After a rough year, New York Road Runners searches for a leader and mission

New York  Published: Nov 07, 2021, 06:08 PM(IST)

New York Road Runners staff members and city officials paint the marathon Photograph:( The New York Times )

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After the coronavirus pandemic halted the club’s marquee events, the organisers of the New York City Marathon began trying to reclaim their roots and reconnect with the local community

Not very long ago, there was a pretty strong case to be made that New York Road Runners, the organization that owns and stages the New York City Marathon, was the de facto leader of running in the United States.

The organization helped establish and fund a group of runners who led the revival of elite American long distance running. It hosted the Olympic Trials marathon before the 2008 Olympics. It established a groundbreaking anti-doping and testing policy. It expanded the New York City Marathon to allow for more than 50,000 finishers, making it the world’s largest. Its annual revenues surpassed $110 million, roughly triple the amount that USA Track & Field, the national governing body for running, collects most years.

That primacy hit the wall during the last year and a half. The pandemic caused the cancellation of five of the organization’s most profitable events, leading to an 80% drop in racing revenue. Roughly half of the 260 staff members lost their jobs. On Instagram, a group of employees anonymously accused senior management of behaving insensitively on issues of racism and diversity, and of prioritizing profits over the needs of junior employees and the local community. The complaints were part of an internal investigation that led to sweeping changes, including the ouster of the club’s CEO, Michael Capiraso.

Now the far smaller organization is preparing to hold a far smaller version of the marathon, conducting the race for the first time in two years as its board continues to search for a permanent CEO. That person will have to continue the work that began in recent months to reestablish what originally enabled the organization to become a dominant force in its sport — the fervent support of its members, its small but loyal workforce and the trust of runners of all backgrounds throughout the city.

“For a long time there was a real focus on growth,” said Kerin Hempel, a former McKinsey & Co. management consultant whom the board brought in to replace Capiraso temporarily in November 2020. “COVID forced us to pause and assess and reconnect with our mission and make sure everything we are doing is aligned.”

A New Yorker for the past two decades, Hempel led strategy and planning for the Road Runners from 2010 to 2014, but was not there in recent years, when critics say the organization lost its way despite financial success.

She’s also very fast. Last month she won the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, Massachusetts, finishing the 26.2-mile race in 2:52:23.

Hempel, 42, seems like a perfect fit to take over the organization, but she has told the club she does not want the job. She has agreed to remain through next year but plans to return to her boutique consulting business.

She hopes by then to have put the organization back on sound footing, “to make it the best version of itself” so her successor has the best chance of success, she said during a recent interview on a bench in Central Park near the marathon finish line. She said that she had email contact with the anonymous employee group that led last year’s rebellion and that she offered to meet with its members but was rebuffed. Members of the employee group could not be reached for comment.

Righting the ship is no small task. New York Road Runners had insurance to cover some of the losses it incurred from having to cancel its most profitable events during the pandemic, but even as races have returned the past five months, the pain has not let up.

Under the deferred racing program, the organization will manage with decreased revenues from registrations through 2023. To mitigate the danger of COVID, this year’s marathon is likely to have about half as many participants as usual. Also, U.S. borders remain largely closed to foreign tourists, limiting international runners, who pay a premium to participate.

Sponsors also had to be made whole from the missed races. The organization has about $70 million in reserves and investments to cover losses if necessary, but money can’t solve all the problems.

Alison Désir, a co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition and a founder of Harlem Run, a Manhattan running club, said the organization had “lost its way over the years.”

The organization and its signature event trace their roots to the Black runners who founded the New York Pioneer Running Club. Ted Corbitt, an Olympic marathoner in 1952, was one of them. He became the first president of the New York Road Runners when it was formed in 1958.

However, Désir said, for years inclusiveness did not appear to be a priority for the Road Runners. The organization held running panels with no Black participants. Participation at many races was overwhelmingly white. Outreach to minority communities took a back seat to holding major events, she said.

“They started with an inclusive culture and deep values and along the way got lost in commercial success and operating like a for-profit rather than a not-for-profit,” Désir said. She credited the organization for changing during the past year, but added, “For people who have been wronged, it is too slow.”

Last year, Ted Metellus became the race director for the marathon, making him the first Black race director of a major marathon.

Coffey, a resident of the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, oversees two running organizations that combine running with educational and racial justice programs. He said executives with the Road Runners have been helpful to him in recent months, but he has heard stories of others who had struggled to work with the organization.

“It’s just about being fair regardless of what color you are,” said Coffey, who goes by a single name. “Don’t be showing sides or favoritism.”

The organization continues to search for the right balance — and a clear relationship — between everything it does, from staging mass events that attract tens of millions of dollars and professional runners, and being a community-based organization that can help fund facilities and clubs throughout the city.

Rich Kenah, an increasingly influential figure in running who leads the Atlanta Track Club, said big city running organizations must keep evolving from competitive running clubs to groups that “provide a solution for everyone in the runner life cycle.” The Atlanta Track Club hosted the Olympic trials marathon last year, supports a professional team and holds some of the country’s most diverse running events, including the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10-kilometer competition.

New York Road Runners plans to cull races from its calendar next year if sponsors do not align with its stated values. Road Runners recently decided not to hold the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K next year, a race sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, a country ruled by a royal family with a spotty record on human rights. It will probably hold about 40 races in 2022, down from about 50 in recent years.

“It’s a community-based organization that has built some of the biggest events in the world,” said Mary Wittenberg, another extremely fast woman and marathon champion (1987 Marine Corps Marathon) who led the organization from 2005 to 2015.

Wittenberg, who is still close to the organization’s leaders, said keeping the major events successful would be essential for financial stability and to help inspire people. In the ideal world, a couch potato watches the marathon on Sunday, then decides to try to run a mile with Harlem Run or another running club on Monday. Road Runners can be there to help facilitate the connection.

“We do think,” Hempel said, “we are an important piece of the overall running system.”

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