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Distinguished Buffalonian Weekly

Entertainment, politics, sports, literature, and more.  Our city has
and will continue to produce people who have made significant
contributions to these forums, which is why we’ve decided to highlight
these individuals and celebrate their lives every week.

This week:  Mary Robertson Wittenberg

One of my best friends is a “poster guy.”  His room is plastered with a high volume of inspirational quotes and pictures of great people, probably in an effort to motivate himself.  I’d say it’s working; he’s a great guy.  But the truth is, none of his favorite quotes ever seemed to have much impact on me–except for one.  The quote is;

“The race does not always go to the swift, but to those who keep on running.”

Nearly all of us can see the layered meaning of the quote.  The “race” is an allegory for life and success, and “those who keep on running” are the people whose eyes are trained on the finish line, who don’t quit when things get ugly.

Mary Robertson was born in Buffalo on July 17, 1962.  She was the oldest of seven Irish-Catholic children, all of whom participated in some capacity on sports teams coached by their father–baseball, basketball, and softball.  Despite excelling in these sports, Mary instead spent her high school years participating in cheerleading.  She even got involved at the West Side Rowing Club, and participated on a championship team.

After high school, Mary attended Canisius College, where she acted as a coxswain for the Men’s championship crew team.  Interestingly, the term “coxswain” can be broken down into both “cox,” which means “leader,” and “swain,” which has a masculine connotation.  The position requires the respect and trust of the crew, which she no doubt commanded.  She also trained with the team in morning runs, and had no trouble keeping up with the team.  It only added to the respect she received as the leader.

The only real problem with crew was the time and attention it required.  So, in preparation for her senior year of college, Mary Robertson ended her participation in organized sports, excited about the opportunity to relax and party.  We’ve all been to a party wherein someone inevitably challenges you to some sort of bizarre dare–it makes perfect sense at the time.  The same is true for Mary.  One thing led to another, and somehow, someone challenged her to run a race one morning.  She obliged.  More importantly, she won.  The Canisius Men’s track coach took notice of her victory, and asked her to train with the guys.  Again, she obliged, a decision that ended her planned “relaxing senior year,” and sparked what would become an ongoing love affair with running that continues to this day.

The challenging training schedule only improved her ambition and notable skill, and helped her to win the Diet Pepsi 10k in Buffalo, qualifying her for the New York City marathon. 

Despite her skill as a runner, Mary also excelled in academics, and attended law school at the University of Notre Dame, where she again trained with the Men’s Cross Country team. This inspired her to participate in the 1985 Chicago Marathon, running an incredible 2:46.  Qualifying for the 1988 US Olympic Team would require a time of under 2:50 at the 1987 trials.  The thought of being an Olympian inspired Mary to train, and train hard. 

But again, Notre Dame Law School is no cakewalk.  Incredibly, she managed to train daily and study hard, resulting in improved running and a passing score on the bar exam.  It also meant a win at the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon, with a time of 2:44.  The Olympic dream was still alive.   

As we’ve all learned one way or the other, things rarely go the way we want.  Sadly, Mary sustained a painful knee injury, and a mere 11 weeks before the run, underwent surgery.  The trials would be disastrous.  After only two miles, a physically and emotionally anguished Mary Robertson had to stop. 

Despite the bitter disappointment at the Olympic Trials, Mary, always working, continued her rise at the law office of Hunton and Williams in Richmond, Virginia.  Soon, management saw fit to send her to New York City, where time commitments changed, and running wasn’t always an option.  Undeterred, she managed to find her way onto several running teams, where she met her husband, Derek.

It soon became apparent to Mary that her love for running and desire to have a family would necessitate a change. 

In 1998, Mary (now Wittenberg) met with New York Road Runners Club president Allan Steinfeld.  The non-profit NYRR needed help, badly.  Impressed by her ambition and energy, Steinfeld hired Mary as Executive VP, the highest a woman had ever risen in the company. 

In June of 2000, Mary gave birth to son Alex, further changing her priorities.  Her second son, Cary added to her family. 

Mary Wittenberg soon achieved another milestone in her life: In 2005, she was named CEO of NYRR, and immediately enacted initiatives to increase running’s popularity by creating the World Marathon Majors.  Runners participate in Marathons in London, Berlin, Boston, New York, and Chicago, gaining points along the way, depending on their finishes.  (Male and female point leaders win $500,000 at the culmination.)    

Mary continues to be more than CEO of NYRR, she also uses her position to benefit others, mainly children, raising money for many charities in New York.

Mary Wittenberg rose to the top of the running world by employing a combination of steadfast determination and unwavering focus, and she commanded respect simply by working hard.  As is often the case with success, you can’t fake your way to the top.  The same with running; it takes guts to keep going because the race is never over. 

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