Jim Ehrenhaft has coached his share of fast runners in his career, but the runners who made up his DCSAA-winning St. Albans team have been ahead of the curve.
Senior Pierre Attiogbe and sophomores Sebi Hume and William Strong, the first (15:52), second (16:43) and fourth place (15:50) finishers, have all been varsity contributors since their freshman years, and those strong finishes, along with sophomore Laszlo Wolfe in 10th (17:43) and seniors John Rhee and Jack Thomas in 13th (18:01) and 14th (18:03) helped the Buldogs to their first DC title, a 30-54 win over resurgent Gonzaga.
“I’ve never had guys that are ready to race so early in their careers,” Ehrenhaft said. “We stress long-term development, and they all came from a middle school program that emphasizes moderation and enjoyment of the sport.”
That means Ehrenhaft’s job has to shift to motivating his young charges to do something besides increase their training load. During their freshman track seasons earlier in 2022, Strong and Hume won the DCSAA mile and two-mile titles while Attiogbe was recovering from a stress fracture.
“Kids can get so excited about it that they want more and more, but they’ve done a great job of being patient, looking at the long term,” he said.
Attiogbe ran away from the pack at the very start, and cruising to a 51-second victory at Kenilworth Park, a low-lying loop that was mud-free in the first time since the race has been held there starting in 2016.
“As long as I finished first, I was happy,” Attiogbe said. “That meant we’d have a good start with the team scoring.”
Having a strong team has made the season even more fun for Attiogbe, who’s had his share of individual accolades, including wins at the Maryland and Skip Grant invitationals and a close runner-up finish at the Milestat Invitational, where he ran 14:45 for 5k. He, Hume and Strong swept the top three places at the IAC Championship.
“We have a lot of people to work with, it’s not a one-man show. We’re a real team,” he said. “We’re a bunch of guys who want to get better, as long as we’re with each other.”
This season, Attiogbe has focused on his pre-race visualization, anticipating how much certain points of the race will hurt and preparing himself to overcome them. He’ll join his St. Albans teammate Damian Hackett at Cornell University next fall.
The St. John’s girls managed to withstand a bout with the flu to win their third straight title 50-56 over National Cathedral School.
“It tore through our boys team before WCACs, but we thought the girls dodged a bullet,” said coach Desmond Dunham.
The customary large pack of Cadets started out in the front, but by the second lap of the course, fatigue combined with a hot day started to take a toll. Georgetown Visitation sophomore Vivian Kelly broke free of the pack and ran away on the second lap, looking back slightly while tracing the curve on the far end of the course to check on her lead.
“I usually start out fast because I get a lot of motivation when people cheer for me when I’m leading, but I let other people take the lead this time,” she said. “We went slower than I would have liked, but I was able to finish a lot faster than I usually do. I was proud of my last mile.”
Her 20:12 was a 22-second lead over National Cathedral freshman Cecilia Wright, who was leading a charge of her own. She combined with sophomores Caroline Lee (fifth in 20:52) and Margot Benelli (sixth in 21:00) to start the Eagles’ scoring off strong, but even wounded, St. Johns’ depth was too much to overcome.
Senior Caroline Gotzman did manage to dodge the illness that befell her twin sister, and she moved up throughout the race to finish third in 20:41.
“That was great for Caroline to come through for us like that,” Dunham said. “A lot of times she’s overshadowed by Meredith, but she ran a tough, smart race that showed how much she’s learned over the years. “
Junior Jennifer Maxwell was next in ninth in 21:30, with classmate Nell Droege three seconds back in 11th. Seniors Meredith Gotzman and Sophie Mattheus finished 16th (21:39) and 18th (21:56) to get five Cadets in before the Eagles had their fourth.
“This championship is a story for the history books,” Dunham said. “We don’t mess around with fevers, so we just kept them hydrating and checking their temperatures, hoping we could time it right with people recovering or being able to race before things got bad.”
The cancelation of the 2020 cross country season meant the core St. John’s team that started its wining streak in 2019 couldn’t go for a clean sweap, but it didn’t dull the team’s ambitions. With enough time to rest and recover, the Cadets are hoping for a strong race the Nike Cross Nationals Southeast meet after Thanksgiving.
