Running in politics

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When the Conservatives labelled Keir Starmer ‘Sir Sleepy’ in May it may not have marked a high point in political discourse. But the attempt to portray the 61-year-old Starmer as less active than 44-year-old Rishi Sunak touched on an important theme: being ‘fit’ for office, includes physical fitness too. Sunak’s confidence to go head-to-head with Starmer on this was no doubt bolstered by the fact that he’s a regular runner. Sunak’s social media posts have referenced squeezing miles in before cabinet meetings and, in April, he went for a central London run with ‘Hardest Geezer’ Russ Cook, confiding that he took up running to woo his wife. Sunak doesn’t just talk the talk – in May 2023 he ran the Northallerton 10K in his North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond in a very respectable 47:46. Starmer does his running around a 5-a-side football pitch, but to be fair he looks in pretty decent shape, too.

Politics has always been laced with the breathless terminology of competitive sport and, especially, running. Yet that lexical crossover has become increasingly literal in recent decades, with a surge in the proportion of the political ranks seeking solace – or perhaps something more – in the sport.

It’s not just pootles round the park, either: 5km and 10kms. Half-marathons. Marathons. Trail and fell running. Even Ironman and ultramarathons. Jeremy Hunt ran his first London Marathon in October 2022 just days before he was appointed Chancellor by then Prime Minister Liz Truss. He then made it two in six months by finishing the 2023 race, restored to its rightful spring berth.

Truss may have succumbed to the political equivalent of going out too hard and hitting the wall on mile five, but she too is a devotee. Her more durable predecessors (and successor) as British PM, stretching all the way back to Tony Blair in the late 1990s, have all been photographed pounding the streets at some time – and the only exception confessed to a penchant for running through wheat fields.

The trend is mirrored among world leaders. A string of US presidents, including George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, took refuge in running as did/do Spain’s Pedro Sánchez; Nicolas Sarkozy in France; Canada’s Justin Trudeau (along with Obama probably the most gifted of the politician-runners of recent years); former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto; Ireland’s former Taoiseach Leo Varadka; ex New Zealand prime minister Bill English… the list is long and distinguished.

‘We want to send the message that sport brings people closer together and helps build ties.’

When President Katalin Novák of Hungary visited Slovenia in July 2022 for talks with her counterpart Borut Pahor they kicked things off with a burst around Lake Bled.We’re both regular runners and marathon runners,’ said Novák, whose Instagram account emphatically corroborates this. ‘We want to send the message that sport brings people closer together and helps build ties.’

That message is filtering down the political tiers: mayors, governors, Cabinet members, Congressmen and women, and members of parliaments across the world are taking up jogging with alacrity, even if their pace is sometimes lacking in such.

A generation ago, it would have been strange to see senior politicians running – can anyone picture Margaret Thatcher popping out a 5K? Now it’s a rare leadership bid or election campaign that doesn’t feature at least one hopeful lapping their local park with faux-nonchalance. So what’s behind this change? And – an obligatory question when it comes to politicians – is it entirely genuine?

Let’s not be cynical. At least not yet. It would be odd if the political classes – representatives of the people – didn’t statistically reflect the boom in mass participation running in the past 40 years. It’s also multigenerational. Around 240,000 British over-65s are regular runners, with one in four finishers in last year’s London Marathon over 50 – the average age of a British MP.

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The convergence of politics and running is too late for Matthew Parris. As MP for Derbyshire West from 1979 to 1986, he recalls being in a minority of one as a serious runner during his time in Parliament. And serious he was; Parris ran every London Marathon from its inception in 1981 until 1985, eventually clocking 2:32:57 – still the record by a sitting MP by more than 20 minutes.

‘I’m more proud of that than anything I did as an MP,’ says Parris, only partly joking. He was 35 at the time and decided to retire on a high. ‘It was faster than I thought I’d ever be able to run. I wasn’t interested in being a veteran or anything like that.’

Back then, his peers confined their marathon sessions to the Commons’ members’ bars. Anyone who ran in that era was considered eccentric at best, and often downright weird. Given the make up of the House in the 1980s, that’s quite the accusation.

