- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2005

Thousands of sports fanatics around the country will be celebrating well past midnight on April 4. Of course, it is the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

But two days later, thousands of runners will be burning the midnight oil in a frenzy as they attempt to gain entry into the highly popular Marine Corps Marathon. Nearly 30,000 slots for the Oct. 30 raise are up for grabs, via the Marines’ Web site, marinemarathon.com.

“The speculation is that the race will fill in two hours, maybe 24 hours is what I am saying,” Marine Corps Marathon director Rick Nealis said. “I hope it drags a little bit. I’m coming in at midnight. We’re having a little celebration on the base. It’s been six weeks since moving into the new [marathon] building [at Quantico].”

Nealis said that to give back to the community, he is offering in-person guaranteed registration for the race’s 30th anniversary run.

“We will have 300 applications at the base here at midnight,” Nealis said. “That same day, we’re working with Arlington County, at Pentagon Row, where we blocked off 1,000 numbers to thank the runners of Arlington and the metropolitan D.C. area. That’s a small measure to give back to the local community, so you don’t have to be up at midnight.”

The location is the Pentagon Row Courtyard, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 6, when 1,000 guaranteed entries will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The registration system is a radical change, and a welcomed one, from the method the Marines have employed for the past several years. The 26.2-mile race has used a lottery system as the number of entrants continued to soar through the mid- to late-1990s.

Runners applied to the lottery through Do It Sports’ online registration process, and then the lucky winners were announced in blocks of 5,000 or so. Nealis said the previous lottery registration process covered two months, regularly turning away nearly 7,000 runners. The new system is made possible by technology and a merger of registration companies.

“When Active.com acquired Do It Sports, they were adamant that they could do online registration without the lottery,” said Nealis, who is hoping finally to boast 20,000 finishers for the first time in race history. “The registration company is working hard. It will be a streamline application. We won’t be offering shirts and other items at this time, just one item maybe, just to get people registered, get them onto the Web site and out so other people don’t get locked out of our site.”

Nealis believes the site can handle 30,000 applications in a short time. “I remember, and you do as well, five years ago when our Web site crashed from the thousands of runners trying to access it at the same time,” Nealis stated. “That was the credit card side of the house. With all the improvements over the past five years, they have the capability to process now all our applications at once.”

The midnight start was not determined by any technical reasoning or astrological means. “We’ve tried noon and we’ve tried midnight. This way we start it at 0001,” said Nealis, speaking like a true Marine.

But with this new technology, why does the entry process still occur more than six months before race day, when most athletes have not even begun training for the distance yet? Why not just a month or two prior to the race?

“Going a month before, not a bad idea,” Nealis said. “I’m looking at it. New York [usually run a week after Marine Corps] does June. In the past, I wanted to do open registration before New York. We used to get that spike after New York closed. I need two months to get the chips scanned; internally we’re still putting the personal information on your bib number, with 30,000 bibs on an assembly line. I’m thinking June, July at the latest.”

A discussion of the Marine Corps Marathon would be remiss without a word about course changes. The route is similar to last year’s course except the runners will not travel up the hill by Union Station, around the back of the Capitol and back down the hill.

Instead, runners will pass in front of the Capitol, along the flat road with the small rotary. The reason: security issues. The distance will be made up in West Potomac Park near the FDR Memorial.

Notes — Seen at the Scope It Out 5K on March 19, former local stars appear to be back, with Chris Graff hailing from Arlington and Philippe Rolly from Fairfax. … Missed out on the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler this year? Check out the 25th annual Cherry Pit 10-Miler in Edgewater, Md., near Annapolis on April 10. Well organized, with a scenic course except for the ugly major uphill in the first mile. Information at annapolisstriders.org. Only $5 on race day.

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