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One On 1: Road Runners Head Mary Wittenberg Goes The Distance For NYC Marathon

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Mary Wittenberg took a significant cut in pay when she became head of the New York Road Runners, but the executive in charge of the New York City Marathon has been able to go great distances for the city and competitive running. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Mary Wittenberg is the head of New York Road Runners and is in charge of the New York City Marathon, so I hoped to get some pointers on my running style.

"Full of potential," Wittenberg says. "I think that you have a little [of Ethiopian running champion] Haile Gebrselassie to you.... A little bit of a bounce to your stride, big happy smile."

Yet Wittenberg is much more than a running coach, or an organizer for the city's signature marathon. New york Road Runners takes command of school programs and more than 50 others races to coordinate, like the March half-marathon in Manhattan.

Wittenberg is often there before dawn to greet the runners, then watch them from a truck and congratulate them at the finish line.

"I like to say that we're a purpose-driven organization. We are here to help people through running, help communities through running, help New York City through running and that is a year-round effort," says Wittenberg.

She is no stranger to hearing misconceptions about her work. When she left a promising and lucrative corporate law career to work for New York Road Runners in 1998, not all of her former colleagues understood.

"People thought I was crazy, they really did," says Wittenberg. "And the funny thing is, people don't know New York Road Runners for what it is. So people kept saying, 'You're gonna become a volunteer? Did you win the lottery? What's happened in your life?'"

If there's one office in New York where the workers don't have to explain going out for a run to break up the day, it's the one for NYRR, just off of Central Park. The office has a healthy dose of positive spirit and, not surprisingly, some very fit people.

But Wittenberg says there is also a sober assessment of the club's mission.

"We're spending a lot of time saying we really believe that running helps people not only be physically fitter, but emotionally fitter," she says. "So we're always pushing ourselves to say, 'What does that mean? How do we measure that? How do we prove that?'"

There are races to coordinate all year, but the New York City Marathon is the club's Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup all rolled into one. It brings in millions for the city and for charities and advertises the city around the world.

In 2010, Wittenberg received a gift from the running gods, when she got word that Edison Peña, one of the Chilean miners who had been trapped for two months, wanted to run new york.

"The quotes -- 'Running was my salvation,’ 'I ran to prove I was going to control my destiny,' ‘Running saved my life.' All these things that we say but haven't experienced in a true life-and-death situation, he came here and said to the world," says Wittenberg. "It was unbelievable."

Wittenberg has also experienced some harrowing moments, like the occasional fatality.
Runner Ryan Shay collapsed and died during the 2007 U.S. men's Olympic trials, the day before the New York City Marathon.

"Looking back, I had a year of funk and the organization felt it for a long, long, long time," says Wittenberg. "We had a couple of years when we lost a couple of people and everyone is just -- you can't believe how crushing it is."

Wittenberg grew up in South Buffalo, the oldest of seven children. Her father was a coach, so even though there were not a lot of teams for girls, she played a lot of sports and showed a lot of spirit.

"I don't tell many people this, but I was a cheerleader for early years in high school," she says. "Which in many ways fits my personality in terms of... I love the cheer, I love the game."

She soon had a change of heart.

"It's fun to support, but I like to be in the game, not on the side of the game," says Wittenberg. "And that's when I went from being a cheerleader to rowing, because I knew I wanted to be in the game."

At Canisius College, Wittenberg was at a happy hour with some cross country guys, who bet her that she couldn't run a four-miler the next day. She took the bet.

"So I ended up winning, and that's where the cross country coach came over and said, 'Give me two weeks and I'll make you a runner!' And I said, 'I really don't want to be a runner,'" says Wittenberg. "I was a rower, and I'm going to take a break, and I'm going to be a college senior. And he said, 'No, give us two weeks.' And sure enough, I fell in love with running."

Wittenberg was also in love with the law, attending Notre Dame Law School. In 1987, she graduated, passed the bar, started working for a law firm and ran her first marathon, winning the Marine Corps Marathon in two hours, 44 minutes.

Wittenberg was good enough to run in the 1988 Olympic trials marathon, but knee and back injuries stopped her Olympic career before it really even started.

"As soon as I started, I knew I really couldn't run. So I got to mile two and said, 'Well, that's the end of that,'" says Wittenberg.

Any kind of disappointment gave way to a burgeoning corporate law career. But in 1998, she got off that track and took a significant cut in pay to work at New York Road Runners, then run by Allan Steinfeld.

"It's really hard to pull away from what other people generally want for you, see for you, have helped you have the opportunity to do. That was a tough time for me," she says.

In 2005, Wittenberg was named the group's president and chief executive officer. She serves as a consultant to other cities around the world that want to start marathons.

New York Road Runners is involved in running programs in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Back at home, the New York City Marathon continues to grow as an international event, but there are issues. The fees to runners are increasing and the city's budget is in trouble.

Wittenberg says New York Road Runners is talking to the city about how to ease the expense of the marathon.

"If we could grow the New York City half, or grow events in each of the boroughs -- the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island -- then you can perhaps spread the cost out in a way that can help everybody adjust," she says.

Wittenberg is married and has two young sons. They are baseball players, not runners, and their mother says she doesn’t pressure them to run.

Nevertheless, Wittenberg has devoted herself to spreading the gospel of running. She says there is never any questioning the impact the sport has beyond the miles.

"I can't even run two laps, how am I going to do 10 laps? I can't even do two miles, how am I going to do 26 miles? But by pushing out of their comfort zones, they do it," says Wittenberg. "And then what happens? They realize if the kid does 10 miles, the adult does the marathon, they can do anything. And I think that self-awareness and self-belief helps people a lot of ways in life and then they can go out and accomplish big things that matter."

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