Marine Corps Marathon race director Rick Nealis survived talk show host Oprah Winfrey in 1994 and Vice President Gore in 1997. So Sunday's less-than-ideal weather forecast of wind and cool temperatures hardly fazes him.

"So long as it doesn't rain, we can deal with it," Nealis said, "Even if it pours, we'll have Marines filling sandbags."

Nealis, 45, has been the marathon race director since 1993. On his watch, the marathon has grown from fewer than 15,000 to this year's record 21,800 registrants. It is the fourth largest marathon in the United States.

"I cut my teeth on the Frenchman [Dominique Bariod, the 1993 winner] who allegedly cut the course," Nealis said. "It's been downhill ever since."

The position of marathon race director was once a rotating assignment like many in the military. After Nealis's rotation was up, he retired from the Marines in order to keep the post, and consequently has served more than twice as long as anyone previously had. Throughout his tenure, he has maintained a sense of humor in the face of military, political and sometimes even celebrity pressure.

"When Oprah ran, her people wanted it kept quiet," Nealis said. "Well, Marines are pretty good at keeping secrets." Winfrey, who opted out of the Chicago Marathon when news of her participation leaked, ran the Marine Corps with a minimum of media hoopla.

But years later, Nealis isn't above sharing talk show host gossip: "Oprah doesn't do porta-pots, so we had to make special arrangements for her to have her trailer nearby before the race."

Nealis has more than just administrative marathon experience. He has run several, generally finishing in under four hours. Last March, he ran the Los Angeles Marathon in 4 hours 38 minutes. "I beat Al Gore, but not Oprah," he said.

Nealis manages a race budget of $1.4 million, less than half the budget of the Chicago Marathon--which is also being run on Sunday--and its cast of 25,000 runners. "They probably spend our whole budget on advertising alone," Nealis said.

The Marines make do with nine full-time civilians, 35 Marine liaison officers and 2,500 Marines manning the course on race day. Nealis, who retired a major, calls the shots to ensure that each of the runners comes away with a positive race experience.

Nealis's wife, Marine Lt. Col. Kathleen Harrison, is eligible for a command position next year, which could force the couple to relocate.

"Don't ask me who wears the boots in our family," Nealis said. "But I love this race, and I want to be back next year for the silver anniversary. You can't ask for a better job than to have a whole bunch of Marines working for you."

Captain Hetherington

Alexander Hetherington will wear bib No. 1 on Sunday. Hetherington, the Marines' team captain, finished ninth last year in 2:34.32 and will once again lead the Marine team against the British Royal Navy team. Each year the two military teams compete for the Challenge Cup and for the overall military title. Mark Croasdale returns to lead the Royal Navy; he finished second overall last year in 2:31.32.

Nealis said that the Marines and Royal Navy should expect strong competition from the Mexican Navy. "Those guys have borne the brunt of the recent [natural] disasters in Mexico, and this will be their chance to escape for a little while," he said. . . .

Michael Fitch, from Richmond, is the top U.S. runner entered. Fitch ran 2:21.00 at the Las Vegas Marathon in February. Bea Marie Altieri, 32, of Columbia, is the top woman entered.

Altieri won the JFK 50-miler last November in 6:58.44. She is hoping to qualify for the 2000 Olympic trials by finishing in under 2:50. "The marathon will be a breeze after running 50 miles," she said.