Jimmy Carter's Collapse in a Maryland Road Race Sparks a Moment of Fear in the Situation Room

updated 10/01/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In a week marked by dire polls, the Kennedy surge and fresh drug charges against his chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, it was all Jimmy Carter needed. In the third mile of a tough 6.2-mile race through the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland—pulling hard uphill, foolishly trying to outpace himself and leaving far better runners behind—the President began to wobble. "Without the Secret Service he would have fallen," says Paul Liebler, a CBS producer who was running close by. "His legs couldn't support him, his mouth hung open, he was moaning and his eyes had a glazed look. It was very scary." White House physician Dr. William Lukash, an unofficial organizer of the race, gave Carter smelling salts and, spurning an ambulance, rushed him to Camp David in a car.

En route, the White House Situation Room alerted National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to a grim possibility: that the President was having a heart attack and might have to be evacuated quickly to a hospital. At Camp David, Dr. Lukash treated Carter with an intravenous saline solution, wrapped him in wet towels to cool him off and administered an electrocardiogram. The President turned out to be suffering from heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, a fairly common problem among runners. Even before Vice-President Mondale was notified, the alert was canceled.

Yet troubling questions remained. The President, who turns 55 this week, was on the cross-country team at Annapolis, but started running again only about a year ago. His training has been confined mainly to five miles a day on the flat South Lawn (at a pace of 7:30 per mile, the White House claims). Some runners, shaken by Carter's collapse, blamed Lukash for letting the President enter what one called "a grueling course even for top-caliber runners." Others criticized the Secret Service for letting him continue when he was patently failing. Actually, Carter himself insisted on staying in the race long past the point where he clearly should have quit—driven in part by the unfortunate fact that a President is not allowed to be mortal. "If you get in it," press secretary Jody Powell had reportedly warned him beforehand, "then you'd darn well better finish."

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