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Mary Wittenberg found herself in a lucky spot.

Looking for a career change from her law practice at Hunton and Williams in New York City, she knew there were few full-time job opportunities available in her true passion -- running.

Opportunity knocked in 1998 for the West Seneca native when she met with Alan Steinfeld, the chief of the New York Road Runners, the world's largest running club and race director for the New York City Marathon. He quickly made Wittenberg his second-in-command.

She spent the next 6 1/2 years as the organization's executive vice president and associate race director for the marathon, handling various details and numerous duties with the patience and persistence of a distance runner.

Wittenberg, 42, didn't think her life would change all that much April 1 when she took over as the third president and chief executive officer of NYRR and as race director of the marathon.

In just a few days, though, she has realized that her new job gives her a much broader opportunity not only to continue to build one of the largest marathons in the world but to spread the word on the benefits of running and physical activity.

"Allen Steinfeld, my predecessor, did a fantastic job delegating," said Wittenberg, a graduate of Mount Mercy and Canisius College. "He leads by example and pretty much let me run with the show. I didn't expect it to change much, but with only a few days under my belt, I can see that there is no better time to be in a job in running.

"Running and walking are the antidotes to so many of today's societal ills, whether it be obesity or diabetes or depression or smoking. Running and walking really help, which makes my new role a lot more external than I had expected. There's a lot to do out there."

New York Road Runners has more than 40,000 members worldwide and Wittenberg has been in charge of event production, the Web site, NY Runner magazine, merchandise, membership and race scoring. On Nov. 6 it will host the 36th New York City Marathon.

Perhaps the biggest change in Wittenberg's nearly seven years with the organization has been the marathon's growing relationship with corporate sponsors.

ING Direct, a financial services company, in 2003 became the official title sponsor of the New York City Marathon, a first for the race. Other major sponsors include companies such as asics, Foot Locker and Continental Airlines.

"We need to be professional and proactive and really work to the highest levels with such partners," Wittenberg said. "It's good for us to continue to enhance that side, which allows us to enhance the community side.

"Our major city marathons in the U.S. have become big businesses that attract so many different kinds of people. It changes people's lives. It can inspire so many runners to get off the couch, maybe for the first time, to pursue that goal of the marathon. Now you have people running to raise money for charity and that makes a difference in the lives of people. The marathon can have such an impact."

While the marathon is the organization's premier event, it's only one of about 60 races that the NYRR conducts each year in addition to clinics, classes and outreach programs. The organization established City Sports for Kids to partner with New York City schools and offers races from one-mile walks to 5K runs to the half-marathon and marathons.

Increasing levels of participation in running (and walking) is the most central of Wittenberg's goals.

"We have three main commitments -- to the sport, to the professional side and to expansion," Wittenberg said. "We want to take the sport beyond New York City and there's a great significance to giving back to the community.

"We want to try and get people moving. All it takes is to just start moving forward. Whether you're running or walking it gets the heart pumping and helps strengthen bones. All the research indicates that if young people started running or walking a little today, they'd be better off physically, mentally, emotionally in the future."

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