Primary against Gray is the only race triathlete Mayor Fenty might be sweating

Triathlete mayor's future is in choppy waters.
Triathlete mayor's future is in choppy waters. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010

Through his mayoralty, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has demonstrated utter mastery of his athletic pursuits.

At the 2009 Nation's Triathlon, held in the District in September, Fenty finished the swim-bike-and-run in 2 hours 21 minutes -- a time he described as a personal best. On Sunday morning, an unusually sweltering one, he clocked 2:19:14 in the inaugural Washington DC Triathlon -- good enough for fourth out of 104.

Fenty's hard-core training regimen -- which includes regular morning runs and swims plus midday bike rides -- continues to pay dividends in competition. But it's not clear that it's paying dividends on the campaign trail.

His reelection campaign has floundered in recent weeks as it struggles to adapt to a tough reelection fight. He's been trounced by top challenger Vincent C. Gray in straw polls held by the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the Gertrude Stein Democrats and the Ward 3 Democrats. He's too often greeted by boos at public appearances.

Meanwhile, his competition times continue to edge downward.

Plenty of journalists have used Fenty's athleticism as a flattering metaphor for his hard-charging approach to campaigning and governing. By all accounts, Fenty's work ethic is impressive. The same focus and drive responsible for his impressive athletic feats have helped him build a record any incumbent executive would love to have: lower crime, higher test scores in the public schools and more people living in the city.

Moreover, Fenty's participation in Sunday's triathlon on one hand represents a commitment to sports that's paid off for the District. He's been a stalwart supporter of home-grown races, including the Nation's Tri and the National Marathon. He helped lure a leg of an international triathlon series to the city last year. And he's a prime backer of an effort to bring the Giro d'Italia to Washington -- which would be the first time any portion of the three European grand cycling tours has crossed the Atlantic. Add to that all the new bike lanes, new pools, improved rec centers and playing fields.

And yet he's in the fight of his life against a candidate nearly 30 years his elder, a candidate who two months after launching his campaign has yet to issue a detailed position showing any significant policy departure from Fenty.

The athlete-as-mayor metaphor cuts another way, you see: Great triathletes establish their goals and set to blocking out distractions and removing obstacles until they achieve them. It means visualizing an outcome and following through on that vision.

Fenty's vision looks a lot like his charmed 2006 run to the mayoralty, where he outworked another D.C. Council chairman, Linda W. Cropp, through shoe leather and force of will.

But Fenty's standing with the electorate is not what it was in 2006, when he was essentially a blank slate to voters. In the nearly four years since, his almost mechanical approach to avoiding distractions -- whether ankle-biting council members, demanding public employee unions or cumbersome procurement processes -- have left him, in too many eyes, aloof, arrogant and self-absorbed.

Who among us would have time to run a city, raise a family and maintain elite-class triathlon skills? And now, fit a reelection campaign into all of that.

As the campaign wears on, few expect Fenty to slack off. "You've got to squeeze it in. If it's a priority, you'll find the time," Fenty said in 2008. "To be honest, there are times I wish I could be out there longer."

But facing a tough challenge from Gray, will he hang up his sneakers, put away the bike and lay off the morning swims in an attempt to win back an alienated city?

This year's Nation's Triathlon is set for Sept. 12 -- two days before the primary. Asked whether Fenty will be participating, Fenty's spokeswoman did not respond.

As we move closer to Election Day, the fate of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty may hang on this question: Will he be running, or will he be running?

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