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In its long history, the MCM has not only made a name for itself in sheer size as the fourth largest US Marathon and ninth in the world, but stands as the largest marathon in the world that doesn't offer prize money, earning its nickname, "The People's Marathon."
Nearly four decades of MCM history can all be traced back to one man, Colonel Jim Fowler, and one big idea. According to Fowler, "After the Vietnam War, popularity of the military services declined in the eyes of many. At the same time, distance running was gaining considerable positive attention."
This thought process lead Fowler to write a memo to his superior, General Michael Ryan, dated 17 October 1975, outlining his idea for a Marine Corps Reserve Marathon, to promote community goodwill, showcase the Marine Corps, serve as a recruiting tool and finally, to give local Marines an opportunity to qualify for the legendary Boston Marathon.
Fowler's memo stated, "The name marathon evokes military history and is the kind of event which the public finds in consonance with the image of the Marines." General Ryan loved the concept and helped it receive approval from the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Louis Wilson.
With the approval of the CMC, the planning process began. Word of the marathon spread quickly through the ranks, reaching as high as the Secretary of the Navy, William J. Middendorf, who had enthusiastically embraced the event and provided a handsome trophy to be awarded to the overall winner.
With the backing of the Secretary of the Navy, many people jumped aboard the Marathon bandwagon. When Gunnery Sergeant Alex Breckinridge, a member of the 1960 Olympic Marathon Team heard about the Marathon, he too wanted to do his part to ensure the success of the Marathon. Fowler observed "the presence of Alex Breckinridge during meetings with the local jurisdictions was of incalculable value. Here was a staff noncommissioned officer who had been a member of the US Olympic Team. I could not ask for a more impressive ambassador on behalf of the program we were trying to establish".
Through the dedication and efforts of the Marine Corps Reserve, under the direction and leadership of Col Fowler and General Ryan, the first MCM was held on 7 November 1976 and welcomed 1,175 participants to the Arlington, VA start line, the largest inaugural run for a marathon at the time. Runners began and ended the inaugural race at the Marine Corps War Memorial, fondly referred to as the Iwo Jima monument, a fitting location for a Marine Corps event.
A successful first year reaffirmed Fowler's belief that a marathon organized by the Marine Corps would be well received in the community and beneficial to the Marine Corps. As planning began on the second event, Fowler had a meeting with the Chief of Police for the District of Columbia, Maurice J. Cullinane. Fellow Marine Herb Harmon was with the Corporation Counsel's Office and had a good relationship with Chief Cullinane. The meeting resulted in a parade permit that allowed the marathon to change its course and yielded the scenic route through Washington that all future competitors would enjoy. Each route modification required new measurements and re-certification. A wheelchair category was added to the second Marathon in addition to the route change. With the heightened publicity from the first event and a new, more scenic course, the Marine Corps Reserve Marathon was thrilled to welcome 2,655 runners to the second race field. With the big idea and littlest details firmly in place, the event took off.
Over the next few years, the planning requirements for the MCM grew, resulting in the need to transfer race coordinating duties from the Marine Corps Reserve to active duty Marines at Marine Barracks 8th and I in 1978. Shortly thereafter, even more growth necessitated a move south to Marine Corps Base Quantico in 1982, where MCM headquarters still remain today.
The 1990s were a period of continuous growth for the MCM. The decade began with the 15th MCM in 1990 reaching a capacity of 13,000- the first time race capacity had been filled since the MCM's inception. Over this ten-year period, the MCM introduced changes in organization and technology that have aided in shaping "The People's Marathon" into the premier running event it is today.
As marathon running gained popularity during this time the MCM gained celebrity attention, as well. Politicians and local public figures were often mainstays in the MCM race field, but in 1994 the MCM gained star-status when Oprah Winfrey selected the event as her first full marathon. Finishing with a time of 4:29:15, Winfrey inspired thousands of runners after her to "Beat Oprah!" and finish the MCM with a sub-4:30 time.
By 1995, race director Major Rick Nealis had organized two previous MCMs. Upon his retirement, Maj. Nealis was offered the position of race director in a civilian capacity, allowing for more continuity in race management. In 1997, ChampionChip timing was introduced, and runners were issued shoe tags that tracked their start and finish times making results more accurate than ever. With race improvements and the popularity of marathon running taking off, the decade closed with a new record of 15,219 finishers.
