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Wittenberg’s career takes unexpected turn

The news last month that Western New York native Mary Wittenberg was leaving her job as the head of New York Road Runners (NYRR) was a surprise to many in the local and national running community.

It was a surprise to Wittenberg, too.

“I was definitely not looking for a new job,” she said. “I had what I thought was a dream job with New York Road Runners.”

Wittenberg had been with NYRR since 1998, moving up to president and chief executive in 2005. Earlier this year she was approached about the position as the head of Virgin Sport, the newest and latest addition to Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

“It made me think a lot,” said Wittenberg, a Canisius College graduate. “I came to the conclusion that all my passion for my work at New York Road Runners, and all the good work we did, would absolutely go on. We have a really great team there. It will continue on, and I can do something new.

“It’s a new challenge. Can I take on the road the community approach that New York Road Runners has, and translate it to running and biking, and build it?”

The new company is essentially starting from scratch, but does have plenty of financial muscle behind it.

“I really have this entrepreneurial streak, and that’s what attracted me to New York Road Runners in the first place,” Wittenberg said. “Since making this decision, well, I’m always energized but now I’m super-energized. … I’ve had many opportunities in running and in sports, and this really spoke to me.”

After accepting the new position, Wittenberg realized that she’d be busy – but it would be a different type of busy.

“I said to my boys, ‘I’ll be traveling more during the week, but I’ll be home more during weekends,” she said. “I’ve been gone every weekend for the last 17 years. I’ve spent a half day or full day every weekend at events. It will be nice to spend a Sunday dinner with them. I’ll strike a good balance.”

When Wittenberg, 52, arrived at her new office last month, it didn’t take long for her to be impressed by the surrounding atmosphere.

“What’s very interesting is how real this is to the whole company and to Richard, the idea of making a positive difference,” she said. “On day one, I was concerned with purpose of mission. Virgin begins from the global point of view, and the first conversation was all about purpose. How are we going to make a difference? It’s an extraordinary situation.”

Few particulars about how Virgin Sport might operate in the future are forthcoming at this point. A broad goal has been set; the rest is in the details.

“What we’re trying to build is a lifestyle company that helps people get moving every day of their lives,” Wittenberg said. “The backbone is events. The Buffalo Marathon gets people moving for the race, but people have to train and get ready for it. It becomes part of their lives. We want to move from an event being a bucket-list item to moving every day.

“So we’re looking at running events, biking events. … We’re looking at what else is out there, including technology and other programs. We’ll mix acquiring and building.”

The company’s efforts probably will start in the United Kingdom, and then expand to the United States and South Africa.

Wittenberg’s memory book on her time with NYRR is now closed, and that might be the toughest part of walking away.

“The race after 9/11 was quite the year of pulling people together,” she said. “There’s the year the Chilean miner came to run after being in the mine. We invited him to come see the race, and my jaw fell when he said he wanted to run the race. … During Superstorm Sandy, we were about helping the community and helping runners, and we brought it all together. We couldn’t help by running then, but we took the resources we had and got them to the people who needed it. We turned the day into working in the city.

“In the end, it’s all great memories, all fulfilling memories, even the times that were challenging. The great memories are so many, like the faces of the people who worked extra hard to hit finish lines. The greater the challenge, the more inspiring those people were.”

Race calendar

• Tim Oehmler 5K for Kidneys, Delaware Park, Buffalo, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, 512-7918.

• FG III Memorial, 5K, Lake Erie Beach Vol. Fire Dept., Angola, 9 a.m. Sunday, 997-7888.

• Dash for Devin, 5K, 250 Northwood Ave., West Seneca, 9 a.m. Sunday, 603-1200.

•Run in the Mist, 5K, 3rd St. at Old Falls St., Niagara Falls, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 282-7181.

• West Seneca Community 5K, 1250 Union Road, West Seneca, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 863-5059.

• J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge, 3.5 miles, Delaware Park, Buffalo, 6:45 p.m. Thursday, 410-4090.

• Black & Gold Run, 5K, 39 O’Hara Road in Tonawanda, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 695-2600 x310.

• 50 Yard Finish, 5K & 10K, Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, 9 a.m. Saturday, 830-6703.

• Bemus Point 10K, Long Point State Park, 9 a.m. June 28, 488-0788.

• Diamond Dash 5K Run, Outwater Memorial Park, Lockport, 10 a.m. June 28, 870-6553.