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.
The Marine Corps Marathon will debut a registration lottery in 2014, a year after frustrations with registration management service Active caused thousands difficulty while they tried to register.
As announced in this year’s race guide, the lottery will open Feb. 23 and close March 15, and runners selected for the race will be notified March 19. The marathon has agreed to a multi-year contract with Race IT to manage registration.
Race officials will comment on the switch to the lottery system during this year’s race weekend, scheduled for Oct. 27.
The race sold out in just under two-and-a-half hours in March, faster (in 2:27) than all but six runners raced there last year. But for most people trying to register, it felt more like trying to sprint in the middle of a pacing group running 12-minute miles.
The error messages and frustrations with Active led many runners to question if the process for allocating 16,000 open registration spots was befitting an event that prides itself on efficiency. Traffic on the registration site overwhelmed the Active system, which may not have been upgraded following a similar incident.
The chaos meant that many of the aspiring registrants who had been trying since registration opened failed and others who came along later succeeded, discarding the race’s “first-come, first-served” policy for registration.
|Type of registrant||Number|
|Active duty military||c. 4,000|
|Previous year’s deferments||c. 3,000|
|17.75 k finishers||2,200|
|Frequent MCM runners||c. 1,000|
Active pledged its proceeds from the signup, roughly $75,000, to two of the race’s charity partners: the Wounded Warrior Project and Semper Fi Fund.
At the time, Race Director Rick Nealis promised a comprehensive examination of the race’s registration process, with the prospect of a lottery system, similar to the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, the ING New York City Marathon and the Chevron Houston Marathon.
This followed Active’s failure to successfully handle demand for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon Feb. 19, which Active blamed on outdated equipment and a coincidence with an upgrade, according to Runner’s World. The Chicago Marathon suspended registration after four hours, with 30,000 successful entries processed, and allocated the remaining 15,000 bibs via lottery.
Problems started almost immediately for Marine Corps, two-and-a-half minutes in. Users reported reaching the checkout screen at the end of the process and receiving an error message. Others saw “system error,” “system unavailable,” and “it’s an exciting day today. We have a sell-out event in progress” while trying any number of steps in the registration process.
“It wasn’t exciting for the people seeing (those messages),” Nealis said. “It was embarrassing for us. This wasn’t up to our standards.”
Before the technical problems arose, he predicted the race would sell out in 82 minutes. He was well aware of the problems Active had during the Chicago registration, but was hamstrung in his options to do anything about it.
“They had 30 days to prepare, and they said they were testing successfully at a high volume,” he said. “You can’t drop a government contract like that, and even so, (what happened in Chicago) didn’t happen to us, so our agreement wasn’t violated.”
Marathon officials could not comment further on the state of the contract with Active.
Eric McCue, general manager of sports at Active Network issued a statement regarding the system failures:
“Active Network experienced system issues with registration for the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon today… for this, we sincerely apologize. We expected unprecedented interest for this iconic race but as the demand for registration shortened from hours to minutes, we experienced challenges. The race ultimately sold out in record time of 2 hours and 27 minutes. At Active, our mission is to connect people with the activities they love and we didn’t deliver on that promise today.”
Representatives from Active have not responded to specific inquiries about the cause of the system breakdown, or whether they had finished upgrading its systems in the wake of the Chicago registration.
Tiffany Davis, of Ashburn, didn’t get into the race last year, so she was sure to be at her computer well before noon, when registration opened.
“I was trying at 11:59,” she said. “When I wasn’t getting through, I tried every 10 minutes, then every five minutes. Nothing.”
She has been running for six years, spurred by an effort to lose weight after the birth of her youngest son. She’s worked her way up in distances and is determined to run a marathon in 2013. She chose Marine Corps because it was close to home and because of its reputation.
Erin Panzarella and her husband Mike registered successfully, but not without some trouble. The South Plainfield, N.J couple ran the race in 2010. He was set on racing again this fall, but she was content to watch. Until, that is, he successfully registered and she got the itch to run again.
“I started trying to register just to see if I could, but when it failed and kicked me out I got made and just wanted to register more,” Erin said. “When I couldn’t even get back in, I got angier and angier. Now I absolutely have to run this race.”
After running the race the last two years, Washington resident Anastasia Robinson was hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon this year.
“I like being able to sleep in my own bed, and I know the course really well,” she said.
She slipped in under the deadline last year and knew she had to be ready at noon. She reached the Active sign in page before the site crashed on her. She refreshed as best she could while at work.
