The Fourth Annual International Dolley Madison Worm Races were held yesterday despite a slight drizzle and the growling thunder of the media, which had gathered in McLean for the creepiest event of the year.
The drizzle was actually a blessing for the 100 worms, centipedes and spiders that raced, or refused to, and in some cases died for the honor of their hard-nosed handlers.
"We've had years so hot, if you didn't water down the track, the worms would sort of . . . cook," said Tom Ingram, one of the judges in the contest held on the sidewalk in front of the Dolley Madison Library.
The thunder came from media representatives who had come to the library-sponsored worm race in search of a political premonition. But there were no contestants named Jimmy, Ronnie or John. Instead, the scribes were introduced to "Skwermy," "Wormy," "Flash" and "Yuk."
"These kids don't seem to be too interested in politics," said Ingram, who besides timing the races was eagle-eyed in preventing the kind of cheating that has threatened to turn this annual event into an areawide scandal.
"A few years ago after a kid's worm didn't win, he stepped on it as well as every other worm he could get to," said Ingram, who was judging the centipede and millipede races in a chalk circle with a 20-inch radius.
The rules are specific in defining what can and can't be done to the contestants. Owners are not allowed to poke or prod their own entries, nor to drop rocks on the entries of others. The rules are necessary, say race officials, to calm youthful competitiveness.
"We're still racing them to see who's fastest," said Scott Dorfman, 10, as he and his partner, Chris Cathers, eyed the final six of 60 worms they had dug up in McLean. As it happened, none of their entries finished with honors, perhaps as a result, admitted Dorfman, of being overtested.
Tragedy struck the races sporadically. Worms were stepped on. The fastest entries often got away.
"I can't find Teeny," cried Kelly Bender, who lost sight of her midget centipede almost as soon as she released it from its Slurpee cup. While other owners cheered their contestants on, Bender roamed the sidewalk, calling her centipede in vain.
McLean's championship did not escape controversy. Before the worm race when owners appraised their competition, someone remarked that Cathy Drake's worm had the size and disposition of a ringer.
Under questioning, the 13-year-old Drake admitted that her entry, "Sloppy Joe," was one of a dozen bought for $1.50 from Ed's Bait and Tackle Shop that morning. But a check with race officials revealed that there was no rule barring professional worms.
The surprise entry came with the oldest owner, 19-year-old Pete Manno, a University of Virginia sophomore. Manno put his slug "Charlotte," named after an ex-girlfriend, he said, in the worm class. Manno admitted slugs are not notorious for their speed but he was betting on the "psychological advantage," he might enjoy.
"Most worms probably aren't used to racing slugs," said Manno, before "Charlotte" was left behind by a pack of worms that never turned their heads.
Matthew Walker won first prize in the caterpillar competition with "Flash," who happened to be the only caterpillar entered. "I think they've all changed into butterflies and moths by this time of year," admitted Matthew's mother, Donna Walker.
The fastest centipede in McLean today belonged to 9-year-old Iva Biggs, who found hers beneath a backyard trashcan. And the title for Fastest Worm went to "Slimy," out of John Blackwell's stable of racing worms. The almost 6-year-old Blackwell said "Slimy" would be returned to his backyard in McLean. Blackwell would keep his blue ribbon.
When the races were over, the owners, about 75 in all, took their ribbons and left behind the bodies of crawlers and creepers that had given up their lives during the championship.
"He got stepped on by a judge," said Karen Freedman, walking away from her worm, "Hermous." But she was dry-eyed over the loss. "At least he won one race before he died."