New York

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

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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 letsrun.com 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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