Former Chief Executive of the TCS New York City Marathon Mary Wittenberg tells Brunswick’s Kevin Helliker about hard work, fitness and knowing when to pause
When Mary Wittenberg runs down the streets of New York, strangers yell hello. When she walks, people stop to tell her that she changed their lives. Her jogging partner, Raul Damas, says, “Running in New York with Mary is like touring a city with its mayor.”
Her fame derives from a position that she left two years ago. For 10 years ending in 2015, Wittenberg served as Chief Executive of the New York Road Runners, a nonprofit that organizes dozens of running events a year. The most famous of them – the TCS New York City Marathon – shuts down 26.2 miles of city street on the first Sunday of every November so that the world’s largest field of marathoners can run past more than two million cheering spectators. As the director of that race, Wittenberg every October became the most visible sports executive in New York, overshadowing her counterparts at the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets and Knicks. In press conference after press conference each October, Wittenberg offered tutorials on how to inform, humor and charm the media, all with a deep sense of authority. “Wittenberg Runs the City,” a New York Daily News headline once blared.
At NYRR, Wittenberg helped persuade multitudes of ordinary people to slap on sneakers and hit the pavement. Her running partner, Damas, personifies the Wittenberg effect. He wasn’t a serious runner until he joined the board of NYRR, and fell under her influence. Now he finishes marathons fast enough to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon. “Mary makes those around her better, and she also makes you want to be better,” says Damas, a Brunswick Partner.
Now Wittenberg aspires to become a fitness Pied Piper for the world. Two years ago, Richard Branson, a founder of London-based Virgin Group, hired Wittenberg away from NYRR to run a new subsidiary called Virgin Sport. The move created intrigue in the fast-growing endurance-sports industry: what exactly would Virgin Sport do? Would it follow the lead of fast-growing industry giants like World Triathlon, owner of the Ironman brand, by acquiring existing races?
Fitting for an entrepreneur of Branson’s standing, the answer is a new concept called the sports festival. Anchored by a half-marathon run, the weekend-long event also features shorter runs, non-stop fitness classes, music, food and physical-activity challenges for children. Some events are free, many not. Virgin Sport expects as many as 20,000 participants per festival.
Wittenberg says sports festivals will place greater emphasis on camaraderie than competition. “Sport doesn’t have to be intimidating, and when it’s not intimidating it connects us with others,” she says.
Thirty years after Wittenberg won the Marine Corps Marathon, she looks fit enough to vie for that title again. Mornings, she runs nearly seven miles to Virgin’s New York office in Greenwich Village. At lunch, she often leads her staff to the gym for an hour-long cycling or boot-camp class. Evenings, if her two teenaged boys can spare her for an hour, she may slip away to a yoga class around the corner from her family’s home.
“Being fit makes a huge difference in your endurance and resilience in the workplace,” says Wittenberg. As Virgin Sport’s top executive, she goes by the title Chief Exercise Officer.
In an interview at her offices, wearing jeans and a Virgin Sport T-shirt, Wittenberg offers a few lessons from her career as an endurance athlete and executive. In particular, she offers a communications lesson that she learned the hard way – when a major hurricane struck New York less than a week before the 2012 marathon.