“I had a meeting at 1, so I had to step away,” she said. “When I got back at 2:30, it was too late.”
She ended up finding the charity partner Finish for Kids. She is a classical singer and her friend, also shut out of general registration, is a pianist, so the two are looking at venues for a fundraiser concert.
The marathon was an overwhelming winner of RunWashington’s recent Best of Washington Running survey’s “Best D.C. Race” and “Best Race to Spectate” categories.
Runners have a myriad of ways into the marathon. In June, a secondary market will open when the race administers open a bib transfer program. Registrants will likely advertise bibs for sale on Craigslist and other forums, including the marathon’sofficial Facebook page. More immediately, roughly 4,500 can commit to raising money for 130 different charities, with all of the proceeds going to the 501 (c) 3-registered nonprofits, in return for an entry.
Four thousand spots are reserved for active-duty military personnel, and approximately 3,000 runners will have deferred from the prior year’s race. Finishers at March 23’s 17.75k over the age of 14 earned guaranteed entries, approximately 2,200. The race sold out in an hour.
About one thousand runners who have done five Marine Corps Marathons get a longer window to register. Fewer than one thousand spots are given to race sponsors.
Nealis said that out of approximately 31,000 registrants, he expected 23,000 to finish. Last year, 23,519 runners finished Marine Corps, giving it the second most finishers in the United States, behind Chicago’s 37, 455, though New York, which drew 46, 536 finishers in 2011, was cancelled. In 2010, 20, 855 runners finished Marine Corps. The 2012 Marine Corps race sold out in 2:41, the 2011 race sold out in 28 hours and four minutes and 2010 took six days to sell out.
Changes to the Marine Corps Marathon course are exciting local runners and likely going to mean faster times this October.
Runners will not have to endure a big hill around the Georgetown Reservoir between miles seven and eight. Instead, from miles six through nine, runners will run up Rock Creek Parkway to the bottom of Calvert Street and back, a stretch used in the Navy and Nike Women’s half marathons, as the MCM course returns to a pre-2007 design.
Race director Rick Nealis said in a press release that the new course offers “more spacious and flatter roadways.”
“Georgetown,” he added, “especially M Street, remains important to our runners and, annually, the hot spot for spectators and supporters.”
Previously, runners turned left onto Canal Road off of the Key Bridge to Georgetown on the way to the big climb up Reservoir Road into the Palisades, past the Georgetown Reservoir and down McArthur Boulevard and Foxhall Road. On the new course, runners will hit Georgetown’s M Street earlier in the race, in mile five, before they head down to Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway and then around Hains Point.
Another change, though minor, occurs late in the race as runners loop around the National Mall. The marathon will now cover 3rd Street to Constitution Avenue. It previously routed through a parking lot on Pennsylvania Avenue alongside the Capitol reflecting pool.
Public Relations Coordinator Tami Faram said MCM organizers “made an operational decision to make the course both safer and more scenic.” Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway had been a part of the race course from 2001 to 2006.
In 2007, MCM had 20,622 finishers, about three thousand less than in 2012. The growth in participants, Faram said, made the hairpin turn at Canal Road both more difficult and congested.
In one of George Banker‘s binders packed with Marine Corps Marathon results, notes, clippings, and other assorted memorabilia, the race historian has a page of splits from the 1987 race. While the MCM historian can’t recall who gave him these splits, he knows they correspond to Jeff Scuffins‘ course record-setting victory in 2:14:01. (Scuffins went through halfway, according to Bankers’ notes, in 1:06:49. Conditions were actually less than ideal, with a rising race time temperature of 60 degrees.)
Banker, who has run MCM 28 times, was nice enough to dig through this binder recently when we asked him what he thought about flatter course. As Banker recalls, the course when Scuffins set his record, had runners starting on Route 110 in Virginia and heading south in Crystal City up 15th Street. You would end up looping back across the starting line at about 7 miles and take Route 66 over the Key Bridge to Georgetown’s M Street, he explained.
Back then, you hit Mile 20 out on Hains Point; the one real hill was behind the U.S. Capitol on C Street.
“That was definitely a faster course,” he said. “I would say, after that” – as construction and other factors began to require route changes – “they all become a little more difficult.”
Does MCM returning to its pre-2007 design – sending runners out-and-back on Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway – make it a significantly faster course?
Two-time winner and RunWashington contributor Jim Hage told the Washington Post, “Anytime you can knock out some hills it’s a good thing.”
