- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

When Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was asked to speak last year at the American Running Association Annual Gala, he was overwhelmed that he would be addressing a group of athletes as a role model.

The one-time 270-pound couch potato had to be just as excited yesterday as he ran side by side for 3.2 miles with legendary American marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson.

As chairman of the National Governors Association since July, Huckabee wanted a fitting kickoff to this year’s NGA Winter Meeting here in Washington. The meeting, which about 45 of the nation’s 50 governors are expected to attend, will focus the first two of the four days on Huckabee’s recently found passion: Healthy America.

But first, the fun run.

Shuttle buses brought at least 50 enthusiasts out to Hains Point in East Potomac Park at 8 a.m. for a dose of exercise. No doubt it was chilly with the temperatures near 30 degrees. Shortly before the start time, Huckabee jogged up to the start line, glistening with sweat and looking mighty fit.

That certainly was not the case in 2003, when he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes at age 47. His personal physician warned him he was headed for a train-wreck, and the governor resolved to change his life. He shed 110 pounds within the next two years and now can call himself a marathoner.

After long runs of 16, 18 and 20 miles leading up to last week, Huckabee said his schedule yesterday mandated a six-mile workout — leading up to a 26.2-mile beast called the Little Rock Marathon just one week from today. This is his second Little Rock marathon and third marathon since March last year.

Huckabee and his wife, Janet, were joined by about a dozen other governors and their first ladies as well as a some local children, but it was the woman from Freeport, Maine, who flew down for the run and the conference who led troops with Huckabee.

Samuelson, who in 1984 won the gold medal in the first women’s Olympic marathon, had spent the previous week in Turin, Italy, at the Winter Olympics. But the conversation in the early stages of the run focused on running.

“I’d like to run the New York marathon,” Huckabee said to Samuelson, who replied: “You should run Chicago — it’s flatter and faster.”

It was on the Chicago course in 1985 that Samuelson set a world marathon record of 2:22:43. That came after two stunning triumphs in Boston in 1979 and 1983, races that put her on the world running map forever.

Huckabee said his marathon training has been the best he has had and that he is aiming to run as well as the 4:37 he posted at the Marine Corps Marathon last fall.

“I felt good the next day [after Marine Corps],” he said. “I wasn’t sore.”

Then the conversation turned to the Winter Games. Huckabee mentioned he once took a run on a bobsled — and it was frightening. Huckabee and Jason Hadeed of Elite Athlete Training Systems of Rockville spent the rest of the run trading bobsled stories as about a dozen in their lead pack lumbered along at nine-minute pace.

Remember, it was a fun run.

With the loop completed, Samuelson signed some of the children’s running shoes and then expressed her desire to complete a second loop to satisfy her workout. The 48-year-old has one more mission in her running life.

“I want to run a sub-2:50 marathon at age 50,” said Samuelson, who clocked a 2:46:27 in October at Twin Cities. “That’s what’s keeping me going. To run that in the Olympic trials in 2008, you know Boston is bidding for them. It is where I started my career, and it would be nice to end my career there.”

It also would be the seventh consecutive Olympic trials for which Samuelson has qualified, an unprecedented feat.

After the run, Samuelson was slated as a guest at the NGA meeting, participating with Huckabee on a plenary session called Creating Healthy States.

Huckabee created Healthy Arkansas in June 2004 to address issues in one of the nation’s unhealthiest states. Exercise more, watch your weight and stop smoking — that’s what the Baptist minister has been preaching since 2003.

Now he is pitching Healthy America with the same tenacity. Not a bad platform to use as he makes a run for the 2008 presidency of the United States.

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