NYC Marathon: NYRR Prez on the Ropes Over Handling of Hurricane

Categories: Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has claimed another victim, struggling to hold on: the New York Road Runners, the organization that puts on the New York City Marathon, and its president and chief executive officer Mary Wittenberg.

Earlier this month, the Road Runners called off the marathon at the request of the mayor, amid widespread criticism that the city simply didn't have the resources to spare after the disaster. But ending one conflict has spurred many others.

There are the furious athletes, some of whom say they will cancel their membership in the organization, which holds numerous races for its members every year, or boycott its races in the future. They're mad about lingering unanswered questions -- whether their $216 entry fee will be refunded, for example -- and the fact that it took so long to call off the race.

One formerly dedicated NYRR member even started a Facebook group bluntly named "Mary Wittenberg Should Resign."

"Does it really take a CEO or a genius to decide to cancel right on the spot a 5 Boroughs marathon in NYC?" said the group's organizer. "Look at this monster. Sandy was a massive storm coming straight to NYC at full speed. Mary was daydreaming on the job. She fell asleep at the wheel, and we all crashed with her."

Runner's World and are also hosting forums to discuss whether Wittenberg should hand over her reins.

Two members of the Road Runners' board of directors spoke to the Voice about their CEO.

"I don't have any comments except that I have total confidence in Mary Wittenberg," says Martin Oppenheimer. "This is a difficult time . . . and I think everything will work out fine."

Adds Eric Seiff: "Mary is an extraordinary talent and able, committed, dedicated, all of the plus adjectives that you can think of. The board fully appreciates having her as the CEO."

Those comments aside, there has been little communication from inside the organization, adding to the frustration of runners who simply want their questions answered. The phone at the NYRR headquarters on East 89th Street rang all day unanswered yesterday, and e-mails to the senior staff went unreturned.

The Road Runners did post a message on their Facebook page Wednesday: "Please know that our priority is to address your concerns. We ask that you give us a little time to work out the details and make thoughtful decisions. We are very grateful for your continued patience."

That message drew hundreds of comments in response.

"I can only imagine the logistical mess. . . . There was not going to be a good outcome no matter what the decision was going to be, so I for onecompletely understand and support my club," wrote Effie Baram.

"I really don't understand why NYRR has to take weeks to figure this all out!" posted Jaime Aguilar. "As an executive, I know that if I was the CEO of this organization I would have been sitting in a boardroom with all the top executives brainstorming and would have come up with solutions to this mess last week."

And the organization might have greater concerns than public relations. In a recent article, The New York Times reported that the marathon generated $23.3 million of the NYRR's $41.2 million net worth last year. That means that with the cancellation of this year's event, the organization's financial stability is at stake, a reality that could lead to layoffs, reduced community-service programs, and scaled-down races in the future.

For now, it's all speculation.

"Obviously you take a huge hit when you cancel a marathon which is the principle source of income and so much of that money that comes in goes right out to charity so there's disappointment all around," says Seiff. "But this is a very well run organization, and there shouldn't be any credibility given to the idea that we're not fully able to deal with this spotty blow and move on."

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A week before the storm I had close to a dozen events in my calendar re-scheduled. They had plenty of time to do so with the Marathon, and they waited until the last minute to recognize it was a bad idea.


Fact 1: they  had more than 5 days' notice about the potential impact of this storm;  each day the warnings became more dire. There is no excuse for the NYRR and sponsors to have not made (AND COMMUNICATED) a fallback plan in the even the race could not go forward. That was their duty and they failed. 

Fact 2: for all of the "communications problems" the NYRR seems to be having since the race got cancelled, it's interesting to note that Mary W was able to tweet  a lovely message :"All's quiet as the city rebounds and recovery begins" with a glamorous Times Square image at 4AM the night this storm was ravaging lower Manhattan and the boros. Check media reports around that time. The general tone would have to be "catastrophic". 

Fact 3: In line with #2, she defrauded thousands of runners into continuing their treks to NYC under false pretenses. She has 11,000 twitter followers who would have assumed from that tweet (as any reasonable person would) that everything really *was* ok for the race. It is obvious her motive was to get the runners HERE, so that surely the race would have to go on. "Too big to fail" isn't just for banks anymore

Fact 4: Every single entrant should be refunded their entry fee, and if the club isn't forthcoming, I think a class action suit would be in order - facts 1, 2, and 3 above supporting. 


Mary should have been thinking about the image of the NYRR as a whole and not just making the marathon happen.

She should have given consideration to the NYRR members and other New Yorkers that were impacted by the storm, and thought about how they would be negatively impacted by thousands of people traveling to town for a race that was not going to happen. She should have understood the media image of tens of thousands of runners moving through blacked out areas, closing streets that could have been used by relief efforts, even if the Mayor was not. That's her job. She failed.

The race should have been cancelled much earlier. The idea that the NYRR keeps putting out there, that somehow the Post had whipped New Yorkers into a frenzy and that we were going to be attacked by hordes of angry thugs is just not in touch with reality.

Mismanagement Mary should have acted with the larger picture in mind, she did not. She should have been a leader in a time of crisis, she was not. She should do what's right and step down (since the dissenting members of the Board have been pushed out since she took over, there's no chance of her being fired by the Board, our only hope is appealing to her sense of what is right for the long term health of the organization as a whole.

The NYRR's lack of ability to communicate, and get ahead of this story and come out looking good is her fault. For that, and her other mismanagement moments in the past year, she should step down for the good of the organization.


These are the stupidest comments.  Really?  A person commenting says if he were a CEO he'd be brainstorming right now?  Guess what?  That's exactly what Marry Wittenberg and NYRR are doing.Yes, NYRR are to blame for poor communication, but we don't know who was pressing who to go ahead with the race.  Was it the Mayor, or was it Mary W?  It's a lose/lose situation for all, but NYRR likely have not caused it;  the Mayor's office did.

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