A Capitol Run
Runners are a little different.
They get up every morning and have to figure out when to get their miles in each day.
They spend more time lathered in sweat than your average person. They drop anywhere from $500 to $800 a year on shoes that they wear down to the nubs every 350-400 miles or so. And when they travel, they have to pack extra clothes and shoes that make carry-on baggage, even for a weekend trip, a challenge.
But the benefits are great. As a stress reliever, nothing beats a long run. Fresh air and exercise are life’s elixirs, and no one knows that better than a runner who has been cramped in a stuffy meeting room all day long. The blood flows, the muscles stretched, the lungs expanded. A good run can work wonders on the cardiovascular system.
Beyond all that, however, runners see get to see things others miss. To get up before dawn and plod through a town still asleep, watching as the sun rises and beams of light stream down back alleys, to spy the sides of glass towers reflecting the awakening day onto the streets, to feel the town begin to grind, ever so slowly, into action. It’s a special time that early morning runners get to savior in solitary sweat. And that’s just dawn. Summer afternoons and sunsets are even better, and I wager that runners see more of both than most folks.
All of which prompted me to pull on a sweatshirt, a stocking cap and a pair of Under Armour tights one recent frigid afternoon in the nation’s capital to take what I thought would be a brief and brisk three-mile run, at around 3 p.m. on a darkening day.
I was staying at the oh-so historic and smartly chic Hay-Adams Hotel, just across Lafayette Park from the White House. The staff, mostly young and European (other than the curmudgeonly concierge, who had been with the hotel so long that he predated the Bush -Clinton dynasty), had come to recognize me, not because of my cheerful demeanor and worldly style, but because of the odd running outfit I had worn on previous days and stays. The Hay-Adams caters to a crowd of congressional visitors, diplomats, lawyers and assorted other Washington types and those of the sporting set generally bunk elsewhere.
“Au revoir, be careful out there. It is veeery cold,” bid the lovely blonde front desk manager from the Czech Republic in a French accent, no doubt acquired from her hotelier schooling in Lausanne. I smiled and waved bravely, happy to be acknowledged before my trot.
Once outside the hotel, under the portico of the Hay-Adams’ discreet entrance, I noticed a commotion across the street. There, on the corner in front of St. John’s Church (the Church of the Presidents, as they call it, as every president since James Madison is said to have worshiped in pew No. 54), was a nondescript white van being followed by perhaps 30 people. The people were homeless and the van was essentially a traveling soup kitchen. As it stopped and the back doors opened, volunteers came from the church to set up card tables. Soup was ladled out in the cold afternoon to those in need.
This just a scant block from the stately White House.
As I turned to run, I was struck by the contrast of rich and poor and black and white that make our nation’s capital such a dichotomy. On the one hand, to most Americans, Washington, D.C., is where the business of running the nation (the world?) takes place. They perceive it as a place of grand monuments, governmental office buildings and glorious facades.
But to many who live there, both the homeless and the well-to-do, Washington is a place of poverty, unemployment and crime. If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s a tough town.
With that in the front of my mind, I gently began to glide into a slow trot through Lafayette Park, past the White House and down 17th Street toward the Capitol Mall. Ahead to the west, perhaps a half-mile away, in the center of the National Mall stood the Washington Monument, rising 555 feet (and 5 1/8 inches, to be exact) above its perch on a slight hill.
The towering obelisk is constructed from tons of white marble stones quarried in nearby Baltimore, Md. As I ran up the hill to touch the stones, I silently pondered the question that no doubt so many ask: “How did they do that?” It is a truly a work of wonder ” one that took 40 years to complete.
The original cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848. For a decade workers toiled to take the tower 152 feet into the sky before construction shut down for two decades. Phase two began in 1878 and it took another 10 years before the Army Corps of Engineers completed the task by topping the tower.
While I have never ascended the tower, either by climbing its 896 steps or by riding the glass-sided elevator, which takes 25 passengers to the observation deck in 70 seconds, the view is no doubt extraordinary.
