01 October 2022, 10am
Nealis was a Marine supply officer in the early 1990s with a 3:09 marathon best from an MCM nearly 10 years earlier. Despite being a keen runner he first thought of his assignment to the race as a demotion.
“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 the race presented.”
When the traditional two-year rotation would have moved him out, in 1995 the Marine Corps decided to keep Nealis on permanently as a civilian race director.
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 also 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.”
“I try to be very flexible – which you need to be as a race director. You can’t be afraid of change because plans pretty much go out the window when you start up – once everything is in motion, things change.”
Under his stewardship MCM has added more than a dozen other races to the calendar. The current event series includes several trail races and an array of other road races.
“The soul of the Marine Corps Marathon is Rick Nealis,” said George Banker, the race’s long-time historian. “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.
In addition to the huge positive economic impact the race has on the local economy (evaluated as $88 million in 203) the marathon also 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. It’s different to showing thousands of people what they can do when they work together to put on an event like this and contribute something to the community.”
Nealis credits fellow race directors with ideas that were adopted by the Marine Corps series but Chicago Marathon Race Director Carey Pinkowski said Nealis gives as much as he gets. “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 local 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.
“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 cancellations, have worn on Nealis, particularly having to cancel the 2021 in-person race a month before it was due. The 2022 race, scheduled for 30 October, is set to go off with some additional measures in place.
“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 suddenly the Secret Service wants to get the Vice President in to watch his son finish, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”