Two local runners aiming to set new personal bests in the marathon agree.
Michael Rohlf, who ran MCM from 2010 (his first marathon) through 2012, said he paid the toll of those early hills later in the race. The hills, he added, also made it tough to settle into a good early rhythm.
In his first attempt to break three hours last fall, Rohlf tired late in the race, he said, and ran 3:12. This fall, in an attempt to achieve his goal, he signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon, which he figured would give him a better shot.
“But now that the MCM course has been changed, and in my opinion improved, I really look forward to running it again – maybe next year,” he said.
Colleen Lerro is entered in her third MCM this year and hopes the course change will give her a better shot at qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She ran her first MCM in 2006, before the course change.
If Lerro does not achieve her goal this year, she will be “much pickier next year” and choose a flatter course.
Regardless of the layout, though, MCM is Lerro’s favorite marathon, and “the course I would love to get my BQ on,” she said.
The usual plan for the George Washington Parkway Classic calls for securing a 10-mile, point-to-point course that starts at Mount Vernon, proceeds along George Washington Memorial Parkway, and finishes in Alexandria – a short walk away from Oronoco Bay Park. This means, on one hand, that some sort of barrier must stand between every driver and every possible opportunity to unknowingly or knowingly enter the race course. On the other, it means that course marshals and police officers must be ready to stand by and enforce these barriers; and, should the unthinkable happen – a vehicle on the course – the plan includes being ready for that, too.
There is the job of safely transporting 6,000-or-so runners from an area near the finish – where many park – to the start. There is the readiness for any on-course injuries. There are risk management strategies. And yes, there is water, and sports drinks, and gel packs, and clocks at mile markers.
That’s not it – not even close. But two more things: The Alexandria Police Department, for this year’s race, wanted to honor a colleague who was seriously injured in a shooting, and, on a related note, make the last mile special for participants.
Twenty-five year force member Sgt. Joseph Seskey and the members of his special events unit envisioned – with about a mile to go – a line of police officers there to greet the runners, many of whom wore honorary bibs for Officer Peter Laboy, the man injured, on their backs. “So you turn that corner,” Seskey said, “and it kind of grabs you: everyone coming together to support Peter.”
Six days before the Parkway Classic, tragedy struck the Boston Marathon.
An hour later, Seskey was on the phone with Kathy Dalby, founder of Pacers Events, which organizes the race.
The officers scheduled to stand strong for Peter Laboy were reassigned to other race day duties. Contingency planning for “enhanced security,” years in the making, quickly took shape.
“We knew we had to make some changes,” Seskey said, “and be out in front. Within an hour from Boston … everybody was thinking alike. We all just knew what we needed to do.”
In addition to Alexandria police and Pacers Events, “everyone” included U.S. National Park Police, whose jurisdiction covers better than three quarters of the course, fire and rescue units, and additional local and federal agencies whose services were suddenly in high demand.
Sanitation was called in to cover trash cans. Emergency management, intelligence, and special operations performed unseen jobs. The finish area was closed off to spectators, a mobile command center situated nearby.
Staffing was increased for specific locations, Seskey said. Extra bomb-sniffing dogs were present. Snipers manned rooftops, while extra police teams observed the crowd.
“We have always understood that any place that a lot of people assemble could be a possible target,” said Seskey, whose team is handling safety and threat assessments plans for an ever-increasing number of road races. “You just have to always be prepared. We kind of operate on that level without even knowing it, just because we have been doing it for so long.”
The Game Changer
What if there is a huge thunderstorm, or a gas leak, or an attack? How would you re-route or cancel the race? What’s the evacuation plan?
When police, fire departments, emergency services, and race organizers meet at the planning table months before an event, all these scenarios are on the table, Dalby said.
Twenty years ago, Marine Corps Marathon Race Director Rick Nealis remembers one thing that weighed heavily on many race directors’ minds was whether to put four or six ounces in the Dixie cups Marines would hold out for runners.
September 11 was a “game changer,” he said, explaining the increasing emphasis placed on safety and security rather than water, Vaseline, and bananas.
As if September 11 wasn’t enough, the D.C. sniper shooting occurred the follow October. The next year, America entered a second war, making MCM a potentially more inviting target, Nealis said.
There was a time when MCM runners could park in the Pentagon parking lot, a time when race day logistics didn’t include security checkpoints. There was also a time when the race didn’t sell out in less than three hours.
While you run MCM – through seven police jurisdictions – emergency crews are on standby, security alerts are taken and processed, police officers stand guard over barricades.
