U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg Treasures Time on His Feet

He has toddler twins and a very big job, but the cabinet member makes running a priority.

When you’re a “transportation guy,” as Pete Buttigieg calls himself, there’s no better place to run than Gravelly Point Park, in Arlington, Virginia, under the flight path of planes on final approach at Reagan Washington National Airport.

“It feels as though the planes are trying to land right between your eyes, and then you watch them go over your head,” said Buttigieg, the 41-year-old U.S. Secretary of Transportation. “It’s just really fun and motivating.”

Buttigieg—who in 2021 was sworn in as the youngest member of President Biden’s Cabinet—is (with all respect due to a government leader) a bit of a dork when it comes to planes.

“There it is!” he said, as a United Airbus passed close overhead. “You hear that swizzling noise in the air? That’s wake turbulence!”

“Turbulent” is a word Buttigieg uses regularly, although his political career has been mostly smooth sailing. In 2011, he was elected mayor of his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. Eight years later, he entered the Democratic presidential race as a longshot candidate and won the Iowa caucuses. He ended his bid in March 2020 and endorsed the man who’s now his boss, Joe Biden. 

Recently Buttigieg squeezed a midmorning run with this reporter into a typically hectic day at the helm of a 53,000-employee department: getting his two-year-old twins fed, dressed, and off to daycare; meeting with the German minister of transportation; welcoming the newly confirmed FAA administrator to his post; meeting with colleagues at the Commerce Department; talking permitting processes at the White House; and then attending a state dinner for the Prime Minister of Australia. Wardrobe requirements included a suit, running clothes, and a tuxedo.

On days like that, running is a source of satisfaction and stress relief. As a cabinet secretary, Buttigieg is required to train with security; his detail trails behind him on a bike while he runs, or waits by the water’s edge while he swims. (When members of Buttigieg’s open-water swimming group tried to correct a hitch in the Secretary’s stroke, his security team protested, “Don’t fix that! It’s the only way we know which one is him!”) 

For Buttigieg, knowing Secret Service members’ jobs revolve around his workout schedule is the ultimate in accountability. “It’s definitely kept me from hitting the snooze button more than once,” he said.

Apart from this interview, conducted at sub-10-minute-mile pace, and the occasional bit of bipartisan “jogging diplomacy,” as he calls runs with members of Congress, Buttigieg tends not to mix work with training. He runs about five days a week, usually early in the morning, when most people are too focused on their own workouts to recognize him.

“I get spotted a little bit, but not enough to disrupt my training,” Buttigieg said. “Once in a while somebody wants to take a selfie when I’m mid-run, and I’m never sure how to handle that. Usually I just do it.” 

Humble run beginnings

As a teenager, Buttigieg did not take to running naturally.

“It’s difficult to overstate how unathletic I was,” said Buttigieg, who joined the track and cross-country teams at St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend. “I was the kid who was so far behind at a cross-country meet that I might take a wrong turn because there was nobody left on the course. So it meant a lot to me, years later, when I got to be speedier.”

His progression from back-of-the-packer to one of the fittest members of the executive branch took years. As an undergrad at Harvard, Buttigieg would run on the treadmill or along the Charles River, but never more than three to four miles. At Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg added rowing to his endurance repertoire. By his mid 20s, running had become a “comfortable habit”—and a gratifying one.

“There’s a level of coordination that I may never have to be good at basketball,” he said. “But running—the more you do it, the more rewarding it becomes.”

When Buttigieg joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 2009, he excelled at the 1.5-mile run that was part of the requisite fitness test, getting close to a perfect score of 9 minutes flat.

“For a while I was the fastest guy in my unit, which felt great because I was always the slowest guy in my high school,” he said. 

In 2014, during a seven-month deployment as a counterintelligence officer in Afghanistan, Buttigieg ran a half marathon at the U.S. base in Bagram. In addition to the typical instructions about course markers and fluid stations, the pre-race briefing included warnings to participants about the potential for rocket attacks. He ran his current PR of 1:42.

