Rick Nealis made some choices on the fly while running the Marine Corps Marathon in 2020.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the race he has directed since 1993 to go virtual, he crafted his own course, though without his usual authority to close down roads he was accustomed to. He meandered the W&OD and Mount Vernon trails in Northern Virginia to get his 26.2 miles. With a course change after a mental remapping, a detour into Alexandria and a stop for refreshments in Old Town, he took what the day threw at him. It fit the perspective that has helped make his race a pillar of the American running community.
“I’ve basically taken a Semper Gumby approach,” he said. “I try to be very flexible, and that’s a trait that you need as a race director. You can’t be afraid of change, because the best plan pretty much goes out the window when you start up, because once everything is in motion, things change.”
After nearly 30 years of that welcomed uncertainty, Nealis is going to have a slightly more predictable lifestyle. He’ll retire in January at age 69 from what has grown under his watch to be a series of successful races, including more than a dozen races over the years in addition to the annual marathon. The current event series includes several trail races, a half marathon, a turkey trot, and a 17.75k that commemorates the Marine Corps’ founding. He also added a 10k and 50k to the marathon weekend.
“The soul of the Marine Corps Marathon is Rick Nealis,” said George Banker, the race’s longtime historian and participant since 1983. “It hasn’t moved off the mark since he’s been in charge — he’s moved the quality forward, moved people’s confidence in the event forward. The way he leads that team shows up in all of the Marine Corps’ races.
“It’s more than a race, it’s an event, and he’s made it that way.”
A Marine supply officer in the early ’90s with a 3:09 marathon best from an MCM nearly 10 years prior, Nealis initially thought of his assignment to the race as a demotion, even though he was an avid runner.
“I went from having about 180 Marines and civilians working for me down to three officers and 12 enlisteds,” he said. “It didn’t take long for me to realize the opportunities this race presented.”
Though it’s the centerpiece of the Washington, D.C. area running scene, drawing a national field and boasting what a Towson University study found to be an $88 million regional economic impact in 2013, the marathon serves as a logistical assignment for the corps.
“It’s a chance to introduce the Marine Corps to people on a personal level. For a lot of the public, Hollywood tells the stories of Marines and there’s often a lot of dramatic license, but it’s different to show thousands of people what they can do when they work together to put on an event like this and contribute something to the community.”
When the traditional two-year rotation would have moved him out, the Marine Corps decided to keep Nealis on permanently as a civilian race director in 1995.
Nealis credits fellow race directors with ideas that seeped into the Marine Corps series, but Chicago Marathon Race Director Carey Pinkowski said Nealis ensures that it’s a two-way street.
“Rick is incredibly generous with his time and experience,” Pinkowski said. “He always makes himself available to help out a fellow race director, whether it’s a world major or a 150 person road race.”
Pinkowski described him as a living resource of the best practices in the road racing industry, and noted his adaptability and eagerness to adopt new ideas.
“He’s always looking toward making things better, trying to improve the runner experience and make everyone involved feel special,” he said.
Two years into Nealis’ tenure, Oprah Winfrey’s successful race at Marine Corps in 1994 opened the door for him to work on the torch relay for the 1996 Olympics. While he learned a lot about logistics, he truly soaked up the opportunities that sponsorships would create for the marathon and followed through aggressively
“These days, if you don’t have the support from sponsors, you really can’t afford to do the race the right way,” Nealis said. “When you look at the basic measures like closing down roads or having the supplies to keep the runners safe and healthy, it’s hard to think about how we did things in the early ’90s.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t be able to stand in his shoes the way he has for so long,” Banker said. “Not only does he have to deal with the needs of the runners, it’s a military event, and I think there’s been more than one time the Marine Corps commandant has asked whether this is the best use of the Marines’ time and effort. Every time, Rick has shown that the answer is ‘yes.'”
“I’ve had a lot of receptive bosses over the years,” Nealis said. “To their credit, I’ve never had any idea dismissed out of hand, and sometimes some of the crazier ideas, like running an urban 50K, turn out to work pretty well.”
The last two years, with COVID-driven cancelations, have worn on Nealis, particularly having to cancel the 2021 in-person race a month before the race. The 2022 race, scheduled for Oct. 30, is set to go off with some additional measures that will be announced in mid-September.
“I hated having to pull the rug out from under people,” he said. “That one really hurt. I knew that if I didn’t have a live event for my last race, it would probably eat at me until my dying day. There’s something about being on that start line, hearing the howitzer go off and seeing those 20,000 marathoners head out. Even when you’re soaking wet on the finish line and all of a sudden the sun’s out and you’re sweating and suddenly the Secret Service wants to get the vice president in to watch his son finish, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
The end of his tenure as MCM race director mirrored the closing miles of his 2020 virtual marathon. Long past when his water bottle emptied, Nealis headed back toward his car and, on a whim, approached the water fountain at Lady Bird Johnson Park.
“I figured if there was any water running, it was probably going to drip out of the nozzle and I’d probably get COVID putting my mouth on it to get any,” he said.
Instead, he pressed the button, and what was seemingly the only working water fountain that day in the D.C. area shot like a geyser. He finished on a high note.
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