How to train for a marathon… and the last week of session
Every year around this time, talk at the State Capitol centers around the similarities of surviving a 150-day session and preparing for a 26.2-mile marathon—especially what to expect when entering the final mile.
Next week marks the beginning of the final mile of this year’s 2021 marathon extraordinaire! Those with more experience and knowledge of marathons than I are all over the internet offering advice on how to best prepare for taking on this exhausting event; how novices should approach the daunting experience of their first marathon and lessons runners should take with them when they enter their next race. I thought it might be interesting to share and compare some of those thoughts, when the marathon in question is a 5-month legislative session.
Long-distance running continues to draw plenty of newbies each year to join the ranks of the more experienced runners. Runners tend to be highly motivated, focused and filled with optimism at the start of their training, or even a race.
Mile 1: Opening Day
It was just like Opening Day of the 2021 Session: There was excitement for the Governor, the freshmen class of legislators as well as the returning House and Senate members—and even the lobbyists—as the 2021 Session kicked off on January 6th. As with training for a marathon, the newly elected legislators were filled with energy, excitement about the journey ahead, facing the challenges of the unexpected and fulfilling one of their bucket list “must-dos!”
As the legislature sailed through the unique COVID-influenced public hearing process with a minor stumble here and there, the two chambers started out on an even keel, with solid teamwork and even some moments of pure pleasure. As the freshmen legislators warmed up, they settled into the steady rhythm of the legislative process, picked up the protocols, etiquette and flow of floor debate, and all seemed as if there was a victory down the road.
But session, like a marathon, is about endurance.
Mile 13: The Committee Process Ends
As the committee process gave way to more frequent and longer House and Senate sessions, some of the first-mile excitement waned and a little less of the “we’re all in this together,” camaraderie was evident. The peppy January talk of walking side-by-side and working together kind of got lost somewhere around mile 13, as committees struggled to agree on which bills to move forward.
For a brief moment, some lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists felt relief. “We’re halfway there!” Then the reality of the long road still ahead loomed large. The cordial relationship between House and Senate committee co-chairs and ranking members got a little stressed and the pressure increased on the majority party Democrats to get the business of the day done while being peppered by questions from minority Republicans—some intended to clarify or make a bill better, and others intended to grind down their stamina.
Avoiding “The Wall”
Marathon runners will tell you about the experience of “hitting the wall.” That moment at about mile 18 or 20 when their glycogen is depleted and their mental edge starts to wane. The course becomes longer, steeper and less exciting as the final mile faces you. Physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, emotional highs and lows, stress and even losing focus on your goals all happen during the last few days of session.
The State Capitol has its own version. Runners - aka legislators, staffers, lobbyists and even the Governor need to prepare physically and mentally to avoid the wall so they can finish the race—with a mixture of nutrition, hydration, mental toughness and positive reinforcement to carry them through the fluctuation of moods, emotions, confidence and physical stamina. Nothing seems to be going right. At times, folks forget what they set out to accomplish in the first place, or get drawn into the drama of the day, the recent news conference or even a bad news report.
Runners feed on the cheering crowd along the race course. And legislators often look for support and motivation from like-minded organizations and individuals, but with the Capitol campus closed to the public, lobbying corps, advocates and family members, many have found it hard to maneuver through the stressful debates and negotiations without hitting the wall.
Some legislators this session engaged in a bit too much socialization, which drew the attention of the media, the public and rebukes from their leaders. But most kept their eyes forward and followed the more seasoned marathoners toward the finish.
The Final Mile
So how do you get through the blur of the last mile? Successful runners and those of us in the legislative arena have learned that the best way to end the race where you want to be is to pace yourself from the beginning. That way, you don’t end up losing more time in the end than what was gained by pushing the envelope on the earlier part of the race. And as with runners, legislators need to tap into the motivations that spurred them to run (for office) in the first place.
Humor helps, as well. House Speaker Matt Ritter is known for reciting the towns in the districts of the House members he calls upon, and he often draws upon his wit to provide a bit of color commentary to break up long debates and help keep his 150 members relaxed. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz many times kept the 36 members aligned by gently reminding a senator now and then that they were veering off the path and that they should keep moving forward and keep their eyes on the prize.
The Finish Line
Every marathon and legislative session feels different, but there is one feeling they have in common: the sense of accomplishment when crossing the finish line. It’s not yet quite clear who will cross the finish line first—the Governor, the Democrats or the Republicans, the House or the Senate—but the victory is not in who’s first, but in mastering the perseverance, tenacity and longevity to cross the finish line.
What we do know is that on midnight June 9th, the 2021 legislative marathon will be over. And hopefully the people of Connecticut will be the winner.