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[This is the first part of a two-part series which explores the emergence of talented women in leadership positions in the rapidly growing and evolving field of American road racing.  This initial piece looks at three accomplished women who lead three of the largest and most successful urban marathons in the country.]

Savvy Women At The Helm Of Several Major Marathons

An historical look back confirms the significant changes that have taken place in the sport of marathoning.  50 years ago, road racing oad racing in general and the marathon in particular were highly-competitive athletic contests that were nearly the exclusive province of older white men. In seems incredible now to recall that shortly after the start of the 1967 Boston Marathon, an irate Jock Semple – then the Race Co-Director of the B.A.A. Marathon – sought to wrestle a young, well-trained, and officially-entered Kathrine Switzer off the course.  Fellow competitor Tom Miller – Switzer’s burly boyfriend – quickly intervened and allowed “K.V. Switzer” to freewheel out of Hopkinton – her bib number intact – on what proved to be her historic run to the Boston Marathon’s Back Bay finish line. Nearly five decades later, women now not only comprise approximately 50 percent of the nation’s marathon fields, a select few have ascended to executive positions and currently run several of the largest and most prestigious American marathons.

Virginia Brophy Achman / Executive Director, Twin Cities In Motion: Promoting A Rising Tide

There’s a time-tested expression, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”  Following those words of wisdom, you might want to ask Virginia Brophy Achman, Executive Director of Twin Cities In Motion – the organization that annually presents the Twin Cities Marathon and 21 other races during 8 annual days of road racing events in Minnesota.  “I tend to gravitate to leadership positions, but I’m a doer.  So I try to lead by doing,” Achman explains.  “So for me, it’s been about learning and really understanding this sport as a business as well as what the sport does for the human spirit.”

Achman – who as a young soccer player was drawn to running by her father and ultimately fell in love with the sport – has now emerged as one of its most passionate advocates.  “I really feel strongly that the sport has so much to offer to so many different people,” she exclaims.  “We all know that the pros and the citizen runner can compete in the same event and share that experience.  And there just isn’t another sport like that,” offers Achman.  And to tack on the exclamation point, she adds, “There just isn’t.” 

Achman’s focus is not merely in lifting the TCM race agenda.  She wants to ensure the entire sport comes along for the ride.  “I know how life changing our running is,” she confides.  “But I am also a believer in the rising tide.  When I got involved at the national level through Running USA and then as President and then as Chair of Women’s LDR (Long Distance Running Committee of USATF), I knew it was important to bring everyone together and help us continue to bring the sport to another level.”  

Achman knows a rising tide raises all boats.  And the Executive Director wants all watercraft in the sea of road racing to be elevated.  As such, TCM’s leader sees the continued influx of new races as a double-edged sword.  “What has been a challenge is the sheer volume of new races, the saturation of our market place.  On the one hand, it is good thing because it shows our sport to be viable,” Achman notes.  “But I do find it a little frustrating when there are people in the business just to make money and not put the sport first.  That at times is the challenge for us,” she admits.  “I want to make the tide rise.  When some of these one-off incidents that are less than professional give the sport a black eye, it keeps the tide from rising.  I am all for having a lot of races to choose from.  But I am hoping that everyone does it with integrity and puts the sport and the participant first.”

When Achman looks back on her ten years of leadership, she has no hesitancy about identifying her most rewarding moment.  “It was securing our one and only title sponsor, Medtronic,” she beams.  “I knew the synergy was there.  It took the public a little bit to figure it out – but not very long, because the public wants a well and healthy community just like we do,” she notes in explaining how Medtronic’s support – recently renewed through 2020 – has placed lifestyle health and wellness as the cornerstone of the Twin Cities Marathon which has blossomed into a two-day multi-event weekend celebration for 30,000 runners.  “It costs a lot of money to put on these events and for us to continue to provide quality events and build our kids’ program.  And I am very proud of what we are doing with our kids’ program which is aided greatly by our partnership with Medtronic.”

