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Exclusive: Director of USMC Marathon discusses possible cancellation

Oct. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Participants make the turn onto 14th Street in mile 16 of the 34th Marine Corps Marathon Oct. 25. Nearly 21,000 runners crossed the start line at this years Marine Corps Marathon. The 26.2 mile race took participants on a journy through the streets of Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C., culmenating with a finish at the Marine Corps War Memorial. (Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Scott Schmidt/Released)
Participants make the turn onto 14th Street in mile 16 of the 34th Marine Corps Marathon Oct. 25. Nearly 21,000 runners crossed the start line at this years Marine Corps Marathon. The 26.2 mile race took participants on a journy through the streets of Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C., culmenating with a finish at the Marine Corps War Memorial. (Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Scott Schmidt/Released) (Cpl. Scott Schmidt)
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Nearly 21,000 runners crossed the start line at today?s Marine Corps Marathon. The 26.2 mile race took participants on a journey through the streets of Arlington, Va., and Washington, DC culminating with a finish at the Marine Corps War Memorial. Marine photo (Cpl. Bryan G. Lett)

This year’s Marine Corps Marathon is in flux as organizers wait to see whether the government shutdown will last beyond this week.

For the 30,000 runners who will travel to Washington, D.C., for the Oct. 27 race, that has created a great deal of uncertainty. Marathon officials announced Tuesday that runners would be notified on Saturday as to whether the 38th annual race, which weaves through multiple national parks, will go on as planned.

On Wednesday, Senate leaders announced a deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown — but the measure still has to pass a vote there and in the House. As the politics played out on Capitol Hill, Marine Corps Times caught up with the Rick Nealis, director of the Marine Corps Marathon, to discuss what would happen if the shutdown extended through the end of the week.

Nealis, who has served as race director for 20 years, said despite challenges brought on by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the D.C.-area snipers and hurricanes, the shutdown has been the biggest challenge to date due to the uncertainty it has created.

Excerpts of that interview:

Q. You put out a press release Tuesday stating that if the government shutdown continues through tomorrow, the Marine Corps Marathon could be jeopardized. What are some of the factors that would prevent you guys from holding the marathon if shutdown continues?

A. The first factor is the fact that the National Park Service is part of the government shutdown. That has closed the monuments and the memorials, and since the Iwo Jima is our finish line area, that is one restriction.

But on a much bigger scale, 15 of our 26.2 miles run on National Park property. Replacing 15 miles to avoid crossing onto a National Park is very difficult to do in this area.

Q. What about law enforcement and security efforts to support the marathon? Are those impacted by the shutdown as well?

A. That’s one of the things that makes us unique compared to any other major marathon. In Chicago, Boston or New York, they work with one law enforcement agency. In our case, the course encompasses seven law enforcement jurisdictions.

Six of those agencies said they can support us, but the National Park Police cannot, and that’s the majority of our course. That is really our critical point that tips the scale because without the National Park Service and the National Park Police, supporting the course we have today cannot be executed.

Q. What would that mean for runners? Are there plans to reschedule or would it be canceled completely?

A. We would look to see if we can redesign the course and the challenges that would present. Or if we do a cancellation, what does that mean to the runner? Is that a refund, no refund or partial refund?

We would take a look at what we can do. Whatever we can do for the runner will make a very unfortunate, bad situation a little more palatable. All they want to do is run. That’s what they’ve been dreaming about since registration in March.

Legally the waiver is no refund, but we would like to take a look at that whole issue for the runner’s benefit — this is no fault of their own. But there are contracts from companies that have made a commitment to support us. Those people would have to be paid.

Q. Why was it so important to make this decision a full week before the marathon?

A. We do not want to create a situation that took place in New York City last year where all the runners were able to come into the city and then were told that Hurricane Sandy was canceling the race. We want to be up front with our runners, we owe it to them. I think they deserve nothing less to be told the truth. Before they start stepping on planes or driving out, we should do that.

Unfortunately, with the vendors, they have probably bought a lot of product or food. That’s unfortunate, but we are not able to do anything about that at the moment.

Q. Aside from disappointing runners who have trained hard for this event, what other repercussions are there to canceling a marathon of this scale?

A. The economic impact is just going to devastate this region. People will be canceling hotels, not flying, not eating in restaurants. There is a whole ripple down effect.

We’re also six months off the Boston Marathon bombing. There are runners who are fighting through the fear or what happened there. Running gives you that energy, that outlet and camaraderie that helps you get through tough times. We’re taking away one of those mechanisms that serves as the beauties of the sport of running.

I look at the social media feedback about how people have altered their lives over six months to get to this point. It’s one thing for a lightning storm or hurricane to come through, an act of nature. But when you come back and realize that this is self-made by our government, it’s sad.

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