Washington's Marine Corps Marathon is canceled for the first time

Runners break from the starting line in the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon.

By BONNIE BERKOWITZ | The Washington Post | Published: July 20, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Organizers have canceled the Marine Corps Marathon for the first time in its 45-year history, reluctantly bowing to the uncertainties of an uncontrolled pandemic.

"I don't think I ever thought I would be saying these words, but we will not be presenting the race," said Race Director Rick Nealis, who has presided over the event since 1993. The 45th running had been scheduled for Oct. 25.

Nealis said the final decision was made Friday by Marine Corps Commandant David Berger after it became clear that key logistics could not be nailed down until uncomfortably close to race day.

The official announcement is going out to runners today via email and will be posted on the race's website and social media accounts.

The Marine Corps race had been one of the last mega-marathons remaining on the country's 2020 race calendar.

Boston, which had been held every year since 1897, first rescheduled to September but then canceled entirely in May. New York City dropped in June, and a week ago, Chicago threw in the towel. The only huge marathon left is Honolulu, which (so far) is still on for Dec. 13.

Nealis said runners can opt for a full refund of their entry fees, which for most was about $172, or they can defer with no fee to 2021, 2022 or 2023. Any runners who had previously paid to defer will have that fee refunded as well.

And runners who still want 2020 swag, including the medal, shirt and commemorative face mask, will have the option of running a virtual marathon for $45 after their original fee is refunded.

"I don't know what more we could do for the runner," Nealis said.

The Marine Corps Marathon debuted in 1976 as a post-Vietnam recruiting tool and showcase of military goodwill.

It grew into a huge event, with an accompanying 10K, 50K and kids run, that annually draws 30,000 runners to the Washington area from all over the world — often with families and friends in tow. A Towson University study after the 2013 race found that runners pumped $88 million into the local economy on race weekend.

The threat of cancellation loomed over previous editions of the race.

There was talk of calling off the 2002 race when the D.C. snipers terrorized the area, but they were caught three days before. The 2012 and 2013 editions were threatened by Hurricane Sandy and a government shutdown, respectively.

But Nealis said that the closest call was in 2001, when the race was set for six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Rather than shutting down, as some other large events had done, the Marines marshaled loads of extra security, and the marathon became a moving demonstration of strength and healing.

Haunting photos captured runners — some carrying flags, some stopping to salute, some kneeling on the asphalt to pray — passing within yards of the monstrous gash in the side of the Pentagon.

Race organizers had hoped the event could offer a similar catharsis this year. Just three weeks ago, Nealis announced that the marathon would go on as scheduled, with a smaller field and a raft of meticulous coronavirus precautions.

"Our Marine instinct is to lean in and fight for the possibility of hosting a live marathon," he said in a letter to runners the next day.

But in July, the virus's spread accelerated in state after state, and the uncertainty of what would be feasible in October became too great.

The marathon's logistics are a uniquely delicate dance even in a normal year, because dozens of agencies and law enforcement jurisdictions have to cooperate to stage it on and around some of the planet's most security-conscious ground.

One of the largest unknowns was whether the race would be allowed on Washington streets. Mayor Muriel Bowser said last week that she will extend a public health emergency order into October. Would the race be permitted in the city by Oct. 25? Would it be permitted anywhere else?

"It became apparent that any of the planning that we normally would be doing and discussing, such as the safety and security issues, was not going to be conducted until and unless they changed the status," Nealis said. "And so two weeks out before the Marine Corps Marathon, to do security and safety issues? You can't do that. There are too many risks."

So the Marines decided to cancel now, giving runners plenty of time to alter travel and training plans.

That leaves Nealis, who plans to retire after next year's race, with a giant void in his year where prepping for the 26.2-mile extravaganza should be.

"All of a sudden, I've got time on my hands," he said shortly after Berger made the decision. "In a couple of hours, i will go home and sit on the deck and sweat and have an adult beverage and reflect on what's happening.

"It's going to be eerie."

October without a Marine Corps Marathon is "going to be eerie," said longtime race director Rick Nealis, seen here at a 2014 press conference.