On track

CEO on the run: Mary Wittenberg on her decade at the helm of the New York City Marathon

This year she’s watching the race from the sidelines as the global chief executive of Richard Branson’s Virgin Sport

(Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

This Sunday, more than 50,000 runners will cross the finish line at the New York City Marathon, one of the most storied traditions in sports and the five boroughs.

But for the first time since the Clinton administration, Mary Wittenberg will get to watch the spectacle unfold, stress-free from the sidelines. For just over a decade, Wittenberg served as the president and chief executive of New York Road Runners, the nonprofit responsible for staging the event, along with dozens of other major road races in the city throughout the year. But in May this year, Wittenberg announced that she would be leaving the group to join Richard Branson’s Virgin Sport, where she currently serves as the group’s global chief executive.

Wittenberg is eager to let her successors at NYRR — events president Peter Ciaccia and president and chief executive Michael Capiraso take the spotlight — but was willing to field some questions this week about running and women in the sports business. (Earlier this week, NYRR board member George Hirsch joked, “It took two men to replace one woman.”) Sunday morning, she plans to be in Harlem with volunteers handing out water and Gatorade.

In an interview at the Javitz Center, where runners piled in one by one this week to pick up their bibs and chia bar samples, Wittenberg provided updates on her year, running and the nuances of being a chief executive.

Women in the World: Has it been weird to be out of the picture this year?

Mary Wittenberg: It’s a little surreal. I feel as though I have the best of both worlds. Because [the current team] is so generous, I still feel incredibly connected to all of the marathon and New York Road Runners. I plan to always feel that way, especially this year. I feel like I’m in it but at the same time my role has shifted to standing back and cheering everybody, the team, the runners. I’m excited to be a spectator. I feel an incredible peace. It’s kind of a funny thing — I still worry about the weather. But it feels good.

I want to give room. I’m a member now. I love that. And I want to be conscious of that. Even though I’m ever so committed to it all, the privilege is now in the hands of others. I want to be mindful of that.

WITW: How did you choose to be a spectator this year? And why Harlem?

MW: It’s funny. At first I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t really even think about it. I wondered if I should go to Alaska because I thought it might be really hard to watch. But immediately in my head, I thought I wanted to work the fluid station. Every year it has these fluid stations where people have been there forever. Harlem is an area that we really worked hard on. When I first started, it seems impossible to believe this, Harlem was quiet. We created this concept of the Harlem Miles with the Harlem community. We were trying to get kids running and we started working with the Harlem Chamber of Commerce and they brought out some incredible music. Now it’s like a dance party. Every year, I’d say to our technical director that I always wanted to start the wheelchairs, the men and women in Wave One and still get to Harlem and the Bronx, but he was worried I wouldn’t make it back. And in my head, I realized now I can finally go to Harlem.

WITW: In terms of your current gig, what has it been like switching gears? And building something new?

MW: It’s been amazing. What’s funny is I came here today with my three hires. And they’re all running the marathon!

WITW: So you can’t escape!

MW: A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought I would be here in a different job with a different team running the marathon. It’s incredibly fun. The reason I made this move is I always had this desire to take what people were doing, getting moving, and going beyond one event. I wanted to take it on the road.

Over the years, we developed a wonderful run-for-life philosophy. I’m very conscious of being healthy for life, you can’t do tons of one thing. The run for life philosophy was balance, you don’t have to do a marathon, you can do a mile, you can do other things. So the idea of adding cycling was really attractive to me as something that could keep people going and living an active life beyond any one event. I’ve always had that inside.

But I’ve been seeing other cities and towns that don’t have what New York does with NYRR. When you think of other different cities, it’s lots of other people putting on races, but you may not become part of a community. All these new runners, they run an event and there’s a huge risk that they only run that event. There’s nothing connected between the events.

So when Virgin called and said the Branson family really believed that getting people moving was something to invest in, it was one of those lightning bolt moments. As soon as I heard it I wanted to do it, but I was really struggling with leaving. I wanted to do both.

WITW: A lot of CEOs famously don’t have succession plans, but that seems like something you spent time with at NYRR. Did that help? Was that hard?

MW: If you really care about something, you do that. I don’t know if I could have left otherwise. If it had been at different points, I would have had to think hard about whether I could do it at that time. Even when you look at the last few years, coming off that cancellation [from Hurricane Sandy in 2012], we really had to reset and rebuild and reconnect in every way. That became an incredible reason for me to give back, to bring everyone together and lift the community like we’re meant to do. But when you go through tough times, you realize the strength. The magnitude of this marathon, it can’t depend on any one person or even a couple of people.

