U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis was half a mile away from completing a three-mile charity race on Wednesday morning in Anacostia Park when things went awry.
The junior senator from North Carolina felt light-headed and walked to the curb to sit down, and within seconds he passed out, according to witnesses.
“I was at two and a half, two and three-quarters miles and was running at a pretty good pace for where I wanted to be and just felt light-headed,” Tillis said a few hours later, safely back on Capitol Hill after a rough early morning. “I didn’t fall or anything. I just sat down and took a power nap.”
Over the next 10 minutes, three men worked together to administer care, not knowing the runner they were helping was a United States senator.
“Me and this other man, who was an off duty Capitol Police officer ran up to him, and it didn’t look like he was really breathing,” said TJ Cooney, a 27-year-old video producer for AARP and former lifeguard who also was running the race.
“The officer began giving him chest compressions. ... his mouth started foaming up and he started twitching,” Cooney recalled in an interview. “We put him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on his own saliva.
“We kept giving him chest compressions and turned his head to the side and picked up his feet; at that point he started to stabilize.”
Tillis, a 56-year-old North Carolina Republican, said he’s doing well after spending a few hours at George Washington Hospital on Wednesday.
One of those who helped Tillis was Jesse Maggitt, a former Navy medic running the race who noticed someone lying on the ground out of the corner of his eye. Cooney and the police officer already were helping Tillis out when Maggitt arrived.
“I went over there to observe and assist and initially he was unresponsive,” Maggitt said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that he had a clear airway with no obstructions and placed him in the shock position.”
Shortly thereafter, Maggitt and the two other men revived Tillis.
“It was just great to help someone in need. We didn’t know who the gentleman was at the time,” Maggitt said. “This was a fallen runner.”
Maggitt said he and the other two men helped Tillis for four to five minutes before paramedics arrived. During that time Tillis became conscious and was able to make eye contact and speak with the men.
Cooney wasn’t prepared for Tillis’ Southern drawl when the man woke up and asked what had happened.
“I said to him, ‘You have a Southern accent,’” Cooney said. “I just shook his hand and finished the race. I told him he killed my 5K time. He was just really confused and stressed and everything. I was just happy he was OK.”
About an hour later, Tillis announced in a video he tweeted from his hospital bed that he was fine.
“I’m doing well,” Tillis said in the tweet. “Looking forward to getting back to work. Thanks for all of your prayers and well-wishes.”
“Hey everybody, I’m fine, just running about two and a half miles in and got overheated,” Tillis said in the video. “No CPR, no special measures, just checking me out. See you back on the Hill.”
Tillis was not present for the first round of Senate votes around noon on Wednesday, but was spotted headed into Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s whip office just before 3 p.m.
“This year I started running back in December as a part of losing weight. I lost 28 pounds,” Tillis said as he left Cornyn’s office. “I was there last year, 30-pounds heavier, finished because I had to run slower. This year, 28-pounds lighter, tried to run too hard for a 57-year-old carcass, 56, almost 57 years.”
Wednesday morning was unseasonably warm in Washington. Temperatures were expected to exceed 90 degrees by the afternoon.
Tillis was competing in the American Council of Life Insurers Capital Challenge 3 Mile Team Race along with five members of his office.
Tillis was “cracking jokes on the way to the hospital,” said his press secretary, Adam Webb, who was a member of Tillis’ team.
According to the race website, the Capital Challenge “attracts scores of members of Congress, high-ranking political appointees, Generals, Admirals, television correspondents, print and web reporters, Federal Judges and other Washington VIPs.”
Tillis posted a photo to his Twitter account just before 8 a.m. showing him smiling and standing with members of his team ahead of the race’s start.
Jeff Darman, director of the ACLI Capital Challenge said that Tillis was responsive and taken to George Washington University Hospital. “He was talking ... and in good shape, they said. They just took precaution and sent him to the hospital.”
The annual three-mile race attracts a slew of lawmakers every year.
“My thoughts and prayers are with Sen. Thom Tillis and his family,” race participant and Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler said in a tweet. “Wishing you a speedy recovery.”
The ACLI Capital Challenge raises money for the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, which pairs guide dogs with people who have disabilities.
Tillis said he met with race organizers in his office and told them “hopefully we can use this event to increase awareness of the great program. Fidelco is a great program.”
Tillis won election to the Senate in 2014 after serving as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives from 2011 to 2015. He is up for reelection in 2020.
Even though he couldn’t finish this year, Tillis has no plans to bow out of the event in 2018.
“I should have known going into a race where it was hot, I probably needed to better hydrate and carb-load a little bit, so that’s a note for next year,” Tillis said. “I’m already in.”
Alex Roarty contributed to this report.
Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty
William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas
Donovan Harrell: 202-383-6044, @dono_harrell