Mary Wittenberg has a long, unique relationship with Central Park. As former President and Chief Executive Officer of New York Road Runners, she became the first woman to serve as Race Director of a major international marathon. In addition to leading 10 TCS New York City Marathons, she’s worked on countless more races in the Park.
Mary also raised her kids near Central Park, getting to know its many playgrounds, athletic fields, and landscapes. “Central Park has that Cheers element,” she says, “where everybody knows your name.” In celebration of our #myCentralPark campaign, Mary shares her favorite running routes in the Park, NYC Marathon memories, and more.
Jessica Sain-Baird: How has your relationship with Central Park evolved over the years?
Mary Wittenberg: I grew up in Buffalo, New York, so I always viewed Central Park as this iconic place—and I fell desperately in love with the Park when I started commuting from Richmond, Virginia, to New York City as a young lawyer. I lived in Richmond because I loved to run and cycle, and I thought I could never live in a city like New York. But then I found that I was running in New York more than in Richmond. I discovered that New York City is an incredible running city thanks to Central Park. It’s the primary reason I fell so in love with the City.
To the rest of the world, Central Park is this picture-perfect tourist site. But when you live there, it’s your backyard. I think that’s what makes New York City so extraordinary. The views change morning and night, and every day you can practically be by yourself in the Park.
I’ve run in the Park through great highs and lows in life—but it was also part of my job. I always say the Park is the protagonist in the NYC Marathon and in New York Road Runners’ history. It’s the biggest running club in the world because we run in the Park practically every week. It’s the equivalent of Yankee Stadium for New York Road Runners.
What does Central Park mean to you in the age of COVID-19?
One of the most iconic photos of all time will be the hospital tents in Central Park—there’s no question. As painful as that was, I think it got a lot of people’s attention. When people saw tents going up in the Park, they realized this is really serious.
To me, Central Park is life. We can’t survive without greenery and the fresh air of Central Park. These are challenging and sad times, but the Park has always been a sanctuary for people. When something happens in the Park—like the Ramble birdwatching incident or the hospital tents—there’s something amplifying about the Park that can help lead to change. The Park is a platform that helps create progress. If it happens there, it’s meaningful and gets attention.
How does running help foster a sense of community in New York City?
Running and Central Park have been at the front of a lot of good change in New York City. There are a lot of instances where the Park and running have really stood for something important.
The Front Runners New York LGBT Pride Run, which began more than 35 years ago, always started in Central Park—well before the acceptance and understanding of the importance of equality that we have today. The first-ever women’s 10K was the New York Mini, which started in the 1960s. The Achilles Hope & Possibility 4M brings together athletes with disabilities running side by side with able-bodied runners, and many veterans have participated. The Midnight Run kicks off each year and celebrates fitness and fun. There’s also all the school and kids runs, Corporate Challenges, charity runs, and more.
What are your favorite routes in Central Park for runners?
So many! It depends on the season.
As a runner, I absolutely love the bridle path and the fact that we can be on dirt in the City. The dirt path is so gentle and perfect for a runner.
In the spring and summer, I love the north end because the trees are blossoming, and there’s the Great Hill and Harlem Hill [a portion of the drive at the north end of the Park]. Lots of parks don’t have the topography that Central Park does. It’s a beautiful thing to be fitter, even though you might curse the hills during a race. Another great spring and summer route is from the Conservatory Garden to Harlem Meer to the North Meadow.
In the winter, I love the lower loop, going by Sheep Meadow and Heckscher Ballfields. The views are spectacular; you can see through all the trees. I can’t think of anywhere else that has that mix of city and park, and winter really lets you see that. It's just spectacular. I love running in the winter in the Park.
The Reservoir views are my favorite. The sunrises and sunsets are unbelievable. It’s different every day. The view from the north end of the Reservoir running track makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.
What are some of your most beloved NYC Marathon memories?
The NYC Marathon finish is so spectacular because it creates an arena feeling, and the stadium is Central Park. The Park allows us to do kids runs, the 5K the day before—and the setup can be there all week.
One phenomenal year was when we held the 2008 Olympic Men's Marathon trials in Central Park, the day before the NYC Marathon. Central Park was just popping that weekend. It was unbelievable. The trials started at Rockefeller Center, but a majority was in Central Park.
In 2010, the Chilean miners had been underground for 69 days. One of the miners said his life had been saved by running. It kept him sane. I invited him to come watch the NYC Marathon, and he came and ran the marathon. You’ve never seen a press conference like that. It was a miracle story. I still get chills thinking about that.
2013 was a special year because it was the comeback race after the 2012 cancellation due to Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston bombings happening earlier that year. It was an important race to honor the City and the sport—and be back celebrating humanity the way the marathon does. To me, it was probably my most significant NYC Marathon.
There are so many more stories—I can’t even name them all. Central Park gives us the greatest finish of the greatest marathon in the world.
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