All alone on the Marine Corps Marathon course, Kyle King had a lot of time to think. Even as he led Jon Mott by a minute in the 16th mile, he reflected on the extensive research he had done on his rival, specifically Mott’s recent 2:17 at the Berlin Marathon.
“I stalked him pretty hard before the race, and he ran some 5:05s in his last 10k at Berlin,” King said. “I started hurting early on, my calf started acting up in mile 12, so I knew I didn’t have a safe lead because he was gunning for me. I was running scared from 16 to 23.”
While Mott, 35, had raced five weeks prior, King, 33, had spent all summer and fall in the California desert, where he’s a captain stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Aside from his girlfriend accompanying him on a bike, he trained alone, but as he approached two 180 degree turns in miles eight and 17 on race day, he wanted to make sure he didn’t waste the chance to be seen.
“I needed to look like I felt fantastic,” King said. “If he knew how much I was hurting, I was in trouble. Some races, I feel like I’m floating until mile 18, but I was working really early on today. I wanted to exude confidence and strength.”
His 2:19:19 was the second-fastest finish in 25 years, three seconds behind a tie for the 10th fastest in the race’s 47-year history. Mott was roughly 3.5 minutes behind in 2:22:46.
King took the lead from the start, coming through two miles in just under 11 minutes.
“I didn’t want to go out any faster than 5:25s, but that was hard because I was excited to race, the weather was great and I was ready to go,” King said. “I thought he was going to cover my moves, but I guess he decided not to go with me.”
Mott is a Lakeland, Fla.-based coach and three-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and while he initially picked Marine Corps as a race he could try to win, the trip became as much about supporting the nearly two dozen of his athletes who were racing the marathon and 10k after he was invited to race Berlin in September.
“I ran the race that I thought would win it, but I had no idea what kind of fitness he was in,” Mott, 35, said. “I was playing defense, hoping he’d fade, but he never did. I thought I might be able to catch him, but by 20 miles I could tell he wasn’t coming back.
“It was the easiest marathon I’d ever run, but I couldn’t go any faster.”
While he took time off after Berlin to recover, Mott felt he was missing the 160-mile weeks that had carried him to that recent personal record.
King spent much of 2021 and early 2022 living in Alexandria while in officer training school at Quantico, and had planned to race the 2021 Marine Corps Marathon before the in-person race was canceled a month out. The disappointment led him to take drastic measures — running a 100k in Natural Bridge, Va.. He got a grip and focused on his road training, which led him to a win at the MCM Historic Half in May.
Fascinated by search and rescue, King initially planned to join the Coast Guard after graduate school, but found his skills weren’t in high demand. But the Marine Corps seemed like it would be a nice blend of amphibious operations, making for a challenging career. Several years later, the Good Boys Running Club in Denver reawakened his love for running.
He had planned to race Marine Corps in 2019, but was selected for the World Military Games, where he ran 2:16:56 for eighth place. He was the 2020 Marine Athlete of the Year after his 47th place finish in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. Mott, coincidentally, was 47th in the 2016 Trials.
The King sought in the Marine Corps came into play during his run up to the marathon. A weeklong training exercise in the desert left him only nighttime to try to fit in any running, and an encounter with a rattlesnake put an end to that. After that, a trip to Big Bear Lake in California for a long run at altitude became a four-hour fiasco when the fire roads he planned on were closed, a detour took him through zealously-guarded private property and the way out means crossing rocks that threatened to wreck his ankle. It wasn’t the smoothest buildup, but he couldn’t argue with the outcome.
Experience breeds improvement for women’s winner Baker
The last time Chelsea Baker ran Marine Corps, it might as well have been half a lifetime ago. In a sense, it was.
Her 2019 effort, ending up in a 59th place in 3:22:48, run in a downpour that transitioned to a steam bath, was just three years into her running career, which stared when she joined the British Royal Navy.
“I wasn’t really athletic before I joined the military, but I got pulled into cross country,” Baker, 32, said. “This was my second marathon when I ran it in 2019.”
In the intervening years, the dearth of major competitions gave Baker time to develop as a runner, and by the time she got back to Arlington for the 2022 Marine Corps Marathon, she was confident and like King, fed off of that confidence to carry her to victory in 2:42:38, the ninth fastest time in a race history that has seen more churn than the men’s, with five other top-11 times run in the last 25 years.
Not that she knew she was winning from listening to the crowds.
