“People know us for the marathon,” said Mary Wittenberg, President and CEO of the New York Road Runners, “but we are 365 days a year getting people running, helping people live better lives through running.” While Congress debates a marathon health care package, Wittenberg believes that NYRR can be part of the solution. “The nation’s health care situation is challenging,” she said. “We can help Americans and impact health care costs. We can save people’s lives.”
These days, NYRR has “a lot on its plate,” Wittenberg noted, and she revels in the task. Besides the ING New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 1, NYRR manages shorter races, events, and programs all year long that attract more than 300,000 participants. Although NYRR’s headquarters is on the Upper East Side, the organization continues to reach out to New Yorkers in all the boroughs. “We want to get people running throughout the city,” she said.
Helping to combat childhood obesity is high on Wittenberg’s agenda. NYRR’s foundation sponsors programs serving more than 50,000 children a week in almost 250 schools and community centers. Mighty Milers, for example, is free to schools and teaches children of all fitness levels and abilities to walk or run a half-mile, two to five times a week.
With all NYRR does, the marathon still generates the most publicity. This year will mark the 40th running of the race. “We still have the same finish line,” in Central Park, said Wittenberg. “There were 155 people in 1970. There will be 42,000 people this year.” One-quarter of those runners are New Yorkers, another quarter from all over the U.S. and almost half from around the world. In addition to those running the marathon, 10,000 people will volunteer to help. And, of course, there are millions who gather along the routes to watch, as well as a huge TV audience.
While out-of-towners must compete for entrance to the marathon through the lottery system, New Yorkers have an advantage. Anyone who runs nine NYRR races during the year and volunteers to help at another automatically qualifies for the main event. Wittenberg noted that many runners are not eager to volunteer for course duty, but after having that experience, they are elated. “They tell me they had no idea it is so great to be on the course,” she said.
Besides showcasing the sport of running and the five boroughs of New York City, the marathon raises more than $20 million for a variety of children’s charities. Runners who race to raise funds for a NYRR official charity guarantee their entrance into the marathon. This year more than 70 charities will be represented, including NYRR’s Team for Kids, whose mission is combating childhood obesity. Supporting these organizations is something that Wittenberg is passionate about.
Wittenberg has run four marathons herself and understands the sense of accomplishment runners feel when crossing the finish line. “The marathon is phenomenal,” she said, although she admitted that by mile twenty, “it really hurts. Most people know it’s going to hurt.”
Wittenberg was born in Buffalo, the oldest of seven children. Her father coached sports and Wittenberg and her siblings all participated. In her senior year in high school, she took up rowing, a sport she continued at Canisius College. She took a break from sports her senior year in college, but when someone challenged her to a race, she ran and won. After college she attended law school at Notre Dame, continuing her running. She finished 16th in the 1985 Chicago Marathon.
Following law school, Wittenberg took a job with Hunton and Williams, a law firm in Richmond, Virginia. She worked fulltime as a lawyer, studied for the bar exam and still kept to a rigorous training schedule. She won the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon and competed in the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials-Women’s Marathon.
She spent eleven years at Hunton and Williams, longer than she had initially anticipated. “I had always planned to work in sports,” Wittenberg said, but her loyalty to the firm caused her to stay. The firm was populated with “high energy, smart people who loved being challenged all the time.” Her work at Hunton and Williams—“always being forced out of my comfort zone”— prepared her well for the demands of running NYRR. She was appointed President and CEO in 2005. “There’s not a lot that rattles me,” she said with a laugh.
Wittenberg and her husband, Derek, consultant to a technology company, live with their two children Alex, 8, and Cary, 6, on the Upper East Side, not far from NYRR’s offices on East 89th Street. These days Wittenberg meets a group each morning at 5:45 a.m. to run in Central Park.
She has never questioned her decision to leave the practice of law. “It’s a major shift, but I never looked back,” she said. “It’s so fulfilling. Every day we make a difference. In times like these, when people are challenged and pushed to the maximum in their personal lives, running can help.”
For more information on NYRR, its programs, and the marathon, go to www.nyrr.org
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Candle 79, 154 East 79th Street
Favorite Place to Shop: Fresh, for gifts and for myself
Favorite New York Sight: Sunrise over the reservoir while running……..
Favorite New York Moment: Start—ING NYC Marathon
What You Love About New York: ING NYC Marathon (okay, I am biased)
What You Hate About New York: Hate is a strong word—nothing!