Nature was in a bad mood yesterday for Dominique's 13th annual Bastille Day Waiter's Race. Nima Nejad, a 19-year-old waiter from the Ice House Cafe in Herndon, Va., was not.
"This is unbelievable, I don't know what to say," Nejad screamed to reporters over the din of an afternoon wind and rain storm that whipped awnings and and flooded sidewalks along the Pennsylvania Avenue race course. "With all this rain, it was a real zoo when we got started. People were sliding all over the place. I was just praying no one would bump into me, because I had worked hard for this."
Nejad's shirt was stained, his face was soaked, and his lungs were gasping for breath. But to the dismay of nearly 80 other runners he had kept his champagne and glasses upright through the downpour to win the 12-block splash and with it a free trip to Paris.
It might be more accurate to say he survived. The suddenly slick sidewalk sent some racers sliding, and the swirling winds left few glasses or bottles standing. But Nejad jogged triumphantly past his frowning competitors, who mistakenly chose speed over balance.
Nejad said he had practiced for three weeks before yesterday's race, the highlight of Dominique D'Ermo's rain-dampened annual celebration outside his restaurant on the corner of 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
His practice sessions involved running "with Budweiser tall necks on a tray, because they were real top-heavy," Nejad said. "These little champagne bottles were much lighter and, even with the rain, it seemed real easy to run with everything."
That was an experience few contestants enjoyed. The rains -- the first in the history of Dominique's party in honor of French independence -- descended just a few seconds after the race began, sending a block-long crowd scurrying for cover and sabotaging runners' strategies and skills.
"I blew it," said Russ Stemler, a 23-year-old waiter at Charley's Place in Springfield, Va. "Everything was sliding all over the place from the wind, and my stuff fell over. The rules say you can't touch the bottles or glasses with your hand, so I had to stop and put them back up with my teeth. But as soon as I started running again, I slipped on this big piece of glass on the sidewalk, and everything went flying for good."
The mood remained festive, despite the weather. Traffic rubbernecked past Dominique's and people crowded balconies of office buildings across the street to watch the afternoon celebration, which began with a brief display of traditional wine-making -- better known as grape-stomping -- techniques.
That demonstration was followed by the fifth annual customers' race, in which about 30 contestants tried to balance a tray holding two cans of beer and a can of soup for six blocks.
Shortly after the race, a pickup truck filled with employes of La Nicoise -- described as a friendly rival of Dominique's -- pulled along the curb. Clad in an assortment of 18th-century French costumes, the troupe jumped from the truck, dragged a fake guillotine on the stage outside the restaurant and ordered Dominique's head for lunch. "They've been trying to do this for the past 14 years," D'Ermo said, his smiling face beneath the chopping block.
D'Ermo thanked the crowd for coming, and said he suspected the sun would soon join the party. It didn't. Skies looked ominous as waiters and waitresses eagerly warmed up along 20th Street, jogging in place and repeating deep knee bends as they balanced their trays. And after that, the deluge.
"This wind could cause serious problems," said 23-year-old John Feola, who works at the American Cafe in Georgetown, before the race. "I figure the best strategy is to stay in the middle so the people in front and back block the wind for about three-fourths of the race, then kick it in."
Feola said he had trained for the competition by running laps around a track in his neighborhood as he balanced full champagne bottles on his tray. "It looked pretty strange," he said.
But not nearly as strange as Brad Kayton's preparation. Kayton, a 21-year-old waiter at the Bethesda Country Club, said that every night for the past three weeks he has practiced what he calls "arm stabilization."
"The hardest thing about this race isn't the running part; it's keeping your arm still for so long," Kayton said after the race, out of breath and disappointed that he finished third.
"So for about an hour or two each night I would stand and watch television at home holding a tray. I was really taking this seriously, but my arm is still dead. And the rain didn't help at all."