Montgomery County, D.C. area lose the backbone of road races

When road races resume someday, they will go off without one of the keystones of the local racing scene in Maryland and Washington, D.C. 

George Tarrico, of Rockville, known as “the race director’s race director,” died June 5 after battling spinal cancer. He was 84. 

Tarrico’s mustache and expressive eyebrows helped him resemble Frank Pentangelli, the mafia turncoat in the Godfather Part II. What he lacked in his fictional counterpart’s cold ruthlessness, Tarrico made up for with warm effectiveness as he served in logistical roles for dozens of Montgomery County Road Runners Club races every year and the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile. 

“You could only say no to him once,” said Don Shulman, Parks Half Marathon race director and a former MCRRC president whom Tarrico once roped into inspecting toilets at 3 a.m. before Cherry Blossom by telling Shulman he was be serving as a logistics coordinator. 

“I asked him why he didn’t just tell me what I’d be doing. He said it was because I probably wouldn’t have wanted to do it otherwise.”

That’s not to say he would hold back on pushing the right buttons to do what he needed. For years, he managed the Cherry Blossom staging on the Washington Monument grounds, and Race Director Phil Stewart noted that the role meant working with their hosts at the National Park Service and vendors for the race.

“Doing that job means knowing when to be nice and when to be tough,” he said. “He was a master of being able to flip between the two. Beneath it all a gentle, kind hardworking and dedicated guy.

“He was probably the most towering figure in the local running scene that people didn’t hear about.” 

Tarrico was a talent scout and recruiter for many of MCRRC’s events. He recruited Shulman to start directing races after he saw Shulman aid an overheated runner at the Riley’s Rumble Half Marathon. 

“He told me it looked like I knew what I was doing,” Shulman said. “I had no idea what I was doing! I was just trying to make sure the guy was alright.”

Mike Acuna, another MCRRC past president and veteran race director, got the same encouragement as Tarrico mentored him to direct the Marathon in the Parks after Acuna had only directed a children’s race prior.

“He was able to give everyone a confidence that most people would say they had never earned,” he said. “But his words were so supportive. It was as simple as ‘you got this.’ He was always there, always ready with an answer, always ready to help out.”

Acuna was hard pressed to remember a marathon that Tarrico himself directed, but noted he was more comfortable working behind the scenes.

“I don’t think there’s a race director in this club who didn’t learn from him,” he said.

Ashley Zuraf, MCRRC’s director of operations, broadened that.

“We wouldn’t have had a club without George,” she said. “I haven’t made a decision for the club that hasn’t been influenced by something he’s taught me or told me.” 

After a career as a Navy helicopter pilot, with two tours of duty performing search and rescue operations in Vietnam, and in foreign military sales both in and out of the military, he owned a small import/export company in Rockville. 

“I was never sure what he did because whenever he said he was an importer/exporter, he said it in a way that sounded like he was making a Seinfeld reference,” Acuna said. 

Tarrico joined MCRRC in the early ’90s and he and his wife Marina soon became friends with Patti Rich and her late husband, Jim.

“He was just a damned nice human being,” Patti Rich said. “I was describing him to a friend of mine and she said ‘he was a sunbeam.’ That was a beautiful and poetic way to put it. He made everything brighter.”

He carried a disarming manner that could calm down irate drivers who wanted to cross a road race course, she said.

“People don’t usually volunteer to direct traffic, but he would,” she said. “Nothing flustered him.”

Stewart seconded that.

“He approached everything with a wry sense of humor, which was often what a difficult situation requires,” he said. 

Tarrico’s tutelage has helped staff MCRRC with dozens of trained race directors and volunteers, but Zuraf said even when those volunteers had their affairs in order, he would always add something extra.

“You could always count on him to show up with bagels from Izes,” she said. “There will never be another volunteer like George.” 

Shulman agreed.

“If you were in this club and you didn’t know George, that was your fault,” he said.

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