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.
Beach Drive would reopen to through traffic after Labor Day under a proposed plan by the National Park Service, which has mostly closed the road since April 2020 to allow for more room for physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NPS is accepting comments until 11:59 p.m. Thursday Aug. 11 on its plan, which would formalize weekday closures between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That would increase the existing policy to close the 4.2-mile stretch on weekends and holidays, but rolls back what had been a nearly-2.5-year closure to allow for more physical distancing during the pandemic. That closure has allowed for a dramatic increase in daily use by runners, cyclists, walkers and more.
“Like many throughout the community, we think NPS should reconsdier reopening upper Beach Drive to cars to maintain an important trail connection through Rock Creek Park throughout the year,” said Kalli Krumpos, manager of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s Capital Trails Coalition.
The pandemic and subsequent road closure followed just months after the completion of a three-year, $33 million project to completely rebuild 6.2 miles of Beach Drive between the Maryland line and the bottom of Shoreham Drive. The preference comes despite support from both the D.C. and Montgomery County councils to continue the closure.
“In this decision, we were really trying to strike a balance,” said Rock Creek Park Superintendent Julia Washburn, “to create equity for the various people who need and want to use the road.”
Describing the decision as multi-layered, she cited concerns that increased park use over the last two years had bled into forested areas, where users created their own trails, often with unleashed dogs. Users had notably created pathways between 16th Street NW and Beach.
“We have seen a vast increase in the social trails or basically off-trail use of the park and an increase in dogs off leash in that part of the park throughout the year, so we’re hoping with having the road part of the time open to vehicles during a lot of the year, that may hopefully lead to a decrease of the impacts that we are seeing to the forest and to the habitat,” Washburn said during a July 18 meeting.
Allowing greater pedestrian use during the summer months would coincide with when the vegetation was thickest, discouraging the formation of social paths.
Washburn also recounted concerns that closure to motorized traffic limited enjoyment of the park by users with mobility concerns.
Although the 4.2-mile stretch of Beach Drive was initially closed entirely to traffic, NPS opened portions of the road north of Joyce Road to allow for access to various picnic areas. A total of 2.7 miles of Beach, along with the entirety of Ross Drive and Sherill Drive, are closed to traffic, with sections of 0.6 miles, 0.5 miles and 1.6 miles of Beach Drive closed.
Though NPS considered closing one lane of Beach Drive to allow for non-motorized use, those plans were dismissed out of safety concerns and limitations posed by park police staffing levels.
Washburn stressed that the plan was dynamic and subject to change,
“We’ll be reevaluating at certain times and we have the option to create a different management alternative in the future based on how everything is going,” she said.
However seriously NPS has taken concerns about social trail formation, little to no signage discouraging that behavior has been on display in and around Rock Creek Park over the last two years.
The days are getting longer and the weather is getting warmer — which can mean one big thing for the running community: more runners are taking to the region’s sidewalks, paths and trails.
As more runners ditch the treadmill in favor of running outside, there are health and safety reminders to consider. Chief among them is knowing the correlation between warmer temperatures and running risk, said Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, the medical director of MedStar Sports Medicine for the Washington region. Spring can yield some warm-but-not-too-warm running conditions, but “just because the air feels [cooler], you have to be careful,” he said.
Temperatures can feel comfortable and quickly get dangerous as you exercise, he said. Runners need to be careful with outdoor exercise when temperatures are between 73 and 82 degrees, but with higher humidity levels — a foregone conclusion in the D.C. area — temperatures as low as 73 can be high risk, Dr. Douoguih said.
- The “zoo loop” on the Rock Creek Trail is nearing completion, with work potentially being done by the end of July.
- The current plans for the pedestian expansion of the American Legion Bridge include a ramp to the C&O Canal Towpath but not MacArthur Boulevard.
- Oakton and American University alumna Keira D’Amato has been named to the U.S. marathon team for the World Track and Field Championships, following Molly Seidel’s injuray withdrawal. The women’s marathon is Monday, July 18 at 9:15 ET. She’s also opening a Potomac River Running store in Richmond.
