Mary Wittenberg is President and CEO of the New York Road Runners and Race Director of the ING New York City Marathon. This year’s race, the sixth during her tenure, took place on November 7, starting, as always, at the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island and winding through the streets of the city’s other four boroughs before ending in Central Park.
A 1984 graduate of Canisius College, Wittenberg earned a law degree in 1987 from Notre Dame. A highly competitive runner herself, she won the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon in 2:44 and participated in the 1988 U.S. Olympic team trials. Formerly a partner at the law firm Hunton & Williams in Virginia and New York City, Wittenberg joined the staff of the New York Road Runners in 1998. In 2005, she became its president and CEO and the first woman to lead one of the world’s major marathons. Along with the directors of marathons in Boston, London, Berlin, and Chicago, Wittenberg created the World Marathon Majors.
Wittenberg lives in Manhattan with her husband, Derek, and sons Alex and Cary. She spoke with Jerry Kavanagh not long after this year’s New York City Marathon.
Q. Shouldn’t you have your feet up now? It’s been a week since the New York City Marathon.
Wittenberg: Forget it.
Q. What’s the biggest misperception about the race?
Wittenberg: That it’s a one-day event. Marathon Sunday is the big day, but it’s the finale of a year of preparation and planning. We have a year-round relationship with our runners and now we’re starting to engage friends and family around that. So that’s one. And two, sometimes people think it’s a New York City event, but it’s got national and global television and much more, through streaming and social media. The reach is global.
Q.. How far does the reach extend?
Wittenberg: There were 110 countries represented in this year’s race, which was broadcast to 120 territories and countries and an estimated 330 million viewers.
Q. Those long-distance runners didn’t look lonely during the race.
Wittenberg: (laughing) Not at all. Running has become a major social activity. I think marathon Sunday is New York’s best day. It’s all about the entire community coming together. It’s one of the most connected moments that this city has. Everybody is a friend or family or a cheerleader in support for another runner. It’s really quite a remarkable community event.
Q. How many people participated this year?
Wittenberg: We had 45,000 runners from among nearly 125,000 applicants.
Q.. Was this year’s field the biggest?
Wittenberg: Yes. We pride ourselves on being the best, not the biggest, but we continue to be the biggest as well.
Q. It’s a spectator sport unlike any other.
Wittenberg: It’s 2 million spectators. I was stunned this year because it was rather cold and windy, and the streets were just packed all the way through the route from start to finish with spectators.
Q. This year’s race seemed busier and more congested than ever.
Wittenberg: Yeah, it’s growing every single year. I used to say we were aspiring to be the Super Bowl, but now I realize it’s so much more. All 45,000 runners have a story, and this year we had the likes of not only Haile Gebrselassie and Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan and some of the greatest runners in the world, but also Edison Pena from Chile three weeks out of the mine running in New York, which is crazy. I think all those stories drew people out.
Q. You also had (retired New York Giant) Amani Toomer, who started last and raised money for charity with every runner he passed.
Wittenberg: What was so interesting about Amani and tennis player Justin Gimelstob was that they both totally maxed out at the end. Once an athlete, always an athlete. People struggle with the marathon distance and they cross the finish line in a variety of ways, but both of them were totally depleted. You can’t take the athlete out of the retiree.
Q. The New York Times wrote that you “transformed the New York City Marathon from traditional to competitive to innovative." How did you do that?
Wittenberg: We’re constantly upping the bar. This began as a little road race and it’s become a celebration of the human spirit. The innovation comes from how do we increase the impact, and how do we extend the reach and relevance of the marathon so that more and more people are engaged? That’s what helps inspires the millions of people who watch to start running. And that’s what helps bring the people from around the world here, including half the field from overseas.
Q. What is the economic impact of the race on the city?
Wittenberg: The economic impact will substantially pass $250 million this year. That’s what helps us drive awareness and the opportunity to raise money. This year we had $30.4 million raised for charities, so we constantly try to raise the positive impact and creative ways to do that. It’s not so hard to do because it’s an extraordinary event and it’s built on the foundation of running. And running is a powerful tool for a lot of good in a lot of different ways. This year, Edison Pena said more about the power of running from a life and death perspective than any of us can.
Q. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Wittenberg:: We are in the business of helping people live better lives, and it’s incredible what running in the marathon does for people. We see and hear that over and over. That is by far the most gratifying part, especially now that we’re getting kids running and watching them start to turn their grades around and do better in school. I love working with our team and with the city.
Q. You left a partnership with a law firm for this job. Any regrets?
Wittenberg: I look back on that and am really lucky I made the move I did because now I realize what a bold move it was. I wasn’t thinking so much about that at the time. I was interested in getting into sports and in a purpose-driven job and mission-driven job. I’ve never looked back. I love working with our team to deliver and really help spread the word and lead better lives through running.
Q.. It’s an impressive amount of preparation and organization that goes into the event. When do you start planning for next year?
Wittenberg: We’re planning! We’re already accepting people into next year’s marathon. We’ve had several meetings already for 2011 and 2012, and then we go into a full planning strategy the second week in December.
Q. No time off? Full speed ahead into 2011?
Wittenberg: We’ll take Thanksgiving off.