Some situations require quick decisions. During last year’s MCM 10K, which is held during the marathon, debris left over from the Army Ten-Miler, Nealis said, blew onto the course and looked like a suspicious package. The race was stopped until authorities could inspect it.
Afterward, while you analyze every last detail about your performance, so do organizers and their security partners.
“Each year,” Nealis said, “you sit back and you say, well, we could do this better.”
Jean Arthur remembers how quickly one driver’s irritation turned to rage.
She was standing beyond the sidelines of a local road race, a volunteer course marshal. The road was closed for the race, Arthur explained to the driver. The only option was to turn around.
The driver started yelling. A police officer, who heard the yelling, approached the car, and suddenly the driver seemed to have no problem at all.
Arthur is now the race director for the Pikes Peek 10k, a point- to-point, super-fast race, held this year on the same day as the Parkway Classic.
She took over the job in 2007. By now, she knows all of the police officers she works with on a first name basis.
For Pikes Peek she works with several police departments and two fire departments.
The traffic control plan is 50 pages long. And in the early morning, as a race truck heads out on the course to lay down cones, a police car follows with flashing lights.
Going back to her experience, Arthur has learned that police bring more than manpower to an event, but also a sense of legitimacy. Drivers encountering a truck going really slow on Route 355 in the early morning sometimes become annoyed, and having a police officer at her side provides “general protection.”
After she heard about the attack in Boston, Arthur contacted her event partners right away.
“Hey, Jean,” one police officer wrote her in a text message. “I got you covered. We’ll take care of you.”
Bomb sniffing dogs were at the start and finish of this year’s race, sniffing vehicles, bags, and portable toilets. An extra police officer roamed the course on a motorcycle.
Police officers at Pikes Peek, once on-course assignments are complete, typically report to their next assignment, but this year all of them provided extra security at the post-race festival.
“I think from here on out we have to take these extra precautions,” Arthur said.
Even so, how much will really change?
When you run a race in the District starting in front of Freedom Plaza, you probably aren’t thinking – are you even aware? – of the hundreds of cameras watching you, of “mass casualty” pre-planning, or reports of a suspicious car near the course.
Enhanced security, much like regular security, is both seen and unseen. So as race organizers and police officers, post-Boston, re-evaluate these plans, now is a good time to recognize how much safety and security infrastructure is already in place. This is the time to recognize all the planning that goes into closing roads so we can race in the middle of them, and the already essential role of police and fire crews and medical staff and emergency response units in allowing us to celebrate our sport.
The Parkway Classic was U.S Park Police Sgt. Ari Wong’s first race as head of the force’s special events unit.
“Coming into this job,” Wong said, “you really don’t have as much appreciation for what goes into it.”
For big races like the Parkway Classic, the planning begins many months in advance. Thus, by race day, every assigned officer’s task should be clear. “I do my job well,” Wong said, “if I don’t have very much to do on race day.”
Given the sheer volume of road races in the area, the job, Wong said, comes with its fair share of super-early weekend mornings.
But Wong, and Seskey both said they enjoy the work, and working with each other, on races that cover both police forces’ jurisdictions.
“There’s no lead agency,” Wong said. “We work together from day one.”
He added: “For all of us in law enforcement, the people running are our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues’ husbands and wives. We want it to be a special event for them. We want it to be safe.
By Kristin Idle
January 15, 2010
For the Washington Running Report
In October, the Potomac River Running Tysons store was the winner of the 2009 Marine Corps Marathon Team Running Store Competition. Ten stores within VA, MD, and DC took part in this challenge. The winning team was selected through a combined time of the fastest top two males and one female on each team (=PR= Tysons winning team time was 3:11:17).
Come out to the =PR= Tysons store at 7516 Leesburg Pike, between Routes I-66 and I-495 on Route 7, (formerly Metro Run & Walk) on Tuesday, January 19 at 6:00 PM and meet MCM Race Director Rick Nealis as he presents a plaque recognizing the team’s victory. Adding to the evening’s excitement, the United States Marine Corps official mascot, the Bulldog, will be making a rare appearance shortly before the 6:00 PM awards presentation. Come on by a little early to meet him. Light food and beverages will be served, in addition to free give-aways to all attendees.
Take advantage of this chance to ask all your MCM-related questions and hear responses from the race director. Following the award presentation, join the =PR= FREE All-Comer’s Group Run at 6:30 PM. All paces are welcome, or stay around and socialize.