“They must have gotten confused with the 50k, because people kept telling me I was in fourth or third,” Baker said. “I just tried to drown them out and focus on my own race. To come back and win this has been mind-blowing.”
The 50k started 40 minutes before the marathon, and women’s winner Melissa Tanner ran just fast enough that she finished 23 seconds ahead of Baker, too close for the finish line crew to stretch out the finishing banner again for Baker. While most runners want to make sure they have enough left in the tank to finish strong, particularly on an uphill final stretch like Marine Corps, Baker got to prove it when she went back and crossed the finish line again for her photo op.
She had some input into her race plan from her boyfriend Adam Stokes, who was the 2019 runner up.
“I knew I didn’t want to go out too fast, so I stuck to that plan and didn’t start hurting until mile 23. I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I might have run faster if I had someone on my shoulder pushing me.”
Now a Royal Navy team elder, it fell to Baker to stress the restraint her coach had preached, and she followed to success.
“It’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere,” she said.
Fun for the whole family
Ryan Udvadia’s work as an accountant stresses details, but there was one he forgot in the lead up to the Marine Corps Marathon — changing his wife’s last name on her registration after the Clifton Park, N.Y couple’s June wedding. Cara Udvadia, 25, will go in the record books as Cara Sherman, but her time — 2:47:08 for second among women, is just as sweet.
“After I graduated from college, I felt a little lost, not having a team with goals to work toward,” she said. “It was definitely an adjustment, but once my dad started coaching me, I felt like I was on the right track again.”
Now a few years into her career as a hydrological engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey and out of the pandemic, she’s back to the level of consistency she missed from college.
She started the race relaxed but found runners to keep her company from mile eight to 18.
“I felt smooth until mile 24.5,” she said. “If another woman would have caught up with me, I’m not sure I could have responded. But I see how people get addicted to this.”
The Udvadias, both University of Albany alumni, chose the race because of Ryan’s connection to it. In 2019, he made good on years’ worth of threats to run his first marathon with his grandfather, Frank Capone.
“When he was little, he used to call me an tell me he ran around the block,” Capone said. “Then he went on to run in high school and then college, but he would always tell me ‘Grandpa, you got me into running. I’m going to run my first marathon with you.’ I tell him I’m too slow, but he doesn’t care.”
The pair ran 4:52:18 in 2019, mostly in the rain, and Ryan realized he bit off more than he’d bargained for.
“It was so cold, it rained so much, but I’ll never forget running with my grandpa,” he said.
His 2:27:36 debut for a competitive effort was enough for hm to need a few days to commit to another, but his response to the crowds was undeniable.
“It hurt, but the crowds made all the difference,” he said. “Even when I was slowing down after 19 miles, every time I passed water stop, I’d speed right up. The energy from the cheers is real.”
Bonnie Keating, 37, a Robinson Secondary School alumna, returned for another crack at Marine Corps after finishing fifth in 2019. A transplant to San Diego, where she is a strength and conditioning coach, she felt the temperature drop from California and spent most of the race trying to warm up.
“It wasn’t by design, I just couldn’t get myself going,” she said. “I just felt off, but it wasn’t all bad.”
She ran 2:47:47 for third, though she thought she was in fourth after she passed a woman in the last few miles.
“I had good miles here and there, but they didn’t stay consistent until after 18,” she said. “When they gave me a pass for the awards when I finished, I thought there had to be a mistake.”
Like Baker, she improved on her 2019 time, when she ran 2:55:03.
The 50k returned for its second running, with Davidson, N.C.’s Chris Raulli, 34, running 3:05:45 and Baltimore’s Tanner, 41 running 3:22:15.
Raulli ran his first sub-2:30 marathon, with hopes for a sub-3:00 50k, but his last five miles suffered.
Tanner finished third overall in her first Marine Corps race since the 2008 marathon, where she fell apart in Crystal City and was mindful not to do so again.
The winners in 2019, Arlington’s Mike Wardian, 48, (3:18:27) and Rockville’s Liz Ozeki, 34, (3:33:05) both finished second. Wardian felt like his potential finishing time was wide open, given his lower training volume since finishing a coast-to-coast run this summer. Ozeki was pleased to improve on last-year’s time, particularly after she hadn’t committed to the race until two months prior, her eyes on marathons and halves this fall. Dale City’s Jonathan Ladson, 31, (3:24:50) and Hagerstown’s Lauren Cramer, 38, (3:49:43) finished third, with Ladson holding second place until the final miles.
