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Budd Bailey’s running column: Wittenberg hopeful as marathon nears

Mary Wittenberg might be the Weather Channel’s most frequent viewer these days.

The President and Chief Executive Officer of New York Road Runners does not want a re-run of Hurricane Sandy this year, which caused death and destruction in the New York metropolitan area last year. It also canceled the New York Marathon; the Western New York native serves as race director for the marathon.

“I was quite mindful that a year ago Thursday, when all seemed well, that the forecasters were saying there was a storm that could turn into a Nor’easter,” Wittenberg said.

Sandy slammed into New York a few days later, and eventually the decision was made to scrub the race. Take that situation, and add to it the bombing of the finish line area of the Boston Marathon last April, and it added up to a stressful year for those in the marathon business.

“It’s definitely been a year unlike any other. I’ve never seen one like this year,” Wittenberg said. “It’s been a year when we’ve been focused on runners and community. Nothing can cut away from just how special these events are — the coming together of neighbors and mutual inspiration. … It really matters.”

Through it all, though, Wittenberg has tried to make sure than the organization puts the phrase “tough times” in perspective.

“For me, tough is the people who lost homes. Tough is people who lost family members. For what we go through, tough has no meaning,” she said. “It’s been a year that’s taken, if it’s even possible, our commitment and desire to have our team deliver the most amazing day possible to the city and to the nation to a whole new level.”

Marathons are large and unwieldly creatures under normal circumstances. Just when you think you have a handle on them, something new slithers out of your grasp. Sandy presented a novel set of problems for everyone associated with the race. Wittenberg says the storm offered an unlikely opportunity to improve the event.

“No question that over time, we’ll look back on this and know that it has made us better. From a year ago through Boston, I think we’re stronger for it,” she said. “The lessons list is pretty long. … Our job is figuring things out. Whether it’s youth programs or the marathon, we figure out ways to get this done. We have such a belief that the event is supporting New York. … There were a lot of lessons on communications in such a challenging time. When we were trying to work through the cancellation and put our efforts toward storm relief, we wanted to do what was best for all groups — runners, rights holders, the city. You have to keep communicating in that situation. We learned a lot.”

New York Road Runners didn’t waste any time putting some of those lessons to good use, either. Several of its races in the past year have been devoted to the cause of relief for Sandy’s victims.

“We’re lucky in that we have an event every weekend,” Wittenberg said. “At the New York City Half in March, we were there to support lower Manhattan, which was under water. We had a race in association with baseball’s All-Star Game. We had the Staten Island Half this month.”

This year’s marathon, which will take place a week from today, obviously will have a few new wrinkles that reflect the past year’s event. Security, which went to another level after 9/11, was examined after the Boston explosions. It has been upgraded for this year’s race.

One positive step this year is that the race will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN2. It’s been two decades since it was nationally broadcast in this manner.

“It’s a big deal,” Wittenberg said about the broadcast. “We want it to be the day that inspires everyone, everywhere. ABC will also do a highlights show later in the day. We’ll have a mobile app so that you can track the pros if you can’t be home, or if you are watching the broadcast, you can follow your friends.”

New York is part of the World Marathon Majors series, which means runners will be competing for a share of $1 million in prize money. That will guarantee a good field, although injuries will prevent Americans Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher from participating.

However, the elite athletes always share the spotlight with the rest of the field that includes about 48,000 runners. When the last one crosses the finish line, Wittenberg can start thinking about more personal moments, such as family vacations around the holidays.

“We’re spending Thanksgiving in Boston, so maybe we’ll be skiing at Kissing Bridge at Christmas,” she said.

Race calendar

• Making Tracks for Families, 5K, 2909 South Park Ave. in Lackawanna, 10 a.m. today, 634-1058.

• Niagara Falls International Marathon, Buffalo to Niagara Falls, Ont., 10 a.m. today, (905) 356-9460.

• Alzheimer’s Halloween 5K Fun Run, 540 Parkhurst Blvd. in Tonawanda, 2 p.m. today, 861-5477.

• BOO Bash & Dash 5K, Niagara Square in Buffalo, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 830-6703.

• Buffalorunners 10K, Chestnut Ridge Park Casino in Orchard Park, 9 a.m. Saturday, 649-1530.

• Circuit Stompers 5K Run, 2909 Transit Road in Newfane, 10 a.m. Saturday, 778-7674.

• Bob Ivory Run, 5K, 845 Kenmore Ave. in Town of Tonawanda, 9 a.m. on Nov. 3, 270-4115.