Much has changed. Alun Cairns, the 53-year-old Vale of Glamorgan MP, is one of the keener runners in today’s Parliament. He knocks out the equivalent of a marathon a week, and helped set up the Barry Island Parkrun in his constituency. Of the 12 London Marathons he has completed, he’s been the fastest MP in six. His PB is a sprightly 3:28.

Is being a runner helpful politically? ‘I always try to show I’m a doer and running lends itself to that,’ says Cairns. His hobby certainly helps with visibility, he admits. ‘It’s a great way to get round the constituency. People can stop me for a word, which is fine, or it might just prompt someone to raise something with me later.'

There are other benefits, too. He’s raised nearly £100,000 over his dozen Londons, mostly for local charities. And after a long day in the Commons, he finds running the streets around Westminster the ideal de-stressor. ‘It’s a great way to clear your head and get clarity.’ His colleague Dan Jarvis – the Barnsley Central Labour MP who has completed 16 marathons and the gruelling Marathon des Sables – confessed recently that his staff ‘dread’ him going for a run because he always comes back with new ideas.

Matt Hancock, one of the highest-profile British politicians of recent times, is another distance running convert. The Health Secretary turned reality TV punchbag sought out Cairns for advice before running his first London Marathon in 2021, just months after he’d been forced to resign for breaching Covid social-distancing guidelines.

Despite being heckled by anti-vax campaigners, Hancock completed his debut in a commendable 3:47, raising funds for hospice care in his West Suffolk constituency. A PR win? Alas, setting up a JustGiving page backfired spectacularly when his detractors realised the £2 minimum pledge afforded the privilege of penning a message. Vile’ and a ‘disgrace’ were among the more benign comments. One read simply: ‘I hope your charity vest gives you nipple chafe.’

The taunt will have raised a few chuckles, but the safety and security of politicians is no laughing matter. The murders of two sitting MPs in recent years – Jo Cox in 2016 and David Amess in 2021 – show the very real risks elected officials face in our polarised times. When Hunt enrolled in the marathon, race organisers modified the live-tracking function so politicians would be excluded.

Personal safety concerns shape the way Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith runs. While Cairns pounds Westminster streets late at night, and 53-year-old former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has no qualms about fell running in his Cumbrian constituency, Smith feels she must be more circumspect. ‘It’s more of a gender issue,’ says Smith. ‘As a woman I’d feel quite vulnerable, particularly in the winter months. I’m more inclined to run on a treadmill in the Westminster gym.’ Like all MPs she’s been warned against using Strava when she does run outside.

It wasn’t until 2020 – five years after joining Parliament – that Smith discovered running. She started with Couch to 5k and progressed to the London Marathon in 2021, in which she was the first female MP finisher. ‘I was also the only one,’ she says, with a laugh. In 2023 she completed her second London.

Smith, 38, appreciates the endorphins, the head space and the opportunity to raise funds for charities in her constituency. Flexibility is the biggest plus. Smith can squeeze in miles around politics’ long, antisocial hours and her equally demanding role as a single mum. ‘It’s a good fit,’ she says. ‘I’m just frustrated I didn’t think of it sooner. My first five years in Parliament were a very divisive time, with all the political rows around Brexit. It would have benefited my wellbeing.’

The further up the political tree you go, the more rigorous the security. PMs and must be trailed by a phalanx of security officers, the optics of which rarely flatter the individual in office. There are notable exceptions.

Wesley Korir, 41, followed up his win in the Boston Marathon in 2012 with election to Kenya’s National Assembly (the east African country has a rich tradition of athlete-politics crossover). He was a member of government for four years while continuing to train as an elite runner – presenting a challenge for security staff. ‘Finding bodyguards who could stay with me in training carrying their weapons was the hardest thing,’ the 2:06:13 marathoner once joked.

Current Home Secretary David Cameron was never in that realm. He ran regularly around St James’s Park during his 2010-2016 premiership, sometimes with celebrity trainer Matt Roberts and always with security personnel who didn’t struggle to keep up. Alistair Campbell, spin doctor to PM Tony Blair – who himself took up jogging while in office after a heart scare – did get one up on the security services during the 2003 London Marathon. Campbell, now co-host of The Rest Is Politics podcast, had been assigned a Special Branch officer given the heightened tensions in the build-up to the Iraq War, but dropped him by mile five. ‘A proud moment, and I never let him forget it,’ he wrote in the New European in 2020. Campbell’s final time? 3:53. ‘[Finishing] was one of the greatest feelings of my life,’ he said.