The call went out on a Saturday — “does anyone have an Army Ten-Miler bib?” The race was the next day.
Responses on a message board wished the runner luck and others tried to start an impromptu waiting list. After a while, the sober voice of reason spoke up.
“Not allowed since it’s past the transfer period.”
It can be an unpopular opinion, but it’s backed up by the forms runners sign when they register for races.
Running the Straight and Narrow
As I write this, Marine Corps Marathon training is reaching its zenith. The calendar holds just a few more weeks for hard training.
And by the time you read this, you’ll be tapering. It could even be race week, your thoughts shifting to smaller details.
It used to be about how far and fast you’d run on Sunday. Now it’s about little things on race day like how to hold your gels and what shoes to wear. It’s about the defining question of the 41st People’s Marathon: Uber or Lyft?
But I’m still hung up on a detail from last year, a detail that, when the howitzer fired, was as far away from my mind as the finish line: tangents.
It’s a post-GPS watch realization for me — and my run last year at MCM proved it — that I do a very poor job minimizing the distance I cover on the course.
In other words I’m realizing how important it is to study more than where the hills are and where they aren’t. After all the time invested in training, I should also be studying the turns and curves, amassing the knowledge — or at least the awareness — of how to only run 26.2 miles.
Runners run, elected officials legislate and besides the dozens of honorary congressional chairman for the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile, never the twain shall meet.
Until October 2013. The first federal government shutdown in 17 years threw the running community into uncertainty as runners were ostensibly banned from National Parks Service property and race permits for that land disintegrated, putting the region’s marquee race in doubt.
What makes one event stand out over another? Have you been to a race and left with a memorable moment? The magic comes from the first person you encounter, the volunteer.
The volunteer sets the stage for you and how you will evaluate the experience. The volunteer will help you navigate a large packet pick-up area. How many times have asked, “Where do I get my number? The volunteer comes to the rescue. Can you imagine on a sweltering day, and you come up to a water table and no one is there. How many times have you come up and there are more hands holding cups and you can not make your mind up from whom take the cup? The volunteer makes your life seamless and all you must do is run.
Do you run the race carrying the race map? If the volunteer were not on the corner the 5K could be a 10K because you took a wrong turn. How many times do you hear, “Thanks for being out here?”
The volunteer brings the magic with their dedication and the desire to have influence. When it is raining the runners will show up, but the volunteers have an option. The dedicated volunteer will be out getting wet with the runners. Take the same hot race and think about no volunteers and you must provide for yourself.
The volunteers are proud of what they do and how they do it. Each volunteer brings their personality to the race which can have the runners smiling in the middle of their pain as they compete against the clock. The first and the last runner benefit from the dedicated volunteer.
The volunteers do not receive a monetary reward but a personal feeling of satisfaction they are making that difference and bringing their own magic. There is no way to measure the warm feel the volunteer a feel at the conclusion of a race.
Every community race needs another set of hands and a smile. The volunteers are on the lookout for the safety of the runners and spectators. A runner does not slow down to let a pedestrian to cross between the runners. The volunteer will ask the pedestrian to wait before they cross.
As local road races find their footing in the post-pandemic world, along with attracting racers, they also need to be well-staffed with volunteers to handle all of those things that make a race worth running. That goes for low-key gatherings on a park trail and only gets more crucial as the scale of the race grows. The recent Parks Half Marathon alone came together with the help of more than 300 members of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club pitching in to help on race day and several days before.
The Army Ten-Miler, coming back for its 38th running after two years off, is no different than any of the community races the small and large who value the volunteers and need their support. The Army Ten-Miler wants to tap into the magic to share with the runners.
There are many reasons why a person volunteers for the Army Ten-Miler, many of which are personal. There is a connection to the military, the sport of running, and just hanging out with friends and co-workers. Volunteering is a commitment to making a difference and creating memorable moments for our participants. Volunteering is not a one-time sacrifice of time but a mutual benefit. Army Ten-Miler volunteers have fun, while adding excitement, work fast to make decisions, and are focused on the factors that achieve success.
The volunteers (soldiers and civilians) present the personality of the race. The volunteers are the first to meet the runners. The challenge is how to make the runners feel relaxed.
