As the CEO and president of New York Road Runners (NYRR), Mary Wittenberg is basically the mayor of the city’s enormous running scene. Not to mention the community she presides over as the race director of The New York City Marathon, which last year included more than 50,000 runners and two million spectators.
And despite the fact that the former lawyer runs about 25 races a year in addition to her regular morning jogs in Central Park, Wittenberg says she’s perpetually amazed by everything New York has to offer runners. “You can do more running here than most any other place in the world,” she says.
Still, since she took over the position in 2005 (she’s been at NYRR since 1998), she’s worked to make the running world—in New York and beyond—even more inclusive and expansive, by introducing youth programs and overseeing the increasing diversification of the running clubs, in age, race, gender, and skill level.
We caught up with the powerful pavement founder for a chat about New York’s unique running attributes, women in running, and more.
1. Was running always your sport of choice? I actually grew up in a very athletic family, and I was horrible at sports. I didn’t have an arm like a boy, like my sister, who was 10 months younger, did. I always aspired to be more athletic. I really loved sports, but what I was good at was gymnastics and cheerleading. Then, my mentor in high school was a rower. I found rowing at West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo and absolutely loved it. Rowing is what I call a hard-work sport. You need to have skill, and there’s a lot of training. I rowed from my senior year in high school until senior year of college and also was a coxswain for the men’s team in college.
2. Then how did you make the switch to running? I was trying to be competitive in rowing and through training, I learned I was decent at distance running. I came to like the running as part of what I did. My senior year in college, in the middle of a happy hour dare, I agreed to do a 4-miler the next day. I won the race and the cross country coach was there, and he said, “Give me two weeks, and I’ll turn you into a runner.” Later, I naively called the Notre Dame Law School men’s running coach. There wasn’t a women’s team, so I said, “Can I run with your team?” He said no, but later I met him, and he used to have this cadre of hang-arounders. He let us run with the men’s cross country team.
3. So women’s teams didn’t even exist then, and you went on to become the first female president of a historically male-dominated sports organization. Did that feel like a huge accomplishment? It is such a different world now. Everyone’s got women’s teams now in cross country, and we have 50 percent of women finish our races. I’m the first woman among the race directors of the major six marathons, but there are others among the smaller races…Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, Pittsburgh. We haven’t seen it as much internationally, but we’re slowly starting to see it. It’s a really exciting time. It only dates me, because it seems crazy today that there wouldn’t be women running on a cross country team or on a rowing team.
4. What do you think makes New York a unique place to be a runner? The big opportunity we have that’s so different from anywhere else is regular races. You can literally run a race almost every weekend. There’s a community that results from that. I think our runners really end up fitter for the halfs and the marathons because they have the support. It’s very inspiring in that way.
5. What’s your current running routine and route like? I really love our races…. but I spend my day-to-day usually on the Central Park Bridle Path. Today, I started at 6:00 a.m., it was an absolutely beautiful morning and 50 minutes later or a little less, you’re already outside, you’re already social, your head is set for the day. I love that. My ideal is 5 to 8 miles a few times a week and a long run on the weekend, and I’m happy. That’s my priority now. I would trade running 5 to 6 miles every day for the rest of my life for running any one marathon.—Lisa Elaine Held
For more information, visit www.nyrr.org