Doubts swirled around my head, and my right quad muscles ached with cramp-like pain. It was only ten miles into the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon but as I watched what felt like hundreds of runners zip past me, I started to recalibrate my pre-race goal: Three hours and 50 minutes became four hours. Then four and a half hours. Then simply finishing.
The race turned into a mental battle. My legs screamed for me to stop and walk, while my brain urged me to continue on pace. The 10th mile would be my slowest up to that point. I tried to find motivation wherever I could. I repeated the mantras, “mind over body” and “don’t run scared,” to myself as I locked on to the runners in front of me. I visualized how satisfying it would feel when I crossed the finish line with another sub-four hour marathon. I thought about my supporters back home who were tracking my race online.
- Arlington County is accepting feedback on the Arlington Boulevard Trail through Tuesday, July 5.
- Georgetown alumna Emly Infeld made the U.S. world championships team in the 5,000 meters with her third place finish at the USATF Championships.
- Laurel resident Juliette Whittaker, who sent the national high school record in the 800 meters in 1:59.04, winning the U.S. U20 championships and making the world team, was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Outdoor Track for Maryland.
- Georgetown’s Lucas Guerra made the U.S. U20 world championships team in the 3,000 meters.
- Washington Latin alumnus Luke Tewalt, racing for Wake Forest, made the U.S. U20 world championships team in the 1,500 meters.
- Aaron Yoder, world record backward mile holder, will compete in the U.S. Backward Running Track Championship July 9 at Edison High School.
- Arlington’s Mike Wardian finished his cross-country run to Delaware from San Francisco to raise money for World Vision.
- St. John’s junior Meredith Gotzman was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Outdoor Track for Washington, D.C.
- The Rock Ceek path has reopened between Shoreham Drive and P Street, and the tunnel through the I-66 bridge south of the Kennedy Center has opened.
- Three Trials Fever patients will experience relapses in 2024, thanks to their races at Grandma’s Marathon, which qualify them for the Olympic Trials. Reston resident and Falls Chuch native Susanna Sullivan was third in 2:26:56, Thomas Jefferson alumnus Johnny Phillips ran 2:14:10 and Centennial alumnus Brian Harvey ran 2:17:40.
- The Road Runners Club of America recognized Arlington County was recognized as a “Runner-Friendly Community.”
- A handful of local distance runners will be competing in the USATF Championships and the USATF U20 Championships this weekend in Eugene, Ore.
- In the 800 meters, the District Track Club’s Vincent Crisp and Georgetown alumna Sabrina Southerland.
- In the 1,500 meters, Georgetown’s Matthew Payamps and Jack Salisbury and Georgetown alumna Josette Norris.
- In the 5,000 meters, Chantilly alumnus Sean McGorty, the District Track Club’s Willy Fink, Heritage alumna Weini Kelati and along with Norris, Georgetown alumnae Emily Infeld and Katrina Coogan.
- In the 3,000 meter steeplechase, Tuscarora alumnus Fitsum Seyoum.
- In the U20 meet, Laurel resident Juliette Whittaker will run the 800 meters.
- Washington Latin alumnus Luke Tewalt will run the 1,500 meters, for Wake Forest.
- Georgetown’s Lucas Guerra will run the 3,000 meters.
- In the 3,000 meter steeplechase, Colgan alumnus Bryce Lentz, running for the Air Force Academcy, and Oakton alumnus Garrett Woodhoouse, running for Utah State.
The only thing better than running 50 miles through D.C. with four friends on an unseasonably cool June day? Running 60 miles with nine friends.
In its second year, the Chocolate City Relay grew both in length and depth June 11, adding a second team of Black women traversing the city in a DIY relay and throwing in a little competitiveness along the way.
“I work in D.C., but I live in Maryland, so I’m not running around here too much,” first-year runner Yodit Tefera said of the Northeast neighborhoods she had just finished running. “Everything is pretty new to me, so I’m getting to know more neighborhoods.”
