RRW: Marine Corps Marathon Is Also Forced to Cancel

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(20-Jul) — Despite working diligently on an anti-COVID plan for this year’s race, Marine Corps Marathon officials were forced to cancel the October 25 event and shift to an all-virtual edition.  The race, the fifth-largest marathon in the United States last year with 18,366 finishers, has been held continuously since 1976.  This year’s race would have been the 45th edition.

In the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial, finishers from the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon celebrate their accomplishments (photo courtesy of the Marine Corps Marathon)

“We explored various approaches to safely execute a live event and held numerous meetings with Marine Corps leadership, local government and public health officials,” said long time race director Rick Nealis through a statement.  “We understand this is disappointing news for many, but we could no longer envision a way to gather together in compliance with safety guidelines.”

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Only last month, Nealis thought that his event might be able to proceed.  In a blog post on June 25, entitled “Why 12 Minutes,” he explained why runners would have to achieve a pace of at least 12 minutes per mile (7:27 per kilometer) so the race could be held with a wave-start format to assure social distancing.  Nealis and his team were determined to hold the event safely despite the pandemic, breaking up the runners into 24 waves which would start in an expanded time window.  Runners would have to average a faster minimum speed than usual if the race was to be finished within a reasonable time period to reopen the streets.

“Many other large events have cancelled but our Marine instinct is to lean in and fight for the possibility of hosting a live marathon in Arlington, Virginia, on October 25, 2020,” the blog post read.  “This means a major overhaul of how the MCM looks and operates so social distancing considerations may be incorporated.”

But the plan was ultimately unworkable, forcing the conversion to a virtual event.  Runners will be able to defer their entries to either the 2021, 2022 or 2023 editions of the race, or they can request an entry fee refund.  A virtual entry can be requested after making a decision on the in-person entry.

“Health and safety are our top priorities during this challenging time,” said Libby Garvey, Arlington County Board Chair, through a statement today.  “The Marine Corps Marathon is a treasured event and tradition in our community that Arlingtonians look forward to each year. As we celebrate the race’s 45th anniversary this year, we will be enthusiastically and virtually cheering on each runner. We can’t wait to welcome these dedicated athletes and fans back to Arlington in person in 2021.”

With today’s cancellation, four out of the five largest marathons in the United States for have been cancelled for 2020.  New York (53,627 finishers in 2019), Chicago (45,962), and Boston (26,632) had previously been scrubbed, leaving only Honolulu (18,606 finishers in 2029) still on the schedule for December 13.  The Honolulu race is still accepting entries.

The Marine Corps Marathon has a cherished place in USA road running history as the country’s unofficial “people’s race.”  The event does not formally recruit an elite field and does not offer prize money.  Still, there have been some good performances.  The men’s course record of 2:14:01 was set by Jeff Scuffins in 1987 where he was paced by now Reebok Boston Track Club coach Chris Fox.  Russia’s Olga Markova set the women’s course record of 2:37:00 in 1990.  Other noteworthy winners include 2012 Olympian Janet Bawcom (née Cherobon) in 2010, LetsRun.com founder Weldon Johnson in 1998, and former TCS New York City Marathon race director Mary Wittenberg (née Robertson) in 1987.

For Nealis, who served 20 years in the Marines, to cancel the race was heartbreaking.  Nonetheless, he’s enthusiastic about putting on the event virtually, instead of completely cancelling.

“While we are unable to celebrate in-person this October, we are excited about the opportunity to bring the 45th anniversary event to the homes of runners around the world through a rewarding and engaging virtual experience,” he said.