Registrations for the silver anniversary of the MCM held in 2000 sold out in three days, yielding a new finisher high of 17,168 runners. Over the course of the next year, plans were forming to create a new MCM headquarters facility aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico combining office space and a warehouse facility. This promising start for the MCM in the 21st century was overshadowed by the events that unfolded the morning of September 11, 2001.
With the attacks of 9/11 occurring just six weeks prior to race day, race organizers worked closely with Marine Corps leadership to develop a comprehensive security plan to keep the estimated 150,000 runners and spectators safe along the course. Three weeks before the marathon was scheduled to take place General J.L. Jones, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, officially approved of the plan and allowed the MCM to move forward. Just five days before race day, the Pentagon approved the MCM course.
More than 15,000 runners elected to participate in the MCM on October 28, 2001 despite lingering fears about safety in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The 2001 MCM will forever be remembered as not just a race, but a day of somber reflection as runners passed the scarred face of the Pentagon at mile five and unprecedented patriotism as thousands of American flags and spectators chanting "USA" lined the course. In a fitting ending to the patriotic theme of the day, retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Farley Simon was the overall marathon winner (2:28:28).
Over the course of the 2000s, "The People's Marathon" continued to expand; children were included in the festivities when the Healthy Kids Fun Run, a one-mile untimed run, premiered in 2000; in 2005, the new MCM headquarters facility opened, allowing race organizers even more capabilities and also in 2005, the Health & Fitness Expo moved to the DC Armory.
In 2006, the MCM introduced the MCM10K, a 6.2-mile run that would join the final leg of the marathon course to share in the iconic finish up the hill to the Marine Corps War Memorial. Since its inception the MCM10K has steadily increased in popularity. In 2011, the race field sold out with 10,000 registered runners.
During this decade, the MCM also went global; in 2006, the MCM hosted its first event during race weekend outside of the US, the MCM Forward. Held at Al Asad Airbase under the direction of Major Megan McClung, the MCM Forward boasted 109 finishers, mostly consisting of deployed military members. Since that time, interest in the MCM Forward has grown with deployed service members. In 2011, units in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Marines and Sailors aboard the USS George Bush aircraft carrier ran a 26.2-mile course on a variety of terrain and even on treadmills aboard the ship.
In domestic expansion, in 2008, the MCM assumed organizing responsibilities from Marine Corps Community Services for a series of races throughout the year held aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico. Now known collectively as the MCM Event Series, these races vary from year to year and consist of 5K to 10K distances as well as a mud and obstacle challenge. In May of 2008, MCM operations temporarily moved south to Fredericksburg, VA where organizers conducted the inaugural Marine Corps Historic Half marathon. Nearly 4,000 runners participated in the successful first Historic Half and the MCM continues to develop this 13.1-mile race into a premier event with the Healthy Lifestyle Expo, the Semper Fred 5k and the Historic 10K now introduced to Historic Half Weekend.
In 2010, the MCM hit its milestone 35th anniversary, coinciding with the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and Pheidippidies' legendary 26.2-mile run. To commemorate both anniversaries, the MCM received the Marathon Flame from the Municipality of Marathon, Greece, and embarked on a multi-city tour in the weeks leading up to MCM race day. The flame was incorporated into a variety of activities MCM weekend and its presence celebrated the origins of the sport of marathon running.
When registration for the 37th MCM opened on March 7, 2012 no one could have predicted the overwhelming response from the general public. The MCM's 30,000 entries were sold within a matter of two hours and 41 minutes, beating the previous sellout record of 28 hours set just one year prior at registration for the 36th MCM. This new sell-out record and all-time high of 23,515 official finishers in 2012 reaffirmed the status of the MCM as an in-demand event. First-time marathoners, seasoned running veterans and celebrities like Drew Carey, who ran the 2011 Historic Half and returned the same year to complete his first full marathon at the 36th MCM, continue to flock to "The People's Marathon."
Over the years, the MCM has evolved into a premier running organization while remaining true to its roots. Today, 30 full-time staff members and thousands of Marines, Sailors and civilian volunteers work to ensure the MCM mission is carried out as its founders intended. The mission of the MCM- to promote physical fitness, generate community goodwill and showcase the organizational skills of the United States Marine Corps- is reflected in each MCM, Historic Half and MCM Event Series race. This commitment to the sport of running and dedication to providing quality events to the public ensures a bright future for the MCM.