To the east one looks up the gut of the National Mall. The U.S. Capitol dome holds the prominent position here, at the top of the grassy expanse crisscrossed by walking paths. On this gray day, however, the grass was covered with freshly fallen snow.
Both sides of the Mall are lined by buildings housing our great national museums: the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
To the west, just less than a mile away, sits Abraham Lincoln, perched in his chair, reflected in the pool between the memorials to our two most iconic presidents.
I decided to head west, towards the Lincoln Memorial, but in minutes I found myself amongst a small crowd at the National World War II Memorial, just off 17th Street between Constitution and Independence avenues. It happened to be Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and there had been a ceremony to commemorate the 16 million Americans who served during the conflict and the 400,000-plus who perished.
Numerous wreaths were laid in memoriam on the stones of the low-key but elegant marble facade, which features two curved arches, one labeled “Pacific” and the other “Atlantic,” designating the two theaters of warfare. The arches anchor the plaza and are flanked by 56 pillars set in semicircles, each with the name of one of the 48 states that were part of the union at the time of the war, and various territories. There is also a “Freedom Wall” with 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
On this auspicious day, it was a somber place. This edifice lacks some of the epic scale of other Washington memorials, but its power lies in the understated design.
Dedicated in 2004, the National World War II Memorial is the newest of the Mall’s monuments. It was a controversial project since the day President Clinton decreed it should be constructed. Funded mostly with private donations, there was concern by some that the location was wrong and the design made it more a monument to war than to peace.
It has not captured the attention that other monuments in Washington have, but it is nonetheless a moving place of honor. I think it has found its rightful place on the Mall and strongly encourage a visit.
It had been some time since I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so I decided to continue my run down the north side of the Mall and stop by The Wall. This may be the monument with the most meaning for my generation.
If you have not been, The Wall is actually two separate lengths of black granite (from Bangalore, India) with the etched names of 58,256 people who died or went missing in the conflict. The personal scope of The Wall is overwhelming; you will see veterans in khakis and families searching for, finding and then caressing the names of loved ones engraved in the polished rock facade.
Designed in the early 1980s by a Yale undergraduate named Maya Lin, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has a contemporary feel and power that forces both contemplation and reflection. It is a sacred spot and can easily bring tears to your eyes.
Continuing west, I headed for the Lincoln Memorial. As is almost always the case, there were groups of tourists on the steps waiting for their tours to begin and buying photos and souvenirs from the vendors at the base. As I bounded up to the top, taking the stairs two at a time, the shouts of “Rocky” rang out.
Once inside the memorial, my breath was taken away, not just from climbing the steps, but by the enormity of the statue of the 16th president, carved from White Georgia marble. From his perch atop at 10-foot-high pedestal, Lincoln’s statue, which soars nearly 20 additional feet, has a view straight up the reflecting pool to the towering Washington Monument and beyond, to the Capitol dome.
The view is through a series of 44-foot columns cut from Colorado Yule marble, quarried just outside Marble in the upper Crystal River Valley. There are 38 columns, 36 representing each of the 36 states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination, and two more at the entrance to the colonnade.
Inside the memorial, carved into the walls, are Lincoln’s second inauguration address and his famed Gettysburg Address. As I wandered through the main part of the building, gazing at the murals that ring the top of the memorial, a family of Africans, all dressed in colorful dashikis beckoned me over. Though they spoke little English they were able to ask me with smiles and gestures if I would take their picture. Handing me their camera, the family of five posed with bright smiles under the Gettysburg Address. I was struck by how international tourists cherished something that most Americans simply take for granted.
A cold wind was blowing by this time and darkness was fast approaching, but I had been bitten by the monument bug. I hustled down the steps and headed back out on the Mall, with my sights set on the Jefferson Memorial. But just a few hundred yards into the next leg I was stopped dead in my tracks.