George Banker has served as operations manager for the Army Ten-Miler since 2003. To register visit http://www.armyten.miler.com and follow the prompts. There are limited volunteer positions for groups of ten on race day. You can send an email to George Banker at [email protected].
Fairfax County Detectives have arrested and charged a 42-year-old Herndon man with crimes related to indecent exposures near the Washington and Old Dominion Trail in August, the department reported.
The county’s Fugitive Track and Apprehension Unit arrested Juan Alfaro Rodriguez, of Herndon, Sept. 8 for warrants from another state. Through an investigation by our Major Crimes, Cyber and Forensics Bureau and the Herndon Police Department, Alfaro Rodriguez was charged with three counts of indecent exposure. Rodriguez was taken to the Adult Detention Center and remains held without bond.
- A man stabbed a high school student while the student was running on the Custis Trail around 8 p.m. Aug. 27. WTOP reported that a man approached the boy as he crossed under the Washington Boulevard bridge, stabbed him and fled. The boy is recovering.
- Fairfax County and Herndon police are searching for a man who they think has exposed himself to or tried to grab six women on the W&OD trail in August, the Washington Post reported. Incidents were reporting Aug. 3, 15 and 18 near the Fairfax County Parkway, Aug. 26 in both Reston and near Ferndale Avenue in Herndon and Aug. 30 on Old Reston Avenue near the trail. In the last incident, he tried to abduct a teenager who was walking a dog.
- Beach Drive will remain closed to through traffic through Oct. 31 while the National Park Service deliberates long-term closure options.
- The transfer period for the Marine Corps Marathon will close at midnight tonight. Wearing someone else’s bib if you haven’t formally registered is bad form and grounds for lifetime bans for both the unregistered runner and the bib doner.
- The Virginia Passenger Rail Authority will build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Potomac River between Long Bridge Park and East and West Potomac Parks.
- The District Department of Transportation will build a 3.8-mile extension of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, paralleling South Capitol Street SE and connecting to the Oxon Hill Farm Trail .
- Oakton and American alumna Keira D’Amato won the US 20k championships.
- Hayfield alumna Nikea Green was inducted into the Wake Forest University Hall of Fame
- George G. Marshall High School inducted its 2016 girls cross country team into the school’s hall of fame. The team won the VHSL 5A championship with team composed of Heather Holt, Ava Bir, Hannah Smith, Sophie Tedesco, Jenna Robbins, Natalie Bardach and Layan Qasem and coached by Darrell General and Clifford Wong.
- St. John’s College High School’s Desmond Dunham was named USTFCCCA National Girls Coach of the year.
Parents: The Built-in Cross Country Fans
As a new high school cross country season begins, there are things parents of aspiring runners need to know to best support their child’s budding interest in this glorious sport. Cross country is its own unique (and painful) animal. And high school cross country, with its range of talent, experience, and intensity among athletes, parents, and coaches, requires some advance preparation and understanding before diving in.
First, the setting matters. Races can range from tri or quad meets with just a few teams lining up in a parking lot, to a massive invitational with colorful tents, banners flying and packs of kids running around in every possible shade of bright matching singlets. It can feel more like a medieval fair than a modern day sporting event.
“The pageantry of it really struck me,” says Margaret Carpenter, a Virginia-based cross country mom of her first cross country meet for George Marshall High School. “It’s really beautiful, almost military.” At a small meet you will find your kid no problem, but a bigger race may require more coordination. Tim Haight, another local cross country parent, advises parents to “arrive extra early — plan for traffic and parking — you don’t want to miss your child running.” Know the cell phone numbers of other parents, as your athlete may be warming up and unreachable when you arrive at the meet.
The weather is also a critical factor both in how you support your child and your own spectating comfort. Cross country can start as early as August, with temps and humidity at their most sweltering. If this is the case, a prepared parent will bring lots of cold water–enough for themselves and extra for their kid–and even a cooler full of ice to help the runners cool down before and after the race. Parents coming from work should ditch the suit and pumps and bring a change of comfortable clothing (running clothes encouraged!) and sensible shoes to deal with the dirt and grass of the typical cross country course.
