Whether you’re about to run the London marathon on Sunday April 23, or are training for your first half marathon, 10k, or even 5k, the best person to offer advice is someone who has done it all.
Few have more race t-shirts than Mary Wittenberg, the Virgin Sport CEO who has been ever-present at long-distance and marathon circuits across the globe.
In 1987, Wittenberg won the Marine Corps Marathon with an incredible time of two hours, 44 minutes and 36 seconds. To this day she still competes, and it’s not unusual for her to contest 20 races a year.
Maybe that is why Richard Branson was so determined to prise her away from New York Road Runners, a non-profit running organisation that ballooned in popularity during Wittenberg’s tenure as president and CEO from 2005 to 2015.
Branson and Wittenberg even met in a race at one point.
“I once raced Richard on his bicycle,” Wittenberg told Business Insider. “The race was from one end of Italy to another. It was five days of cycling. It was a fascinating experience… especially as I hadn’t cycled for 30 years.”
“Richard Branson would often be the first one on his bike every morning, but would still have meetings after each day’s cycling. [He] made each day fun by saying things like ‘The 23rd person to overtake me today will get a donation from me to a charity of their choice!’ This is how he lives his life. It’s adventurous and it’s fun.”
During her time with New York Road Runners, Wittenberg oversaw a boom in female participation and encouraged 100,000 children to take up running. Participation in the New York marathon also increased by 35%.
Now heading up Richard Brandon’s Virgin Sport division, she will be hoping for similar successes when the company’s season of races kicks off in the coming weeks.
So how does she ensure success on the big day?
We caught up with Mary to find out.
Focus on finishing, not winning
“Just enjoy it,” Wittenberg told Business Insider when discussing 10k, half-marathon, and marathon running tips. “Look forward to it and relish it. Embrace those jitters on the day.”
“These are big distances, but just feel like it’s normal, as it is what you have been training… It’s just a race to finish, not to win — unless you are out to win it, of course!”
Winning is something Wittenberg has experience in. She has even won a 26.2 mile race, which saw her qualify for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Women’s Marathon, a race Wittenberg unfortunately had to withdraw from after two miles due to a painful knee injury.
Though that injury prevented her from participating in marathons again, she is still a regular staple at long-distance running events. This isn’t an executive who is happy tapping away at a computer — no, we’re talking about a highly successful CEO who has an unquenchable thirst for sport.
Perfect your breakfast
“Stick to what you know,” Wittenberg told BI. “Wear the same shoes, wear the same socks, eat the same breakfast you normally do.”
“Breakfast doesn’t have to be a big deal, but changing your diet on the morning of the race makes it a big deal. Meals are completely personal. Just go with what you’re used to, but make sure you get it early enough — even if you have to wake up extra early to eat, only to go back to bed for a final hour.”
In terms of what Wittenberg likes to have on race day, she said: “I can’t go wrong with caffeine… and jelly beans!”
Plan out your morning — and your route
“What works for me is to plan out the morning,” she told BI. “This is a huge opportunity. It’s fun. I take deep breaths and absorb and appreciate my efforts. Some athletes get injured during the training process, so just being there on the day is an achievement in itself.”
“On the back of my race number I also write the name of somebody who has inspired me. Just don’t write on top of the emergency contact and number!”
“In a half marathon you get 13 names, in a marathon you get 26 names. Use a marker as one inspirational name for every mile of the race. Then I think of that person while running that mile…. It just makes the race more fun for me and it’s my tribute to that person.”
She added that she breaks down the long distance by landmarks, boroughs, or bridges.
“It’s a great sight-seeing event after all,” she said. “You can also post friends of yours at certain markers to help you through. Commit to yourself to look up at fans, kids clapping, and the landmarks. It helps you absorb the atmosphere.”
However, she warned: “In running a long-distance race or marathon, it will get hard at one point, so if you go charging in at mile one, it will be hard at 13.1 miles, let alone 26.2! Settle in at an easy and comfortable pace”
“Also, remember your Vaseline to minimise chafing. Things will chafe at distances you’ve not been before.”
Key dates in the Virgin Sport calendar
If you want to get in on the fun, here are the dates for the inaugural Virgin Sport season.
Hackney festival (half marathon and fun run) — Sunday April 30.
Westminster festival (10k) — Sunday July 9.
San Francisco (TBC) — October 14-15.
More information about Virgin Sport can be found on their official website.
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