All runners in this year's Marine Corps Marathon will have to put their belongings in clear plastic bags. Spectators will also be subjected to bag checks and all hydration packs will be banned from the race as part of new security measures taken after the Boston Marathon bombing. (Courtesy of the Marine Corps Marathon)
Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis speaks with a Marine during a meeting for race staff at the Marine Corps Marathon headquarters aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Nealis has carried the Olympic Torch twice. First in Young Harris, Ga., on the way to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, and again in Uniontown, Pa., on the way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Six months after the Boston Marathon bombing left three people dead and more than 260 injured, organizers of the Marine Corps Marathon are applying the lessons learned from that horrific incident to their own event.
Rick Nealis, the Marine Corps Marathon race director, said they’re planning for 30,000 runners on the 26.2 mile course that weaves through national parks in Washington and northern Virginia. About 100,000 spectators are expected to line the route.
It’s not the first challenge Nealis has faced. After 20 years as a Marine ground supply officer, Nealis, who retired as a major, has guided the marathon through the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the D.C.-area snipers and hurricanes. On top of the security concerns, the marathon faced cancellation this year due to the government shutdown.
With that issue resolved and the race officially a go, Nealis said runners will see some security adjustments. But running is the perfect sport to carry them through the tragedy of what happened at the Boston Marathon, he said.
“Running gives you that energy, that outlet and camaraderie that helps you get through tough times,” he said.
Q. How has your job changed over the past 20 years?
A. Back when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in the early ’80s, I was chasing the goal of going to Boston. People ran to get faster. In the ’90s, we give credit to Oprah for the second running boom. Running a marathon became a dream, it was on the bucket list and people began running for charity. Then after that, 9/11 really changed it the most for major race directors. That’s when we went from worrying about how much water you put in a cup or whether you hand out Vaseline to your biggest expense now being close to $1 million on security and permits.
Q. In what ways did the Boston Marathon bombing shape this year’s security efforts?
A. I think the first has really been the message to runners that if they see something, tell somebody. We’ve pushed that message so that if they see a backpack off to the side, say something, whereas before they might have just walked by and not noticed it. The second is really driving home the clear, plastic bags. We have to see what’s in all bags. All spectators will have to open their bags and purses to be searched. In the past, if runners were leaving their hotels, we would hold their luggage. We just can’t do that in this day and age.
Q. That has even extended to hydration packs like CamelBaks. What was behind that decision?
A. We took a look at some of the information that was being shared with law enforcement, and I made a determination to ban CamelBaks on the race. I can’t see what might be inside a CamelBak. It’s just better for everyone’s safety and security. Those are useful when you’re out training and no one has hydration points. In the race, I have 12 water points. I’m really doing someone a favor so they don’t have to carry a 5- or 10-pound pack on their back when there’s no need for it.
Q. How did you apply the lessons learned in Boston to this year’s marathon?
A. We flew the police chief in Boston down for a security exercise we conducted. We wanted to hear lessons learned. We also brought in the lead FBI field office superintendent and listened to what the FBI did in Boston. We’ve become so much smarter on hospitals and which ones are trauma centers. We now have a lot more detail on which ones have certain capabilities so if something does happen, our medical plan kicks in and determines whether it’s trauma or just heat-related.
Q. After doing this for so long, what continues to motivate you?
A. Being a United States Marine, I get to continue to work with the Marine Corps and be around young Marines, and that motivates me. It still does. Also, in this job, you know there’s someone out there who wants to run in your event. They pick it for whatever reason and they’re dedicated — they train in rain, snow and heat to get to that finish line. You’re able to plan and execute it. And now, because everyone is able to run with cellphones, you get that feedback on your race on social media right away.