Danielle Adone, Editor in Chief of SFC Today, interviewed Mary Wittenberg, CEO of New York Road Runners, to discuss “The Empowerment of Women Through Marathon Running.” Adone is writing her senior honors thesis on this topic.

Q : In what ways do you think marathon running has empowered you?

A: One of the things I love most about marathon running is it helps you realize how strong you are physically and mentally. I was just out of college when I ran my first marathon. I had never run beyond 18 miles at the time and I truly didn’t know if I could run 26.2. At the time I didn’t think of marathon running as life changing. Quickly, I learned that once you go beyond what becomes your comfort zone in training, the physical lessons translate to other areas of your life and push to achieve your goals beyond what you think possible.

Q: What was the hardest part of running a marathon? During the race? Training for the race? Hitting the wall?

A: I just remember thinking can I do this? I ran a lot of hard runs – but at the time I had no experience whatsoever. I have run four marathons in my life; the first two I never hit a wall, leading me to win the Marine Corp Marathon. My third marathon I ran Pittsburg in May in the heat, which was my toughest marathon to date, yet the most empowering one. It is the race that really helps me with my job today — if I would have stopped at two marathons I would have a very false sense of what marathon running is all about. At some point in a marathon you experience the ‘Uh oh I am not going to run the time I want to run — then it turns into uh oh I may not finish this – and you need to just get across the finish line.’ My last marathon was pure fun helping my friends try and qualify for Boston. My perspective of marathon running has shifted over time. It was always about personal best times and what place I could come in. Today running is more about the pleasures of staying healthy and fit and the opportunity to run outside everyday.

Q: Does running a marathon require more physical or mental strength?

A: Absolutely mental. The mental side is significant in training for a marathon ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ I truly believe growth emerges from the training.

Q: How has running positively influenced your life today?

A: Distance running feeds a part of my psyche that is really important to me. There’s something in the movement of running and being outside. You can go to the gym and that’s great but for me there’s something about the movement of running that gives the experience. I love a good hour run – its almost like running with every step becomes more enjoyable to me – it’s a great time to be one with nature.

Q: Do you think the fact that women can now run marathons has an influence on women in the corporate world? Lots of women celebrities and CEOs of major companies have now endured marathons — can this be a game changer?

A: Definitely — 20 -30 years ago women were not seen as strong beings and didn’t get credit for the total self. Marathon running showed that women could do this and if a woman can run a marathon she pretty much could do anything.

Q: NYRR hosted the first ever women’s only road race, the NY Mini 10K in 1972. As the CEO of the NYRR and a female runner, what is your take on women’s only racing?

A: Back in the day the NY Mini was a game changer. The mini gave a platform and an opportunity to women and it gave women a chance to come together and race competitively. I think that women’s only racing can be tracked globally and has unlocked the power of women in any given society. Running has been part of women’s progress in the USA for almost 30 years. Women-only races today are just fun — just like other theme races are fun like the Disney series and the running diva series.

Q: Regarding your role of CEO of NYRR – your role is more than just that – people assume that you can speak on many more issues as a woman, leader, health and running advocate and how do these roles connect you as a businesswoman and a runner?

A: They connect in almost every way. I am so lucky because I am passionate about my job I understand in a personal way the benefits of running. I am able to experience how our runners feel. When I run I often come up with ideas about running and how running can be part of a whole lifestyle and new ways in which we can advocate such through our programs and races at NYRR.

Q: The six women who had the courage to run the NYC marathon in 1972 (often referred to as the Sole Sisters of ’72) opened up the NYC marathon to women who have now grown to make up a high percentage of runners for the NYC marathon. Did you ever think these women would have this much of an impact on women’s marathon running?

A: What is really phenomenal is that Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrcke and Nina Kuscsik are still very much part of NYC running today. These women fueled the running marathon movement. In 2011, women made up 35% of the NYC marathon, which would be even higher if the NYC marathon didn’t have such a high demand for international runners. However, women are still scratching the surface – it was inevitable that once you opened up running to women they were going to take it and run with it, literally. Once the six women started the revolution there was an element of destiny to it.

Q: What was the first time you laced up and did you have an automatic love for the sport of running?

A: I ran, as a rower when I was a senior in high school, and senior year in college was the first time I ever ran a race. On a dare I agreed to run a 4– miler and won it. It was just a sport for me then – before I ever ran in a race I knew I was built to run. I believe everybody can run but not everyone is naturally suited for it and a ton of runners have to work really hard at running which I have learned more and more over the years.

Q: Who are the women runners that inspired you most?

A: Nina Kuscsik, Kathrine Switzer, Paula Radcliffe, Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz. Today these women inspire me not only as runners but more for their passion for promoting and always taking their love of running and fitness next great challenge.

After the interview, Wittenberg said, “Women have so many things going on – you are a perfect example of this movement because 30 years ago a woman wouldn’t even have a clue to write their thesis on marathon running.”

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