Club behind NYC marathon grows into powerhouse

NEW YORK (AP) When Mary Wittenberg abandoned a law career to become a business executive at New York Road Runners in 1998, the club had plenty of prestige through its marquee event, the New York City Marathon, but in many ways it was a throwback to another age.

It operated out of the same, cramped townhouse near Central Park where its leader in the 1970s and `80s, Fred Lebow, once arranged under-the-table payments to top amateur runners. Its main marketing tool was the cotton T-shirt. The club's weekend races drew modest fields, mostly of white men.

''If we had 1,500 people in a race, that was a big deal,'' said Wittenberg, who stepped down as the club's CEO last May.

Today's Road Runners, now preparing for the 45th running of the marathon on Nov. 1, is something far more polished.

After a decade-long transformation it has the kind of financial muscle that makes it easy to forget that the club is a public charity.

Revenue soared from $18 million in 2002 to nearly $73 million in the fiscal year that ended in March of 2014, according to the group's IRS filings. The staff swelled to 175 people. Payroll climbed from $4 million to $19 million. The old headquarters is up for sale. Employees relocated to a modern office suite in a skyscraper next to Carnegie Hall.

And those weekend races? Road Runners events have had more than 290,000 finishers in the past 12 months, not including children who participated in club programs at 800 schools. That's the equivalent of staging a Boston Marathon every 5 1/2 weeks.

''It's still a community running organization ... It's just evolved. It's just all grown bigger,'' said Michael Capiraso, who succeeded Wittenberg as Road Runners chief executive when she left to become CEO of Virgin Sport, a new venture of British billionaire Richard Branson.

Charities that put on big-money sporting events, like college football bowl games, have gotten scrutiny lately over this kind of growth, with critics questioning whether the tax-free dollars they make off sponsorships and TV deals is being put to a genuine public purpose.

Road Runners may look slightly more like one of those nonprofits on its balance sheet, but there's a distinct difference, charity experts said. Its mission is to promote health by getting people running, and by getting 50,000 marathoners out to train for three to six months, it is meeting that goal.

''They can make a good argument that they're promoting exercise and a healthier lifestyle,'' said Daniel Borochoff, founder of the watchdog group Charity Watch. He cautioned, though, that like any charity, it has to remember that bigger is only better if the growth helps it fulfill its mission.

Club officials say that on that score, they've succeeded: The number of people participating in Road Runners events has more than doubled since 2004.

Wittenberg, winner of the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon, was a driving force behind the club's development.

Promoted to CEO in 2005, she chased bigger sponsorship deals. She recruited the world's best runners to Road Runners races, offering between $2.5 million to $3 million in prize money and appearance fees. She said she wanted to turn the club into a $100 million-a-year charity promoting running worldwide.

Road Runners rewarded her with pay that hit $600,000, according to IRS filings.

During her tenure, the fields at Road Runners races changed, too, tilting in favor of recreational runners. Many more women began to participate. Wittenberg reinforced the message that they were wanted by offering more prize money for women than for men at the 2005 marathon.

Last spring, 26,440 people finished the Brooklyn Half Marathon, up from only 3,400 in 2005. That made it as big as the New York City marathon was in 1993. The club's United Airlines NYC Half Marathon, launched in 2006, had 20,000 entrants.

Capiraso, who has run the marathon 23 times, and Road Runners president of events Peter Ciaccia said that, for a time, the club was overmatched. There wasn't enough equipment or enough office space for the expanding staff.

''We're still doing a lot of catch up,'' Capiraso said.

If there's been a rap against the club, it has been rising entry fees.

Most U.S. residents in this year's marathon will pay $255, up from $80 in 2004. Foreign runners pay $347. Around 80,000 people also paid $11 to enter a lottery for a spot in the race. More than 8 of 10 were rejected. Losers don't get their money back.

Under a program Wittenberg launched in 2006, runners can get guaranteed entry if they raise at least $2,500 for certain charities. Last year, approximately 8,500 runners who entered this way raised $34.5 million for scores of causes, according to Road Runners.

But those slots aren't free, either. Charities pay $450 to $995 per runner to the club, on top of regular entry fees.

''This has become the goal of the club, making money,'' said Andy Kimerling, a former Road Runners treasurer who was voted off the board.

Club officials say higher fees have been necessary to cover the cost of such enormous races. The 2013 marathon cost $35 million to stage, according to IRS filings. The city charges the club more than $4 million annually for police services. Road Runners says it has invested heavily in a tracking system to monitor the safety of runners on the course.

While this year's marathon will be the first since 2004 she's not directing, Wittenberg will still have a role on race day: She's volunteering at a water station at mile 22 in Harlem.

''I'm pretty excited about it,'' she said.

From there, she'll have as good a view as anyplace of her legacy.

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