On top of the 10 women hitting the roads, two drivers and two bicycle guides supported the runners along the way, along with friends along the course and waiting at the Hains Point finish to cheer on all of the runners sharing the 24th leg.
Dira Hansen watched from afar the last year and hoped to take part.
“When I saw them finish last year, I thought it was awesome,” she said. “So I kind of Insta-stalked them and hoped they’d do it again and invite me.”
They invited her, and she added a competitive element to a lineup that pitted newcomers against the veterans. The newcomers touted Hansen’s sub-three-hour finish at the Shamrock Marathon in March and helped her warm up with some strides along Mt. Olivet Road NE before she took the handoff and sped down West Virginia Avenue NE.
Though the teams — veterans in blue, rookies in pink, started together, before too long, competitive instincts took over and turned the event into a cat-and-mouse game, aided somewhat by a drizzle that kept drivers off the road and opened some road crossings faster than usual.
Though all of the runners participate in traditional races, veteran runner Alison Staples noted, the event generally takes on a more community-based, cooperative effort, and PRs take a back seat.
“This is more special because we put it together, the support team has volunteered to come out and help,” she said. “It’s been incredible for sisterhood, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating that we are all healthy enough to run.”
Staples moved to D.C. from Baltimore in 2021, and after striking up a social media friendship with Brittany Greene, Greene recruited her into the inaugural relay.
“There were a lot of women doing amazing things, but we didn’t all necessarily cross paths in our worlds, so finding a way to bring everyone together in a way that amplifies our stories was important and gets people into new areas exploring D.C.,” Greene said.
She mapped out a course that crossed all eight wards of the city, but added roughly 10 miles in Ward 8, in Southeast D.C.
“We tried to use rec centers and schools as landmarks, to give people a framework for what’s in D.C.,” she said. “We wanted to add a level of challenge, and the ladies were up for that, so everyone got some more hills.”
In addition to the 10 runners, five planned to complete a virtual relay. After gas and supplies were paid for fundraising went to Girls on the Run programs, where a several relay runners volunteer as coaches.
In between legs on the rookie team, Courtney Carter marveled at the way Greene and her friends made the event happen
“To have this home-grown, locally-created relay that’s doubled in size and to get to do this with these amazing women and our support, it’s super meaningful, it’s super dope, and people are excited about it.
“It means a lot, we all know how important representation is and we know that we need more of it in the running space. And it’s just a way of claiming space, and I’m a fan of that.”
A man riding a white moped harassed a woman running in the National Arboretum and another cycling on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in the afternoon and evening June 10.
He was described as a stout black man appearing to be in his mid-20s, wearing a mask, black pants and a black sweatshirt with the word “impress” in white lettering.
Around 2:30 p.m., he approached a woman running on Azalea Road in the arboretum near its southern intersection with Eagle Nest Road, dismounted the moped, presented a condom to her and after she refused his advances, moved on ahead, while continuing to look back toward the runner. He passed the runner again while she was returning to the visitor’s center.
Around 6:30, he tailgated a cyclist heading south on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail near the Bladensburg Waterfront, blocked the trail’s exit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and started masturbating in view of the cyclist. After she biked away, he briefly chased her on the moped, then drove by and waited at the trail’s intersection with Deane Avenue.
- Georgetown’s Parker Stokes led local distance runners at the NCAA Championships with his third place finish in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 8:18.88. Colgan alumnus Bryce Lentz ran 8:52.33 in the semifinals for the Air Force Academy.
- Georgetown had two women’s 10,000 meter finalists: Charlotte Dannatt finished eighth in 33:26.78 and Maggie Donohue finished 13th in 33:42.99.
- Patriot alumna Rachel McArthur ran 4:21.15 in the semifinals for Colorado.
- Howard’s 4×400 meter team of Jessika Gbai, Ameenah Saalih, Ozioma Scott and Jessica Wright finished sixth in 3:28.39.
- Our long, regional nightmare is over – the Riley’s Rumble Half Marathon will return to the Maryland Soccerplex after a year in exile to the C&O Canal Towpath, albeit its original course.