Ready Set GO!


His name is Rick Nealis, and hes the most important man youre least likely to see this weekend, as 30,000 runners from around the world take to the streets of Virginia and the District of Columbia Sunday in the 32nd annual Marine Corps Marathon.

In a rare moment relaxing at Landini Bros. restaurant in Old Town last week, Nealis talked about his 20-year career in the Marines as well as his 14-year second career as race director of the marquee sporting event.

Experts say that you should do something you love in your second career, and for me, this is as good as it gets, said the 53-year-old Nealis. I love running, as well as working with and for runners.

His enthusiasm is evident as he oversees every aspect of what is affectionately known as The Peoples Marathon from a new 13,000 square-foot race headquarters building at Quantico.

With a staff of 28 and an annual budget of $6.2 million, Nealis works from a two-inch thick operations manual that he puts together each year covering every detail of the race in areas ranging from Air Support to Food Services, Casualty Assistance and Information Technology.

Long distance runners are disciplined, goal-oriented and focused, said Nealis, who began running in 1981. Those are similar traits to Marines, so this race is a good fit between the two.

Of particular concern, especially in the nations capital region, is security, and under Nealis tenure, the budget for security and law enforcement has grown from nothing in 1996 to $400,000 in 2006.

Weve had unique and consistent security issues every year since 2000, said Nealis. Its different every year but an example is in 2002, when the D.C. snipers were captured a mere 72 hours before the start of the race.

Not easy
Coordinating six different law enforcement agencies is no easy task, and Nealis experience as a member of the security team for the Olympic Torch Relay for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 serves him well as he supervises more than a thousand police officers and first responders for the various race festivities, including a 1-mile kids race held at the Pentagon Saturday morning.

There will also be 20 Marine generals at the race, with six of them running, added Nealis, who retired as a Marine major in 1995, two years after first taking the reigns of the event.

In addition to paid personnel, there will be 2,700 Marine voluntolds from Quantico, Henderson Hall and Marine Barracks Headquarters Washington taking their places along the course as early as 2 a.m. on race day.

We need to have everyone especially prepared this year after what happened at Chicago and the Army 10-Miler, Nealis said in referring to the recent races where extreme heat and shortage of water left hundreds of runners sidelined or hospitalized. 

As soon as I saw what happened in Chicago, I immediately called Wal-Mart (the marathons water sponsor) and without hesitation, they agreed to donate an extra 30,000 gallons and 29,000 1-liter bottles of water for the race, said Nealis.
Its unlikely well get that kind of heat but at least were prepared if we do. 

Local runners
More than 1,100 runners from Alexandria are registered to run on Sunday, with 949 taking on the challenging 26.2 mile course and an additional 177 running in the 10K race, with a total of about 4,800 from across the state.

Other runners to keep an eye on are D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is running in his fifth MCM, and Ruben Garcia, the returning champion who is looking to be the first three-time winner of the race.

An additional 4,000 of the participants in Sundays race will be running for one of the 40 official charity partners of the MCM, including Miss Utah 2007, Jill Stevens, who is a sergeant in the Utah National Guard and will be competing for the title of Miss America in January.

Under Nealis leadership, the MCM has established itself as one of the best-organized marathons in the world and Nealis, who still runs an average of 35 miles per week, was recently named Event Director of the Year by the Portland Marathons Event Director College.

Last year, Nealis began sharing his widely acclaimed techniques through a new Race Directors Boot Camp. Over the course of race weekend, participants from around the world get two days of intensive Marine Corps-style training that covers everything from race technology to police participation and youth fitness.

Immediately following the conclusion of the race, Nealis personally reviews the pace time and data collected from each runners chip, looking for inconsistencies that may indicate cheating as well as to get accurate race information to the media as quickly as possible.

Still, theres no rest for this energetic father of four and grandfather of three. Nealis leaves within days of the race to attend the Athens (Greece) Marathon, his first official kick-off to market the 08 MCM race.

I travel about 10 weekends a year, primarily to attend other major marathon events, replied Nealis, when asked about his plans to unwind after the race. Half are for marketing and operations issues while the others will be to speak on race course operations and logistics.

The pace of the job clearly agrees with Nealis, who said,  I do like that there is a beginning and an end in the event business. I like the instant feedback and at the end of the day, Ill know exactly how I did.