Foreign Policy

Anyone who’s witnessed ‘the Beast’ – the nine-ton presidential Cadillac with five-inch-thick bulletproof windows – in action knows security is of a different magnitude across the Pond. Running may have been great for clearing the heads of a succession of recent presidents, but it’s proved an almighty headache for protection officers.

During his 31 years as a Secret Service agent Nick Trotta helped guard four presidents, including a brace of Bushes. George W, particularly, was a running zealot. He credited running with getting him sober in the 1970s, had a marathon PB of 3:44, and as POTUS would run six days a week – including on the treadmill he had installed on Air Force One. Facilitating a half-hour run for the president took a staff of up to 50 people, Trotta explained, including recce officials, motorcade coordinators, medics, snipers and agents posing as fellow runners.

Bill Clinton also loved to run. As governor of Arkansas he was photographed training with Al Gore in 1992, the pair wearing criminally-small matching micro-shorts. They were running mates in more than one sense; the following year Clinton was elected president, with Gore as his VP. Such attire would not have worked for former governor of Alaska and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who had a fondness for cold-weather running in her home state, sometimes in temperatures as low as -30C. Palin was so obsessed with running, she named her first son Track.

Running with an entourage has its upsides, as Justin Trudeau knows well. The Canadian prime minister runs up to six times a week, often with his long-serving official photographer Adam Scotti. Scotti maintains that nothing is staged, and everything he documents is for the purpose of maintaining the prime-ministerial archives. This claim drew scepticism in 2017 when shots of Trudeau supposedly photobombing a high-school prom while running in Stanley Park, Vancouver, emerged. ‘The kids spotted me and I turned back and said “hi”. So it’s one of those things that just happens,’ said Trudeau, as the image-burnishing, suspiciously well-framed snaps went viral.

Not all running publicity is good publicity, however; as one-time Labour leader Ed Miliband once proved with a bacon sandwich, venturing into territory in which you’re not comfortable doesn’t always end well. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s belated, brief, grimacing flirtation with running in 2009 was definitely PR rather than PB driven. But the former rugby player, haggard at the best of times, regularly looked on the point of collapse.

President George Bush Snr did exactly this during a run at Camp David in 1991, causing national alarm – mostly at the thought of Dan Quayle assuming the presidency. A similar fate befell Nicolas Sarkozy in July 2009 during a summer’s day jog near his Palace of Versailles weekend retreat – wrecking the president’s meticulously-honed reputation as an Aviators-wearing, supermodel-squiring force of nature.

Did it cost him re-election? Arguably not – which is more than can be said of poor Jimmy Carter. Paralleling and perhaps capitalising on the Seventies running boom which saw nearly 25 million Americans take up the sport, the 39th president was arguably the grandfather of jogging world leaders, running up to 50 miles a week. But one day in September 1979 he probably wished he’d stuck to chess in the Oval Office. Attempting to beat his PB of 50 minutes in a hilly 10K race in Maryland, the yellow-headbanded president began to weave and stagger around halfway, collapsed and ended up on a drip at Camp David. A year later it was a similar outcome in his race for the presidency against Ronald Reagan.

That era saw the inauguration of the world’s most famous and longest-running political race: the Capital Challenge. It’s a charity three-miler in Anacostia Park, south of Washington DC, open to members of government and the media. Vice-presidents including Mike Pence, Al Gore and Dan Quayle are among the political heavyweights who’ve competed.

Jeff Darman has been race director for 41 years – a period, he says, that’s seen running embraced by the ruling elite. Given politicians’ inherent competitiveness, does it ever get fractious? ‘Most can keep their competitive juices in check,’ says Darman. ‘I’ve found in some instances, and I won’t name names, that when they get beaten, or perhaps when they’re afraid of getting beaten, they decide not to come any more.’

Many years back there was an incident of ‘bib muling’ by a member of Congress who gave their number to a staffer, recalls Darman. Another year, a Senator set off minutes ahead of the starter’s gun. Aside from those anomalies, it’s a fun – and congenially bipartisan – affair, distinguished by some impressive times.

Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, 47, pretty much owns the women’s race: she’s been the fastest female eight times, and can lay claim to being one of the most prodigious runner-politicians on the planet. In 2013 she became the first sitting member of Congress to complete an Ironman and six years later she ‘crushed’ her PB in New Zealand, finishing in 12:59:58. She ran the marathon leg in 4:27:08.

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PB or PR?

When it comes to endurance, even Sinema can’t compete with Australia’s Pat Farmer. Last year he completed a hellish, 14,000km run around the perimeter of Australia, averaging 80km a day in temperatures of up to 42C, to raise awareness of the plight of indigenous communities. It was the latest in a string of ultra-long-distance challenges he’d completed, including running 20,000km from the North to the South Poles and nearly 5,000km across America.

Farmer was a member of the Australian House of Representatives between 2001 and 2010, and spent three years as Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Science and Training. He’s still politically connected; the day he speaks to RW he’s been meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who joined him at the base of Uluru for the final leg of his tour of Australia in October.

He’s proud of his role as a running evangelist to politicians Down Under. ‘When I started out in parliament I was very much in a minority as a runner,’ he says. 'But running is contagious. Others would see me doing it in the early morning, coming into Parliament House in my running gear, and they wanted to be part of it.’

But he’s well aware that not every politician lacing up their trainers is in it for the runner’s high – and the shameless opportunism irks him. ‘It’s amazing how many politicians you start to see at parkrun when there’s an election coming up,’ he says. ‘It’s like the politicians-kissing-babies cliche. Honesty and authenticity is key; the opposite drives people crazy.’

Which brings us, somewhat inevitably, to Boris Johnson – a man who redefined the jogger’s wardrobe during his time in government as surely as he did politics’ moral compass. Woolly cardigan, work socks, bandana, shin-length board shorts; anything seemed to go – except for a decent-length workout. An acerbic article in the Huffington Post coined the term ‘micro-cardio’ for Johnson’s tendency to jog, in full kit, from chauffeured car to front door of house or hotel, just far enough for a photo opp.

Parris concedes that there’s a performative element to some politicians’ running these days, though quantifying the political capital isn’t straightforward. ‘Whether Boris Johnson wobbling down the street in his strange garb is good for his public image or bad, I’m not sure,’ says Parris.

Johnson’s micro-cardio and unconventional kit are far from politicians’ most egregious crimes against running. In January 2023 a poll on X posed the simple question: ‘Who would win a marathon out of Paul Ryan and George Santos?’. One for the purists, the tweet was lampooning the outlandish fabulism of Republican Congressman George Santos – who was exposed as fabricating much of his CV and later expelled from Congress – and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who in 2012 claimed in a radio interview to have run a ‘two hour and fifty-something’ marathon.

This proved a red flag for runners, for whom a marathon PB – particularly one as coveted as a sub-3hr – is seared into the memory. The lie was quickly exposed: Ryan’s only marathon was in 1990, when the then-20-year-old finished in just over four hours.

Mexican politician and 2006 presidential hopeful Roberto Madrazo’s mendacity was even more brazen. His 2:41:12 in the age-55 category at the 2007 Berlin Marathon placed him 146th out of 40,000-plus entrants. It was also an hour quicker than his PB, and analysis of his splits revealed he’d covered one nine-mile segment in 21 minutes.

Madrazo, a veteran of nearly 40 marathons with a reputation for shady political dealings, was disqualified for course-cutting. ‘It is political,’ he bewailed, unconvincingly. ‘By doing this, they are seeking to throw mud on a sporting activity that I have practised for many years.’

Thankfully Madrazo, Ryan, Johnson et al appear to be in a minority. Most politician-runners are embracing the sport for health, fitness, contrast and a little peace from the corrosive tension of modern political discourse. As for those capitalising on running for political ends – is that really so bad? They crave our endorsement, but unwittingly endorse our sport in the process. Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, and all that.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is one of time management. Whatever their motives, politicians are increasingly carving out slots in their busy frantic schedules to get out and run. As George W Bush once put it: ‘If the President of the United States can make the time, anyone can.’

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