A triathlon two years in the making

Buttigieg continued to run throughout his mayorship of South Bend and his 2019–20 presidential run. In 2021, his first year as transportation secretary, he was training for a half-Ironman in Michigan when he and husband, Chasten, adopted premature newborn twins, Penelope and Gus. Suddenly, instead of miles, Buttigieg was counting ounces of formula. Long training runs were scrapped during sleepless nights and Gus’s hospitalization with RSV.

It took until this year before Buttigieg could try another tri. Preparing for a half-Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) is a major undertaking for anyone. But when you’ve got 2-year-olds, Buttigieg said, “physically redirecting and restraining them is a huge part of parenting.” He followed a 16-week training plan he got online and relied on Chasten to hold down the fort with their kids on weekend mornings while he did long runs or four-hour bike rides.

“I would try to make up for it later in the day, but there’s no way I could’ve done this without Chasten being very supportive,” Buttigieg said. “While there’s an ethos of self-discovery and self-reliance in endurance sports, it really does bring out how dependent you can be on others to support you.”

During the race, held in mid-September in Michigan, Chasten and the kids hung out at a nearby playground—“we were playing with fire when it came to naptime”—and were at the finish line when “Papa” crossed in 6 hours and 31 minutes, largely on the strength of a 2:05 half marathon leg.

“It was pretty thrilling, although there was a fair amount of pain,” Buttigieg said. “But the kids really got into it, and that’s part of why you do this, to be in good health for the people you love.”

Buttigieg said he was wrecked for a couple of days post-race, but he now hopes to take his fitness out for an occasional spin—perhaps a run at a half marathon PR. But he won’t undertake another 6-hour race anytime soon.

“I don’t think I can do something this time intensive again while I’ve got this job,” he said. “It’s too much to ask of Chasten.”

A runner’s perspective on infrastructure

After he averaged about 25 miles per week during his triathlon buildup, now it’s back to shorter workouts for Buttigieg. And with more than 100 miles of traffic-separated pathways up and down the Potomac, the nation’s capital is an endurance athlete’s paradise. “There are few better places to run in the whole world, I would argue,” he said. 

The Washington area represents the kind of well-connected, accessible and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure the Department of Transportation wants to build more of through its National Roadway Safety program. For Buttigieg, helping communities around the country build separate paths for running and biking is about a population’s safety as much as its fitness.

“I worry sometimes that a path like this is viewed as purely ornamental,” he said. “I would argue that the recreational case is pretty compelling, but also fundamentally, safety is on the line. The very layout of our roads can either incentivize or discourage active transportation, and they can either make it safer or more dangerous.”

Buttigieg formed a new perspective on road design in 2016, when he was part of a group of U.S. mayors who traveled to Denmark. Buttigieg saw 1970s-era photos of Copenhagen, which now rivals Amsterdam for highest rate of bike commuting, and recognized the look of a lot of car-dependent American cities.

“That’s when the lightbulb went off,” he said. “It’s not some immutable Nordic cultural characteristic that changed things. It was some conscious decisions made by planners to make it more attractive and safer. By doing that, they reduced congestion, they reduced pollution, and over the long run, they increased safety.”

Buttigieg has a lot of priorities beyond encouraging active transportation. He wants to train more air traffic controllers. Strengthen HazMat requirements for railroads. Build more roads and bridges. Budget cuts or a government shutdown would make it harder to accomplish those projects.

When political roadblocks lead to frustration, he works through it with exercise. He is a transportation secretary who gets to where he needs to be, psychologically and physically, by putting one foot in front of the other. 

“Especially in the early morning when the dawn’s just breaking over the river here, it’s hard not to feel even in our troubled Washington that there’s some magnificence to our nation’s capital,” Buttigieg said. “You count your blessings after a run, if not always during one.”

posted Saturday November 11th
by Runner’s World