It's just past 6 a.m., dark and chilly, and much of Maryland's capital is still asleep. Sailboats bob at a deserted City Dock. A taxi idles by a silent State House. But around the corner, four senators are striding down the fourth-floor corridor of their hotel.
Did they get an emergency call from the governor? Are they rushing out to a pre-dawn hearing?
Nope, this happens to be an even more important appointment. The two pairs of women whip past the elevators without breaking stride. As they turn the corner, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger keeps count.
Lap seven. Just 23 more to go.
Sometimes, Maryland's lawmakers might feel like they're going in circles. At Loews Annapolis Hotel, where many of them stay, a handful of senators literally do just that: They walk for an hour around the upstairs atrium.
"Do any of you guys have a tissue?" calls out Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, wiping the sweat from her face. Gladden, 41, is a freshman senator from Northwest Baltimore and the youngest member of the 6 O'Clock Club.
"I do, baby," replies Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, 66, reaching in her pocket. Lawlah, a 20-year veteran of Annapolis politics, has a reputation as a power broker in Prince George's County. But she sounds more like the ex-schoolteacher and grandmother she also is as she hands the tissue to Gladden. "Here you go. It's clean."
Nearly every morning, Hollinger, Lawlah and a few others march past the rooms where tourists and some of their colleagues are still in bed. Their goal is 30 laps. Hollinger once used a tape measure to calculate that's three miles.
"Ask us how many pounds we've taken off," Lawlah cracks and holds up her fingers in an open circle. "Zero."
"Yes, but where we don't lose weight, we don't gain either," chimes in Sen. Delores G. Kelley, 69, who has represented Baltimore County in the Senate since 1995. "You sit so much here. This way, we start the day right."
In the General Assembly, which still has the close-knit familiarity of a small college during its 90-day session, legislators have long joked about gaining the "Session 10" pounds. After all, it's a place known for expense account dinners, receptions laden with rich finger food and late-night drinks in Annapolis' bars.
Nowadays, though, in a legislature that's younger and includes more women, more lawmakers are hitting the gym, sipping bottled water and eating salads for lunch. Some legislators jog at night; others lift weights.
At Loews, where the 6 O'Clock Club formed at a time when far fewer legislators worked out, other senators and delegates have formed their own walking groups. Montgomery Del. Charles E. Barkley heads out each morning for a brisk walk through the historic district with Howard Del. Gail H. Bates and Carroll Del. Susan W. Krebs.
Early on, Barkley experimented with joining the senators on the fourth floor. By the 20th lap, Barkley says, he found the route too repetitive. All he saw was beige. "Boring," he says.
Krebs agrees. "The first year I was here, we walked through a blizzard. In the spring, we see the daffodils come up."
Plus, as she teases Hollinger at breakfast after their workouts, theirs is a more bipartisan group. Barkley is a Democrat, and she and Bates are Republicans.
It's true that the 6 O'Clock walkers are all Democratic female senators right now. The group has stayed largely that way but has seen members come and go, victims of electoral politics. Harford County Del. Mary Louise Preis walked until she lost her seat in 1998. Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, once one of the most powerful women in the legislature, was a faithful member until her 2002 defeat.
The core, though, has stayed the same: Hollinger, Lawlah and Kelley. Over the years, as they won re-elections and rose to more powerful posts in the legislature, the women have gossiped, shared family news and debated bills. Along the way, they have become close friends.
They have argued over slots. (Kelley opposes them; Lawlah and Gladden like the idea, as they have race tracks in their districts.) They have talked about the crisis in urban schools and about stem cell research.
On this morning, as they zip around corners, they discuss how to control the spread of infections in hospitals. Gladden shares the story of a constituent whose father contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection and died. Breathlessly, she catches up with Hollinger and says, "I told him that I'd talk to you this morning."
For Gladden and Baltimore Sen. Verna L. Jones, another newcomer who walks with the 6 O'Clock Club, it's a chance to learn from the more experienced senators. "You've got to know what's going on," says Gladden.
Ten years ago, their daily ritual offered Hollinger, Lawlah and Kelley a respite from what seemed at times a frat-boy atmosphere in the male-dominated legislature. In those days, they were among just seven women in the Senate. Today, there are 15 women among the 47 senators; the House is even more equally divided, with 52 women and 89 men, according to Legislative Services.
Hollinger, 66, a nurse who talks almost as fast as she walks, is a 26-year veteran of Maryland politics. Her staff knows her daily exercise is "sacrosanct," she says, and makes sure to mark the hour off her busy schedule.
She used to walk outside. But after slipping on the uneven brick sidewalks, she started the hotel circuit more than a decade ago. "It's safer in here," she says, counting the next lap. "If it's icy out, we don't have to worry."
It was here, circling the atrium, that the other women first encouraged Hollinger to run for Congress. As soon as the session is over, she will be getting her exercise walking door to door, part of a crowded race to replace Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Cardin has joined an equally big contest to succeed retiring Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
"Paula is our only hope," says Lawlah. "You've got guys lined up for miles and just one skirt."
At 7 sharp, they finish their last lap and head upstairs for breakfast. No one indulges; the women stick to sliced strawberries, eggs and whole-grain muffins. Hollinger figures she will have plenty of chances to grab a bite later: Her schedule includes a breakfast with young Democrats, a Senate session - and three lunches.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to eat at them," she says with a laugh. But as she heads off, Hollinger grabs two chocolate bars.
Wait. Won't that ruin the workout?
"They're not for me," Hollinger says, shrinking back in mock horror. "They're for my staff."