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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Mary Wittenberg is setting the pace

By Whitney Holtzman

Mary Wittenberg, the first female president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, talks about overseeing the New York City Marathon as part of our Power Player series spotlighting women in sports business. This year's marathon, with 47,000 runners and 10,000 volunteers, will be the largest to date.

espnW: The ING New York City Marathon is the crown-jewel race for the New York Road Runners. What are some of the challenges of planning such an elite marathon?

Mary Wittenberg: Our stadium is 26.2 miles long. It doesn't have walls. It's the ultimate live sporting event. You're out in the public and on the streets. We have to be razor sharp in terms of all of our preparation -- synchronizing everything from street closures to timing on fluid stations to how traffic will flow. It's a major undertaking, a bit like an orchestra, where everything has to play at the right time.

espnW: Who are the top contenders in the women's race this year? What is your prediction on which woman will win it all?

MW: I definitely don't make predictions. We'll see what happens, but we've got a really exciting field. Mary Keitany from Kenya -- she just won the London Marathon. She looks to be the favorite at this point. I won't be surprised if this is the year that the course records fall.

We have two or three really strong Russian athletes, including Inga Abitova, whom we just added. Kim Smith from New Zealand is going to be a fan favorite, and an athlete that people are going to cheer for because people watched her in Boston, where she led to mile 18 and then, catastrophically, she had to pull out with a calf problem. In the marathon, people don't usually just take off and try to win it by outrunning everyone else from the front, and she did that. It was close. From the moment she finished Boston, her head was on a gold medal in New York, so she's another one to really watch. And, we've got some really fun, young athletes running, including Lauren Fleshman, who is actually a 5K runner from the United States.

espnW: When you're negotiating appearance fees for male athletes with male agents, does it ever strike you as significant that you're a woman running a major men's and women's sporting event?

MW: No. I don't think a lot about gender at all when thinking about negotiating appearance fees or putting together the strategy for our pro field. What I do think about is always ensuring that we have a really strong women's field. We really highlight the women in New York. Our sport globally does pretty well with keeping men and women even, but that hasn't always been the case, so in New York, where I think about it most is in the strategy around the field -- ensuring a super-strong field and equal prize money. One year we even paid the women more, just to make the point of how important the women are. As you may or may not know, women start the race a half hour before the men, and the entire spotlight is on them.

espnW: I bet that as a result of all your work, you get to see a lot of very happy people.

MW: It's unbelievable. Every day, multiple times a day, people are thanking us. For us, it's about tapping into achievement and people's desire to achieve. We're lucky because people feel like we're helping them achieve their dreams. There is no better place than being at our finish lines. It's very emotional and powerful. It's what drives us every day.

espnW: Tell us about the NYRR's involvement with getting kids into running.

MW: You can't believe what a difference it makes at any age, but especially with kids. We are fiercely committed to helping kids through running. We've got about 100,000 kids in our youth running programs. With kids, it's all about self-esteem and introducing this concept of achievement and endeavoring to succeed.

I think especially for girls, it's incredible. You learn that you want a strong body, and a strong body is a healthy body. At the high school level, you have cross-country teams. When you're on a team, you really bond with other girls. Girls that play sports get a chance to develop an identity of their own. Guys come and go, but girls have this net of friends and those friends aren't going away.

espnW: What is your relationship like with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other top New York City officials?

MW: We have a great relationship with Mayor Bloomberg. He has been a huge proponent of New York Road Runners and all that we do, from our public school initiatives to our community service for adults throughout the boroughs to, of course, the marathon and our big events, so that's really good. Throughout the city, there's a big appreciation for the economic impact of the marathon, and an increasing appreciation for the charity dollars we're raising. We raised $30 million last year.

espnW: Just from the marathon?

MW: Yes, in one day, and $20 million stayed here in New York City.

espnW: In 2006, you joined with the heads of the Boston, London, Berlin and Chicago marathons to form the World Marathon Majors, a championship-style series that offers points to the top five finishers in each race. The IAAF world championship marathon (in odd-numbered years) and the Olympic marathon also count toward earning points. At the end of the each two-year series circuit, the man and woman with the most points each receive $500,000. Where did this idea come from, and what has it done for the sport since its implementation?

