Runners prepare for the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon
Runners getting ready for the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon Credit: Kelyn Soong

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In another sign that D.C. is slowly returning to pre-pandemic norms, on Tuesday, organizers of the 2021 Marine Corps Marathon announced plans to host an in-person race on Oct. 31. Like other large road races around the country, the 26.2-mile race that winds through downtown D.C. and Arlington County went virtual-only last year due to pandemic-related rules limiting the number of people allowed to gather. The Marine Corps Marathon routinely draws more than 20,000 participants.

But this year, with D.C. set to lift all of its capacity restrictions on June 11 and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announcing last week that Virginia would ease all distancing and capacity restrictions on May 28, organizers felt confident about moving ahead with bringing back in-person iterations of the marathon, 50K, and 10K races. All three races will have a virtual option scheduled to take place between Oct. 1 and Nov. 11. The only race that will not return this year is the MCM Kids Run.

“I’m confident we’re going to get all the permits and all the approvals that we need to put on the event right now,” race director Rick Nealis tells City Paper, “because everybody is ready, willing, and excited to get back to live events. It’s good for the runners, and obviously, the economic impact for the metropolitan area.”

In the coming weeks and months, race organizers will meet with representatives in Arlington County and ANC commissioners in Georgetown and Foggy Bottom to discuss their plans for the race. Nealis estimates that process will take about 45 days. The race will also need permits from the National Park Service, something that doesn’t usually happen until October, even before the pandemic, according to Nealis.

“It’s not like we have one mayor, or one city government that we have to work with, where you have that in New York … where the mayor basically gets with an organization and it says, ‘We’re going to do these things,'” he says. “We still have federal, the military, the Pentagon, the National Park Service, U.S. Capitol. So we’re working with all those partners to see as we go forward.”

While the press release sent out Tuesday by the Marine Corps Marathon Organization mentions that organizers are “implementing certain safety guidelines in accordance with local jurisdictions, including reducing the size of the field and dividing runners into scaled, social-distanced start times,” Nealis tells City Paper that he expects about the same amount of finishers as previous years. In 2019, 18,512 runners finished the marathon, and 20,699 people finished the 2018 edition.

“It will be 21,000 finishers at the marathon,” Nealis says. “I could have another 20,000 runners that are in the virtual field … Those numbers normally don’t get locked in for me until I need to do that whole logistics. Once you start ordering shirts, medals, and material for the race, that’s when that number gets finite.”

Registration for the race will be on a first come, first served basis with runners currently registered for the virtual events this year or who have deferred entry from last year receiving the first opportunities to register. There won’t be a lottery system like in previous years. Access to the virtual events is now closed, and general entries to the in-person event will be available to the public starting May 26 at noon.

“The deferred people are guaranteed,” Nealis says. “And I’m guaranteeing everybody who had signed up virtually early gets a guarantee.”

The course, Nealis predicts, will look a lot like the 2019 version, barring any construction along the route. “D.C. is only three miles of our course,” he says. “Eighteen miles belong to the National Park property. And then the remaining five, six miles is in Virginia, in Arlington. So it looks like right now, though, that it will be the 2019 course with zero changes.”

As for safety protocols, Nealis says that there will be hand sanitizer stations and the possibility of having more waves at the start line, as long as runners can maintain a 14-minute per mile pace, as stipulated in past races. Other safety measures, like what to do with water stations and how many people to include in the events’ buses, are still being worked out.

“I think we’re in a really good position five months out,” Nealis says. “Are the runners ready to come back? They say they are, but now the truth teller will show up.”