WITW: So, now you’re looking outside of New York. What have you found? What surprised you?

MW: Initially we’ve were focused in the UK. Virgin is already strong there, the US to some degree, South Africa, Australia, but already what’s happened in a short time is Europe has moved up the list. There’s still opportunity because there aren’t as many women and cycling is still a male-dominated sport.

The idea is in these other countries and areas, it’s all where is there a need to bring people together. When you have the world to look at, you can see where is community impact needed? It’s different everywhere.

Cycling I think is harder than running from an organizing standpoint. It’s double, triple, quadruple the distance. What’s great about running is all you need are shoes. Cycling you need a bike. Cycling is interesting because it’s more accessible from a physical standpoint than running. That’s the balance of access.

WITW: With New York, now it’s more than 40 percent female participation. Ethnically it’s one of the most diverse races in the world. Are you trying to replicate that in other cities? Running still gets criticized for being a bunch of white guys in their 40s.

MW: In the UK, you see more women, but there’s still opportunity for diversity. The idea too is lifestyle. It’s great if a bucket list event gets you in, but in every community we want to introduce people to local fitness things that are happening. Of course the running clubs and cycling clubs, Tri Latino, Black Girls Run, all these groups exist, we want to help people know that they’re there. I think daily fitness is gray for a lot of people. They don’t know where to go, they don’t know who to connect to.

WITW: So rather than build something new, you see Virgin Sport more as a conduit?

MW: Absolutely. In some cases we’ll create new events, in some cases acquire events, but all that daily fitness, it’s such a need. It’s incredible how people don’t know where to go. The idea is to shine the light on everyone else. I think the magic is people coming together.

WITW: What about the demographics in Europe? There’s a massive shift in migration there. How does that impact community? Working with a new kind of diversity?

MW: It’s interesting. Especially running, think how much it can bring people together. Maybe we should look at cities on the borders, have programs where everyone can be in it. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but I think there will be a need there, an opportunity there, and creating that connection with people.

American Shalane Flanagan, the women's second-place finisher of The New York City Marathon, is congratulated by Mary Wittenberg after falling to the ground in tears at the finish line, in New York, Nov. 7, 2010. (Avi Gerver/The New York Times)

American Shalane Flanagan, the women’s second-place finisher of The New York City Marathon, is congratulated by Mary Wittenberg after falling to the ground in tears at the finish line, in New York, Nov. 7, 2010. (Avi Gerver/The New York Times)

 

WITW: What has the shift been like going from heading a nonprofit to being part of a privately-held business?

MW: This industry, it is all about you have to be crazy passionate about it. It’s not an easy business. You wouldn’t do it otherwise. You have to start with what do people want and what do people need, it’s a passion for getting people to move. And the business follows. I’ve seen that. I think this is a space that has to be about the community and has to have a bigger vision to really work. So I’m not thinking about it differently.

I keep saying I don’t feel like I’ve moved anywhere. I’m in the office down the street doing so much of the same. The values are similar.

WITW: Is it true that you’re running New York next year?

MW: Yes! I’ve never run New York! I moved here in ’94 and I started working at the end of ’98 and I wasn’t running marathons then. I’ve wanted to run it since ’98.

WITW: But now you get to run.

MW: I’m still tempted Sunday to get up at 3:15. This year I’ll appreciate getting the extra time. At 8:15 we have to be in Harlem. I’ll probably be running before.

It’s so fun. I feel really lucky.

WITW: Just to play Devil’s Advocate on the word “lucky.” It presents this sense of modesty when really you work your butt off. You built a team, a career. Olympians don’t get lucky.

MW: That’s so true. An Olympian would never say that. So here’s the difference. So getting to the point where you really have a team around that I love, that wasn’t lucky. I’m lucky that they’re really generous in including me. That’s where the luck is. But you’re right, we grew together. We evolved together. One of the beauties is that we learned together. I wonder if that’s a gender thing?

WITW: Think of the Instagram #LuckyGirl tag. No one says “Marriage is hard!” or “I failed 20 times before this worked” or “Invitro can be difficult.”

MW: It’s interesting, I feel responsibility now that I’m around younger women, I really do always want to model that they need to be confident and strong and so it’s interesting. You want them to see that.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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