Virginia Brophy Achman – who has presided over the growth and evolution of Twin Cities In Motion for a decade and seen its annual budget expand from $1.0 million to $4.2 million during her tenure – is upbeat about the future of American road racing.  “I think it is going to continue to be important to reach out and build our future customer.  Helping children who don’t have that opportunity helps them to build those healthy habits.  And it also allows us hopefully to gain a future customer.  So as we reach out and be diverse, it helps expose all people to the sport.  So, for us, we have endless opportunities.  Because running has so much positive influence on our lives.  As long as we can continue to deliver a product that is good and interesting and we continue to listen to our customers, I don’t see it going away.”

Tracey Russell / Chief Executive Officer, L.A. Marathon:  Ready For The Spotlight

Back in the ’90’s, the centerpiece of the Los Angeles sports scene featured the Los Angeles Lakers – comprised of talented, thoroughbred basketball players whose dazzling on-court performance became known as “Showtime.”   Tracey Russell, the relatively-new CEO of the LA Marathon, and her own talented team are planning a type of “Showtime” of their own when America’s marathon thoroughbreds gather in the City of Angels for the 2015 LA Marathon – which will also serve as the USATF national marathon championships – and ultimately for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Tracey Russell never really aspired to take on the head job at the LA Marathon.  In her early 40’s and quite contented with her position as Executive Director with the Atlanta Track Club, Russell –  thinking that Los Angeles would not be the right fit for a mid-western native – was cool to the idea of a pursuing a leadership position in Los Angeles.  “I first heard about the LA opportunity from a friend who encouraged me to consider it.  I told my friend, ‘No, thank you.’  A couple of months later, I got a call from the search firm,” Russell explains.  “I decided to go through the process, and as I started to go through it, I saw the opportunity. I met some people out here in Los Angeles and I realized that this is where I am supposed to be next.”  And with a smile, she adds, “It definitely was a challenging – but a very exciting – decision.”

Once Russell was on board in the fall of 2013, every time she looked around, she saw ways to make the race better, to elevate the event.  “I don’t look at things as challenges.  I try to look at them as opportunities,” she offers candidly.  “In terms of what we have here in Los Angeles, there is a huge opportunity.  That’s why I took the risk of leaving a place I’d been for six and a half years and absolutely loved.  I saw a lot of the opportunities L.A. has with its marathon.” 

Russell hardly had time to unpack her bags before she began pursuing large, transformational objectives.  “I literally hit the ground running and put in a bid for the Olympic Trials which we’ll be hosting in 2016,” she states with just a hint of pride.  Landing that jewel gave LA’s new CEO early insight into a recipe for further event successes.  “For us, it is really taking an asset here in Los Angeles and taking it to the next level,” Russell offers matter-of-factly.  “I see the Trials as a huge opportunity.  Putting together a team of subject matter experts is going to allow this incredible event to become a global marathon.  It’s well on its way.  And by hosting the trials, L.A. is getting more visibility.” 

That early success is an outcome Russell suspected could be achieved in the vibrant, can-do metropolis that is Los Angeles.  “Having been in the running industry for a while, I always kind of scratched my head and thought, ‘L.A. could be more,’” she confides.  “It’s the second largest city in the U.S. and doesn’t necessarily have a marathon that reflects what a cool city it is – either as a destination marathon or as a very competitive marathon.  I see huge opportunity everywhere I turn.”

One of those opportunities is the chance to build on Los Angeles’ Olympic heritage.  “It has been really exciting to come to such a large metropolitan area where the Olympics is so much a part of the DNA here in Los Angeles.  L.A. having hosted two prior Olympic games and with a very strong interest in putting in a bid for the 2024 Games, it is fun to come here where there is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to help us really leverage other community assets that are going to help us reach our objectives on the global stage.”  Russell knows that close collaboration with USATF is one of the critical keys to the Trials’ success.   “We are working in lockstep with USATF as we prepare for the Trials in 2016.  So far, it has been going very well.  We are excited about the roadmap we are building together to put on a tremendous event in 2016.”