Later in the season the tables will turn and layering will be the name of the game. Runners will want to keep their sweats on until just before the gun goes off, so one parent (check with the coach first) might volunteer to take all the kids’ sweats right as they step to the starting line. After the race, wet or sweaty-cold clothing will chill an athlete quickly, so encourage your kids to do their cool down jog immediately and then change into something dry. “It’s a long day for your child,” Haight says of Saturday invitational meets, “so send them with the food and clothing they will need to be comfortable in all weather circumstances.”
Perhaps the most important part of coming to support is having a cheering plan. Look at a map of the course in advance and identify a few places where you can watch. While cheering at the finish line is great, support throughout the race is even better, so look where a course figure-8s, loops (and you can take a shortcut across), or doubles back to maximize the number of times you see your runner. “When you get there, scope out earlier races so you can figure out the good spectating spots so you know where to look for your child,” Haight suggests.
Supporting high school cross country is about encouraging your kids and their teammates to have fun. As a parent you set the sportsmanship tone, so cheer for everyone on your team. “There are a lot of names to know, so write them down to learn them,” Carpenter advises. “By the end of your fourth season this is your family.” She advises parents become familiar with MileSplit.com, a high school running website with Virginia and Maryland sites. “Use it to educate yourself about some of the top runners, the ones your own kid is competing with…as well as the top teams in the state and what colors they’re wearing so that you can enjoy watching them outdo themselves at the front of the pack.”
If your kid is on the JV team, stick around for the varsity race. If they’re on varsity, show up in time for the JV events. “It’s such an easy sport to watch,” Haight says. “Just a few 20-minute races.” Mid-cross country race, an athlete can reach a mentally dark place, so tell them they look awesome! Tell them they’re doing great! Tell them they look strong! “They have a coach,” Carpenter says, “so it’s up to you to be their cheerleader.”
There are many ways you can support your kids physically and mentally outside of the race itself. “By junior year, when schoolwork becomes more intense, realize how much the sport takes out of your runner each practice and pick up the pieces,” says Carpenter. “Get him to gear down for earlier sleep each night…we asked him often how we could help him [and] did some planning out loud to help him manage the full days and full load.” Fueling your runner is a good place to focus, so talk to the coach and consult other running resources to learn about the best eating habits for young athletes. “As my son got more serious about his sport, I saw him go for fuel more than snacks so I tried to support that.”
Before the season even begins you can start preparing for the demands of cross country. “You have to go to a running store and buy the appropriate shoes,” advises Haight. “Also go to the coach for advice and look into summer running options,” as many teams have casual running meet-ups, often organized by team captains, throughout the summer. Carpenter recommends sending your kid to a running camp if possible to give them the opportunity to discover and fall in love with running culture independent from parental involvement.
Burnout is a danger for any athlete. Haight points out that, “when kids think running is not fun, it’s really the parents and coach making it not fun.” Supportive parents should “encourage all the good parts about running and hopefully then your kid matures into someone who wants to continue to run and run and run.” Carpenter echoes his sentiments. “Tune into the identity of being a runner and what being a part of this really glorious thing is all about, and the times will probably take care of themselves.”
When it comes to race day, immediately before the race pressure is building, so it’s likely best to leave your athlete alone. Running is an intense sport, and your child will be dealing with pre-race jitters, focus, and team dynamics. Don’t add pressure by asking too many questions or fixating on how good (or not good) they feel. If you are nervous for them (which, as a parent, you very likely are), those nerves will rub off and add additional pressure to an already high-pressure situation. As a supporter, you are there to tell them they feel great and will be awesome. If anything, remind them before the race to trust in their training and to have fun.
Afterwards, if they had a good race, celebrate with them! And if they had a rough day, celebrate with them! As long as they tried their best, it counts as a win. Success in cross county takes time. That’s time on a daily basis–time to train, time to rest, time to sleep–and also over the course of years. Focus freshmen on enjoying the experience. As they mature and build mileage and endurance they will inevitably improve, but none of that will happen if they’re not having fun.
Finally, “Go to as many meets as you can,” Carpenter’s first point of advice, is echoed by many parents. “They’re long days, so you give up Saturday, but you only have so much time with the kids and it’s so beautiful what they do.” Pointing to the life lessons–sportsmanship, dedication, diligence, joy in exercise–gained from participating in cross country, she notes, “they’re finding their character in this and it’s great to see a young person discover that it’s a lifelong sport.” Haight agrees and advises parents to “nurture the interest because running is a habit and a hobby that they can live with forever.”
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.