Fit for Fame
May 3, 2009 | By Sarah Wildman | Photographs by Timothy Devine
Running in his parents' footsteps taught Adrian Fenty the importance of endurance
Some people grow up playing catch with their fathers. Some recall the smell of barbecue, or reading time, or family dinners. For D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, childhood was a blur of watching his parents run: 10Ks, 10-milers, marathons, triathlons. "My father was my original inspiration for getting into working out, way back in high school," he explains.
Phil Fenty, 68, didn't run his first race until he was 39, he says, a year older than the 38-year-old mayor. "D.C. didn't have anything like the exercise culture we have now," he says. "My wife and I would run, and people would throw things at you on the road. If you ran in the city, people would holler at you out of their cars. It wasn't in the culture at all."
The Fentys set out to change that, taking their sons -- Shawn, Adrian and Jesse -- along with them. By the time he was in his early teens, Adrian Fenty was running right alongside his parents. The training began early, and it hasn't stopped.
"You make time, and you don't ever give it up," says Fenty, sitting at the back of the bullpen of cubicles at the John A. Wilson Building one evening in late December. His jacket is off, but the tie is still on, the shirt still pressed, though the day is rounding toward the 14-hour mark. It started at 5:30 a.m. on a bitterly cold track where Fenty and his 15 to 30 training partners run every Wednesday. It's a motley collection of men and women, spanning a range of professions, with a shared dedication to the workout. They line up outside a public school in the pitch dark to run three to six miles in intervals as their families sleep cozily at home. Mondays and Fridays are the long runs, the 10-milers that start and end at the mayor's house. Swims are "squeezed" in once a week or so, sometimes during the day; in summer, a group meets at Hains Point and trains together.
"A lot of my workouts occur before the day begins, before my family wakes up," Fenty says, explaining how he eats breakfast with the family but never misses a training session. "I get back right around 7. ... Then we wake up the kids." What some would see as a slog fits neatly into Fenty's idea of good governance. "Endurance is a big part of this job, and endurance is, obviously, probably one of the biggest factors in being an endurance athlete."
A multisport athlete since high school, Fenty started training for triathlons five years ago. "The discipline," he says, "in doing the workouts, having the schedule and finishing the workouts gives a lot of qualities that help on the job. You perform better because you are doing very different tasks, and it's more enjoyable -- both the sport and the work." The more the mayor trains, the more he feels balanced. "If I'm working to a certain point and don't get a workout in, I think I'm also not being as productive as possible. Getting in the run, the bike or the swim gives me a great release, and then I can clear my mind and come back to work reenergized."
The delicate equilibrium of the Fenty super-athlete model comes from his father, who stopped competing last year. "When I turned 30, Adrian, my second son, was getting ready to be born, and I decided it was time to get in shape, to be there to play with these boys," the elder Fenty says.
We are sitting in Fleet Feet Sports, the quarter-century-old, family-run, sporting goods shop on Columbia Road NW where the Fenty boys all once worked. Shawn is the oldest and recently bought Fleet Feet. Jesse is the youngest. Nine years after lacing up his first pair of running shoes, Phil Fenty tried the Baltimore marathon, then some shorter races, 10-milers, half-marathons. By his second marathon -- a smaller event called "God's Country" in Pennsylvania -- he "fell in love" with the culture of marathoning.
Phil and Jan, who started running in the early '70s, would take their sons along when they ran, and sometimes there would be shorter-distance races where "they'd [also] have kids' runs, a mile or a half-a-mile race."
"Adrian understands ... that athletics is part of life and it feeds your energy system; it doesn't take away," Phil Fenty says. "So when he wakes up in the morning, the first thing he needs to do is run, bike or swim. That's what other people need coffee for."
The Fenty house in Mount Pleasant was stocked with fare from health food stores long before a Whole Foods broke ground in the District; the family shunned meat and chicken, sugar and salt, eating only fish, pasta and vegetables, and making their own yogurt and growing their own sprouts. As an adult, the younger Fenty has added in "lean meats," but he still eats lots of vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Every morning, he has oatmeal, a banana and a cup of tea.
Phil Fenty still spends two hours a day in the gym, cycles for two hours a day, takes long swims and practices yoga. His arms are tattooed with interlocking words: One arm reads "Omm, Metta, Practice," the other "Patience, Balance." "Everything is practice," he says earnestly, a Buddha earring swinging from one ear. "Life is practice, and omm is the universal sound of the universe. And the only way to [live] is to have balance."
Now, Phil and Jan help the mayor and his wife, Michelle, a lawyer, find that balance with their children. The newborn girl, Aerin, has yet to pick her sport, but the 9-year-old twins, Andrew and Matthew, need to be shuttled to practice nearly every day -- basketball, tennis, baseball, football, swimming, golf. The mantle is being passed down.
"My dad completely motivated me to run, but he never pushed it," Fenty says. "I just one day started running. I saw his commitment and dedication, even more so since they owned a sporting goods store. That could happen to my kids, just by seeing me work out."