The New York Road Runners announced today (12 May 2015) that its long serving President and CEO Mary Wittenberg will step down next week to take on the job of Global CEO at Virgin Sport, a new enterprise created by British tycoon Richard Branson that will focus on participatory fitness events and programs, particularly running and cycling. NYRR board chairman George Hirsch further announced that two of Ms. Wittenberg’s top assistants, Michael Capiraso and Peter Ciaccia, would replace her, dividing her duties into separate business and sport positions.
The announcement came as a surprise to many, as Wittenberg had become the face of running in New York City during her 10-year tenure as CEO and race director of the New York City Marathon. In fact, some industry insiders jokingly referred to the 50,000 person November race as the New York City Mary-thon, so prominent and vibrant was Ms. Wittenberg throughout race week.
In Mary Virgin has hired one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, a Buffalo-native who first made a name winning the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. After graduating from Notre Dame law school Wittenberg spent several years with a firm specializing in international trade deals for U.S. banks. Then in 1998 she joined NYRR as she sought to combine avocation with vocation. Two years later she became NYRR’s first Chief Operating Officer before taking over from Allan Steinfeld as President and CEO in 2005.
With a supportive board, enterprising staff, and the NYRR portfolio in hand, Wittenberg quickly began to build on the legacy established by Fred Lebow and Allan Steinfeld. During her tenure the organization and its many events (and charities) flourished – though there were rumblings from some local club members who bridled at increased race entry fees and Mary’s focus on building a more national and international profile for the club. Yet the NYRR’s crown jewel, the New York City Marathon, grew by over 60% in Wittenberg’s time, making it the largest marathon in the world. In all over 400,000 people participate annually in NYRR activities, including tens of thousands of children via the club’s robust programs for kids.
Wittenberg was also a leader in the creation and development of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the million dollar series formed in 2006 by six of the world’s preeminent international marathons. Only the fumbled cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — after most of the runners had already flown into town — shows up as a glitch. And that was mostly on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In early 2007 Mary was scheduled to give the keynote address at the annual Running USA conference. During that time she and I exchanged a number of messages about the state of the sport and the direction it was taking. As we wish her well on her move to her new post with Virgin Sport, I thought we might gain from some hard won understanding of the sport she has helped lead through the first decade and a half of the 21st century.