MW: The five of us believed there was an opportunity to rise above the individual races to help connect the dots for the public that big-city marathoning is a global sport. We saw that coming together in an alliance would help spread that story and get people excited. The alliance has had many benefits. From a marketing and media perspective, it's been a really good thing. If you ask people to name the five major marathons, they say our five, and I don't know that people knew that years ago. I don't know that New Yorkers were paying very much attention to the fact there was a big race in London or Berlin. There's much greater awareness today, but it's a stepping-stone. I think there's a lot more we can do. We're still in Phase 1.

espnW: When dealing with your World Marathon Majors counterparts, are there other women in top positions?

MW: Of the five chief executives, I'm the only woman. I am not a wallflower or shy, so I think there's always been a respect that's been there. I feel very comfortable speaking my mind and being independent and trying to do what I think is right for the alliance. It's not something I think a lot about. Instead, we come from different perspectives based on where we all come from, which is far more noticeable to me than gender. It's a different day and age now. Would it have been different 20 years ago? Definitely.

espnW: You participated in 18 NYRR races in 2006, and 20 races in 2007. What is your workout regimen like today?

MW: Pretty close to the same. I love to run. Today, I do much more cross-training. I picked up swimming in January, which I love. It's a big challenge. I'm really bad at it, and it requires a mental focus that's energizing for me. I swim once a week, I Spin twice a week, I am starting to lift again and then I run four to five times a week. I love running and working out.

espnW: You are the oldest of seven children. What was it like growing up in such a busy household?

MW: I absolutely loved growing up with a lot of brothers and sisters. It's obviously all I knew, but I loved the energy. We were really lucky to grow up with humble parents for whom family was everything. We grew up with the mindset that you're not here on this earth to be about yourself. You're here on this earth to make a difference. Being one of seven is so great because it's never about you, and I carry that with me every day.

espnW: When you were an undergraduate at Canisius College, you were a coxswain for the men's crew team. During your tenure at Notre Dame Law School, you trained with the men's cross-country team. Were the men accepting of having a woman joining in on their workouts?

MW: Yeah, I was really lucky. Talk about learning a lot. Part of it was growing up being one of seven, you're already OK being one of the boys. Being the coxswain is really interesting because you are directing the boat. In some ways, you're the kid sister, and in other ways, you're the team leader. That was a great experience. We have a bond that will forever be strong.

At Notre Dame, it was very funny. I called up the cross-country coach and asked if I could run with the team. The coach said, well no, but come meet me and we'll run during the lunch hour. After that, he said come on out. In the end, I could hang with the guys, and that's what they respected. They respected the effort. I think it has a lot to do with how I am today -- I'm not intimidated because someone is a guy.

espnW: You won the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon, finishing in 2 hours, 44 minutes. What does it feel like to win a marathon?

MW: It was a lot of fun. I love the Marine Corps Marathon. It's a people's race. It's not like winning New York or Boston -- it's not full of professional athletes.

espnW: Your victory secured you a place in the 1988 Olympic trials, where you could run only two miles because of a knee injury, which essentially ended your marathon career. What advice do you have for athletes on how to deal with disappointment?

MW: Life is not a straight-up trajectory. There are going to be peaks and valleys. I remain utterly convinced today that climbing out of a valley gives you great strength and opportunity you wouldn't have had if life had continued on a straight path up. You don't always get what you want in life. You just don't. Hard work doesn't always translate a hundred percent to outcome. You have to know that in life. The journey is what matters.

espnW: You are now a mom of two young sons, Alex and Cary. How do you manage to "pace" yourself as a working mom?

MW: I'm really lucky. I love my home life, and I love my work so I feel fortunate every day to have both. That mentality and perspective has a whole lot to do with the ability to balance it all. I'm really lucky to have great teams. Our team at NYRR is very strong. We have a really great team and very capable people. Then at home, my husband, Derek, is a really great guy. We're a team. He is an equal partner and more. We're the kind of family where the lines blur a lot between work and home in a way that is really positive for everybody, whether it's dashing home to help the boys with their homework or whether it's a weekend where they're coming out to a race. When their buddies are running the Fifth Avenue Mile, they think I have the coolest job in the world.