Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thank you, Mary - a true leader in the field

By Mark | Last Sunday, I finished the Japan Run 4-miler at Central Park, and it was a familiar scene toward the end. I was in my fourth mile, running down West Drive past the Shakespeare Garden...and a woman was running by me and all runners in the opposite direction, shouting "Good job!" as she ran.

That was Mary Wittenberg as I will always remember her.

It was my 116th race. The first one was in December of 2006, when I was a quitting smoker wondering how I would do in a Joe Kleinerman 10K around the park. The race director said to us runners over the loudspeakers as she completed her pre-race remarks, "Start easy and finish hard."

That was Mary Wittenberg as I will always remember her.

In around 2009, the New York Road Runners invited me and maybe a dozen other active members to join them on Park Avenue for a think tank luncheon. She wanted to pick our minds and talk about the best way to grow NYRR for the future as social media was taking hold. She listened attentively and wound up enacting many of the ideas that were advanced there.

That was Mary Wittenberg as I will always remember her.

A lot of NYRR members like me are probably shocked, and maybe feeling a little bittersweet right now. She just stepped down from her longtime role as head of NYRR (and director of the world's biggest marathon, TCS NYC) to take on a new position as Global CEO of Virgin Sports.

I wish you well, Mary. You were one of the best leaders in sports, and you were one of us, which is why I choose to post a pic of you running the Fifth Avenue Mile. I remember two years ago at that event, seeing you walk from the finish line to the start line, cheering runners along the way and then jumping into your own corral to run the course. Just an amazing example for people.

Honestly, you're all I know as far as following the leader in running, as I near my ninth runniversary. We take a lot for granted.

NYRR operates about 50 races a year. So many great things happened during her run. My favorite is the 9+1 guarantee for the NYC Marathon. If you run at least 9 scored races and volunteer for one event in the same calendar year, then you are guaranteed entry in the next year's NYCM. It was so simple, but it became the foundation of my running; it all starts with that for me, and it keeps me healthy.

This weekend, Rachel and I ran the Airbnb Brooklyn Half, an event that has been my greatest staple since I joined NYRR. Rachel joined our family membership last year, and is an example of the continuum that NYRR establishes. That timing perhaps makes it fitting for me. We officially say goodbye to Mary there. She's been @nyrrmaryruns, so you can wish her well there and we'll look for a new account, I suppose.

I took this video as Mary started her last official race in that capacity. She's a Mom, so it was fitting that her last official act was on behalf of mothers of NYRR Young Runners, conducted on the boardwalk at Coney Island right after the Brooklyn Half finish. You can watch it here:

We will welcome Michael Capiraso, who is currently NYRR's chief operating officer, as the new president and CEO. And all of us are familiar with Peter Ciaccia (above in the video), who starts us each race and belts out the familiar directions (turn left, turn left, turn left...usually). Peter's current title is chief production officer, and he will assume a newly created position of president of events. In that capacity, he'll become race director of the New York City Marathon, and he'll do a great job.

There are some ideas that never came to fruition in recent years, and it would be cool to see the C-guys implement this one in particular: Loyalty rewards. I just ran my 116th race, and most of those were NYRR events. It would be great to have a benefit from achieving certain levels, and not just the 9+1 reward. At 100 races finished, you should get something. It doesn't have to benefit NYRR, but this one would benefit members and thus help grow the population. Let's do it!

Women everywhere owe a great debut of gratitude to Mary, although really all runners do. Mary, 52, joined NYRR in 1998 and became its first chief operating officer in 2000. In 2005, she became the first woman to lead NYRR as president and CEO and also became the race director of the New York City Marathon. To me, she's the top female executive in sports.

We went through a lot together. Remember 2012? I was all set to run my third NYC Marathon. Along came Superstorm Sandy. It was a horrific time. I went to that NYC Marathon Expo at the Javits Center on a Thursday, as we were "still on" for the marathon that weekend at that point. Then came the loud voices from every side, some people even threatening to spit on us if the race went on. They didn't want police resources used for a mere race under the circumstance. The race had to be canceled, and it was. Mary took a lot on the chin, and most of it unnecessarily...what leaders face. Here's what wound up happening. She and 1,000 of us wore our orange NYC Marathon tech shirts, boarded the Staten Island Ferry anyway, and ran with our backpacks stuffed with rescue supplies for affected residents there. Mary was right there with us. We made a difference.

Who else cares enough about their constituency that she runs in the opposite direction of races and shouts encouragement? Or to lead a canceled event into a public good after criticism? Or to make the World Majors a happening? She made me a better runner and so much more.

That's the Mary Wittenberg I will always remember, and I look forward to her next challenge.

What's your favorite memory of Mary with NYRR?

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