Mary Wittenberg / President & CEO, New York Road Runners / Broadening Influence

For the last 9 years , Mary Wittenberg has been the President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Road Runners – one of today’s most influential organizations in running and road racing.  “Our mission is to help inspire people to embrace running.  Our vision is a world that benefits from running,” explains Wittenberg who has been with NYRR since 1998.  But the 52 year old lawyer and the organization she leads have a broader, deeper vision.  “It’s not just getting people to run – that’s huge in and of itself and a way to help a lot of people,”  states Wittenberg as she cites the overwhelming patronage of NYRR events:  50,000 in the NYC Marathon; 20,000 in the Brooklyn Half [“largest half in the country”], and routinely sold-out weekly borough events.  But Wittenberg sees more.  “We want to be a beneficial influence in the communities through which we run.  I think of us as one of the world’s premier community-based running organizations,” she exclaims.  “We are all about the totality of our sport – from kids to seniors; from the fastest in the world to first-timers; from running to walking.  Our philosophy is helping people run for life, to move for life.”

“My plan had always been to work in sports,” cites Wittenberg who apparently was a visionary thinker even early on.  “I saw the power of sports from a young age and certainly experienced personally the benefits of playing sports,” declares Wittenberg candidly.  “I also had this other mission side.  My vision wasn’t as clear there.  But coming to NYRR gave me the chance to work in running and to marry my passion for sport and my passion for helping people and to work for a non-profit.  That is what I was destined for.”

Through her leadership, NYRR is effectively expanding its sphere of influence – geographically and socio-economically.  “Our competencies have been around events and youth programs.  In addition, we are doing more in the education space.  We are working to move beyond where we are now and into what the future holds for us.”  The enthusiastic leader poses this rhetorical question that guides and inspires the organization she leads.  “How do we better weave ourselves into the daily lives of people such that we can help them move on a regular basis?”

NYRR’s energetic CEO takes no time in identifying the most gratifying aspects of her job.  “The most rewarding, for sure, is every day we just work on ways to get people to get out and get moving.  We know what the benefit can be in their life – whether they’re a kid, and athlete trying to be the best in the world, or an 80 year old trying to keep moving,” she explains.  But Wittenberg also recognizes the rewards she derives from being captain of a squad of skillful and fully-engaged individuals pursuing a common goal.  “I love working with a great team and I am inspired by the talent and the commitment,” notes Wittenberg who presides over a $70+ million budget and guides the efforts of NYRR’s 60 full-time employees which swells through the addition of 700 regular part-time employees and over 10,000 volunteers as its famed Marathon Sunday approaches.  “People really care about what they do here at New York Road Runners,” adds Wittenberg with a tone of solemn appreciation.

Mary Wittenberg – runner, corporate leader, and visionary thinker – has definite views on the anticipated evolution of running over the next ten years.  “I think what we’ll see over the next decade is that running will truly be the sport of all people,” she predicts.  “I think we get a little bit ahead of the curve here in New York City because of the natural diversity that exists here.  But more and more, we are getting to more and more people.  We had 400,000 people running with us this year – and that’s great.  But there are 8 million here and another 3 million who commute here every day. Over the next ten years, I think you will see running and walking woven into the fabric of society in a greater way.  When we see people getting out of a subway 10 blocks early or parking their car at a parking lot that they are going to run or walk to, then we will be in people’s consciousness in a way where we have become a part of their lives well beyond the races.”


Refreshingly, none of these three CEO’s cited any instances of gender-related interference or push-back during their respective career journeys to their present leadership positions.  “I am 49, so I am a product of Title IX.  I personally have never had issues,” Virginia Achman explains.  “It isn’t even on my radar, to be honest, because I’ve never experienced it [gender-based bias].  I’ve always just gone about my business – do a good job, surround yourself with people who do a good job.”  Notes Wittenberg:  “We are the generation that followed behind the generation that blazed the trail.” It is perhaps a tribute to the growing inclusiveness of the sport of road racing that the type of pioneering leadership exhibited by Achman, Russell, and Wittenberg is not hindered; it is welcomed.  And maybe – just maybe – it is because our sport and those around it are now wise enough to bring a gender-blind embrace to demonstrated competence.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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