start the work-home cycle all over again. Lunch was Chinese food or other take-out. Dinner wasn't much healthier. Exercise? Practically nonexistent. Before he knew it, 20 pounds crept on, and the lawyer by training weighed in at 223 pounds, the most he had ever been.
He's the co-captain of the team and is usually the first person to arrive in the mornings, stretching as he waits for his colleagues. "My problem is sweets: ice cream, cookies, cakes, desserts," Bromeland said.
But as the weeks pass, Bromeland finds himself embracing calorie-counting and portion control. Sugar-free pudding satisfies his sweet tooth.
"We're so busy going from one crisis to another, we forget to take care of ourselves," Bromeland said. "But you do have time, no matter what, to work out."
The department's daily crime briefings use up-to-the-minute technology to track incidents and trends. It's up to Bolden, the department's IT manager, to make sure the system is running.
He also troubleshoots the department's nerve center at headquarters, the Command Information Center, and sets up the technology for any special event (think presidential inauguration). "It's an intense job," Bolden said.
Although he usually spends the day running around rather than sitting behind a desk, his eating habits were terrible. He'd miss meals during the day, work late and hit the Wendy's drive-through on his way home. Always a large chicken combo, and he ate it in the car.
By the afternoons at work, he felt as sluggish as a dial-up Internet connection. In December, he decided he had to do something. He cut out starches and carbohydrates cold turkey. He lost 13 pounds. And then the challenge came along.
The overachiever that he is, Bolden wanted to start running on the first day. "I wanted to prove something," he said. Durham encouraged him to start slow. He listened, and his once-tight muscles eased up. The exercise "just got easier and easier," he said.
In the past two years, Durham spent more time running interference for the chief as her executive officer than, well, actually running.
"My daughter said, 'Daddy, you're getting fat.' She was joking, but it was starting to hurt my feelings."
He is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department. Lanier "makes the decisions, but she hands down everything to me to handle."
A native Washingtonian, Durham saw the movie "An Officer and Gentleman" and decided he wanted to be a Marine. He did that for several years, then decided he wanted to serve his community back home.
He was chief of staff with Richmond police, then came to the District in March 2007. That's precisely when he stopped exercising. And he started having Big Macs and a large iced tea for lunch.
"I put my needs on the back burner," he said. "I hadn't worked out from 2007 until we started the competition."
The team members all say that Durham is the heart of the group, the upbeat motivator, the gentle enforcer, the one leading by example -- whether it's hopping up the stairs of the National Gallery of Art without breaking a sweat, or talking about how fun it is to stay in shape.
"I'm not as stressed as I was before," he said one morning as his steps danced on the pavement. "When you're committed to a job, you yourself have to be healthy so that you can best serve everybody else. My blood pressure is down and it's like I'm a new person."
The department held the "weight-out" earlier this month for all the contestants. "Who Dat?" placed first in most pounds lost. Durham shed 13; Bolden lost 25.4 ; Bromeland lost 28 and Williams lost 13. So far.
The department had a cumulative weight loss of more than 1,100 pounds, Lanier said. There will be an award ceremony next month, and officials are planning a second eight-week challenge to start in the fall.
Lanier recently joined Durham's team for a morning workout, just to prove that the competition is friendly. She shed 11 pounds and, even though the competition is over, "The Phat and the Furious" still meets to exercise.
"We don't want the momentum to stop," Lanier said.