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I cannot tell a lie: Racing Presidents tryout isn't easy

Hopeful Thomas Jeffersons, Abe Lincolns, Teddy Roosevelts and George Washingtons gathered at tryouts this weekend for their shot at being one of the Washington Nationals' presidential mascots.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 9:51 AM

I had to be Teddy. Nothing else would make sense. This is, after all, a fitness column, and any high school history student can tell you which U.S. president is most closely linked with "the life of strenuous endeavor," as Roosevelt liked to put it himself.

C'mon now, which president led ambassadors on hikes through Rock Creek Park, charged up San Juan hill and nicknamed his political party after the strongest domestic creature he could think of? Bill Clinton? Woodrow Wilson?

I even had the headline ready: "Score One for the Rough Writer."

But my hopes of making our intrepid 26th president proud were crushed by reality the moment I arrived Saturday at Nationals Park for the fifth annual Racing Presidents tryout. If I'd done even a lick of homework, it would have dawned on me that the Nationals would humiliate Teddy Roosevelt once again. He wasn't even there.

As even the most casual Nats fan can tell you, Teddy has never won a presidents' race, not even in tryouts. Through five years of fourth-inning sprints, the standings are Abe 140, George 96, Tom 91, Teddy 0, according to the Nationals. This outrage has spawned its own subculture of fans who root for and against the bespectacled buffoon, along with all manner of conspiracy theories about the Nats' motives.

Are they waiting until the team makes the playoffs? The World Series? No one knows, and the Nats are mum. Tom Davis, the team spokesman who ran Saturday's tryout, would say only that Teddy was on his annual Presidents' Day vacation in Cancun, Mexico.

Scott Ableman, who writes the blog Let Teddy Win!, believes the team has brought a powerful curse upon itself and won't sniff first place until the shackles are removed from our most physically fit chief executive.

"Teddy would kick the other presidents' butts," Ableman said. "That's pretty undisputed."

Or is it? In his new 928-page biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow describes the first president as "a superb physical specimen, with a magnificent physique" and "an exceptionally muscular and vigorous young man."

Give or take that winter in Valley Forge, I was unaware of Washington's physical gifts until a friend brought the biography to my attention after the tryout. With Teddy unavailable, I chose George solely because he appeared to be a few inches shorter than Tom and Abe, though all three mascots measure roughly 11 feet tall. With 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts kicking up dust on the Nats' warning track, where we would be racing, I figured I'd use any advantage I could.

The Nats had screened 160 candidates and invited 52 of presidential timber to literally run for office on this bright, blustery morning. They had to be between 5-foot-7 and 6-foot-6, able to run 200 yards in 40 seconds and capable of wearing the costume for several hours. The tryout would consist of a 40-yard dash, two 200-yard races, a freestyle dance, a victory pose and an interview.

Louis, 26, a D.C. resident, told me before the competition that he wanted to be Lincoln. "He just seems to be a straight shooter," Louis said. "He plays to win, but he respects the integrity of the game." Scott, a tour guide from the District, countered that "George is The Man, especially here in Washington. It's named after him." (One of the Nats' rules was that reporters not use any last names, to preserve the mascots' anonymity.)

Megan, 31, a former high school cheerleader and one of the few women trying out, figured most of the 20- and 30-something guys were faster than she. "But women are better dancers," she told me. "I might throw some '90s stuff their way, some Rhythm Nation."

I'd always wondered what it takes to run around inside a 50-pound mattress and whip 20,000 people into a frenzy, so I signed up, too. The media were well-represented at the event, but only three of us - Dave Levy (Abe) of the blog We Love DC, Danny Rouhier (Tom) of 106.7 The Fan and myself - were willing to place our names in nomination. Soon we were under the stands being strapped into backpacks that hold the 45-pound heads on tall struts and squeezing into those period costumes.

The head's narrow mesh window afforded me a spectacular view of my running shoes and nothing else, which led to one critical decision: I was not going to be the first candidate to pitch over on my foam face in the swirling wind. I would sacrifice speed for dignity. And so I clocked nine seconds flat in my 40-yard dash, holding up my giant head with one hand.

When it came time to race, they could have stuffed me in a Usain Bolt outfit and it wouldn't have mattered. Levy, 26, and Rouhier, 31, showed no respect for the 52-year-old father of their country. Rouhier captured the back-to-back runs, and I was left so short of breath that I couldn't have freestyle danced if I had wanted to. And I didn't want to. I managed a feeble, Nixonesque Double-V-for-Victory sign before slinking off beneath the stands for my decapitation.

Later, still recovering, the three of us compared notes. "It's unspeakably hard," Rouhier said. "I had no idea."

"I have immediately more respect," Levy said. "It's my workout for the day, perhaps for the weekend."

I cannot tell a lie: The presidents' race is for folks more fit than I. Unless Teddy's going to get his shot. Then I'll be as fit as a bull moose.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company