Along with a Vietnam Veterans and World War II Memorial, we have a memorial for the Veterans of the Korean War as well. And it is a stunner. Along the side of the National Mall there are 19 stainless-steel statutes, standing 7.5 feet tall, of what appear to be the ghosts of a military patrol. Dressed in full combat gear and ponchos to protect them from the elements, they trudge through juniper bushes that depict the Korean landscape.
Opposite the soldiers is a polished dark granite wall that reflects back on the soldiers so that there are actually 38 of them in all, representing the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea. The Korean War lasted just three years and for many is “the forgotten war.” But this memorial to those who fought, the 22 nations that supported the United Nations action and the 54,000 American casualties is a profound reminder.
I crossed Independence Avenue and headed for the south side of the Tidal Basin. If I was going to get back to the Hay-Adams by dark I needed to step it up a bit. Unfortunately, the magnificent Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial would slow me considerably.
Set on 7.5 acres hard by the banks of the Tidal Basin, the Roosevelt Memorial pays homage to the president I believe was America’s greatest. Dedicated in 1997 and designed by Lawrence Halprin, the memorial is designed to show various phases of Roosevelt’s 12 years in office (1933-1945) in four outdoor “rooms.” There are blocks of red rough-hewn South Dakota granite that forms the walls of the rooms, and water is flowing throughout. The parklike setting, with hundreds of trees and shrubs from throughout the nation, is the most beautiful, the most accessible and the most endearing in my mind of all the presidential monuments in Washington.
There, two tremendously powerful statues of Roosevelt himself: one, nearly life-sized, that shows him in his wheelchair (he was a victim of polio), and a second, vast and enormous, shows himin a full cape sitting next to his faithful dog Fala.
But there are other statues that tell the stories as well. George Segal was just one of many sculptors commissioned to create original works for the memorial. His piece “The Breadline” shows people during the Great Depression standing in line (much like the line I had seen outside of St. John’s Church an hour earlier). “The Fireside Chat” depicts a man sitting hunched over a radio listening intently for the words and the hope his president could provide.
Throughout the rooms there are quotations and exhortations from Roosevelt, as he steered the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. “A day which shall live in infamy” and “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” are carved into the granite and remain as powerful today as they were when uttered for the first time.
I got the impression that Roosevelt would have been proud of this memorial. It was unimposing, but told the tale of a man and his times. In springtime the views across the Tidal Basin, ringed by cherry trees (a gift from Japan), must be breathtaking.
As I sprinted across a small bridge, I caught just a hint of the setting sun behind the Jefferson Memorial and I knew that I had little time for the man who had described himself in words written for his own tombstone as “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
Thomas Jefferson’s memorial is as grand as the man it honors. Ironically, the monument to Jefferson was undertaken during the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the concept was essentially borrowed from Jefferson himself, who had built both his own home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia with designs that resembled the Pantheon in Rome. The circular dome dominates the structure that houses a statue of Jefferson standing 19 feet high and looking back across the Tidal Basin. Inscribed in the wall is the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
If Roosevelt’s memorial is understated, then this building is grand, some would say pompous, in its design. Completed in 1943, the structure is one of the world’s most photographed and is an American icon.
As I ran back through the streets of Washington to my hotel, I realized that the half-hour run had stretched into a little more than two hours. I had the opportunity through running to see a slice of our nation’s history and get a personal perspective, one I won’t soon forget, on how we as a nation honor our past. We do monuments very well.
My last stop was as serendipitous as my first. Behind the White House I spied the lights of the national Christmas tree (LED lights for the first time, I might add). It had been lit the night before and was a sure sign of the season. As I approached I was chilled with both sweat from my run and sleet from an approaching storm.
There, just down the Ellipse from the tree, was a glowing fire. As I approached and asked about the huge pit roaring with flame, I learned that this was the “the burning of the national Yule log.” Who knew? Warming my hands over the coals, I thought to myself that, despite its flaws, this nation has a warm history indeed.
It had been a good run.
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