Virgin Sport has announced their arrival to the states and we are here for it. These Festivals of Fitness, as they call them, are intentioned to bring people together and make challenge fun. These festivals have something for everyone including athletes, new participants, family and friends, and are customized to each host community. It’s not another race. It’s not another competition. It’s a celebration of health for the entire family. San Francisco will be Virgin Sport’s first US event and will feature the Virgin Sport SF Half marathon, one-mile climb, and additional fitness activities during the weekend.
It takes a genius to recognize social trends and humanize industries before they hollow out. Sir Richard Branson’s legacy as a businessman radiates through his ability to shift how consumers engage with rudimentary establishments. Whether it be the old record store or the outdated airlines, once Branson puts his Virgin spin on things, the bar is heightened. In the states, he took the international luxury of flying and domesticated it. All of his competitors were inevitably forced to catch up.
On May 18th, Branson and Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg, along with Gene McCarthy, President and CEO, ASICS Americas announced the launch of Virgin Sport San Francisco: Festival of Fitness at the iconic Ferry Building along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I had the chance to catch up with Mary Wittenberg on the inside details of Virgin Sport and learn more about the vision and purpose behind the brand.
Why would experienced runners people want to be part of this race series?
I hope because they want to have a good time and be part of the celebration of running. Especially, someone who has run for awhile, I hope that they find a spirit that is more welcoming and celebratory. It’s a great chance for someone who is a runner to have their friends and family come be a part of the challenge and even take on one of the challenges that are more suited for them. Not everyone is a half marathoner or marathoners so I am hoping that it becomes a favor to runners for them to include their friends and family. As you know well, once you start getting deeper into running other people can start to feel outside of it and we want to create a place, weekend and spirit that has the chance to give everyone a go at something.
Tell us a little be about yourself and career with New York Road Runners.
I’ve been incredibly luckily. My purpose and driving force in life has been helping people live their best through sport and fitness. I have been lucky enough in my life to be introduced to sports early in life. I wasn’t good at sports but the friendships that I made have always driven my interest to work in sports. I spent 10 years being a corporate lawyer and got a great background that I could apply to help me reach more people than on a one-to-one basis. I was very luckily to have an amazing 17 years at NYRR and what we had the opportunity to do was change things. We had maybe a thousand people a weekend and it was still a very “white male, serious serious” runner world. I saw a chance for running to be something for everyone and I spent 17 years trying to make sure that we would include more people and try to bring in a spirit to running that would welcome more people to be serious or even enter as first-timers. What I enjoyed most about it was opening the doors of running to more people. Whether is was our committee runs or the youth programs, or our support of the many running crews and clubs, that’s what I love most. I have always had a passion for taking this on the road because I especially saw the magic that we had at NYRR. Part of it was taking the big event, like the marathon and the events around it as a catalyst to help people get started on a regular basis of movement and other people who will keep them moving. It’s the friendship, structure, and community that keeps running alive. I always saw that as an opportunity and something that we should create for other people, even beyond New York City. There are 8.5 million people in NYC and there is still so much for NYRR to still do. I had an amazing team so I knew that they could keep growing beyond me. I couldn’t resist the chance to follow what was always deep inside of me and that was the spirit to reach more people beyond New York. I’m an eternal optimist. I’m a big believer in the fact that small efforts result in huge changes in people’s lives. The more we can benefit is the more that they can benefit other people. The chance to work with a dreamer and a visionary like Richard was a chance that I had to take. It actually took a very long time, in my own mind, to reconcile that I would leave NYRR but I knew that this was a calling.
The big opportunity that I see is “sport”, we chose the word “sport”, we could have chosen fitness or taken a softer approach. Sport, in my opinion, represents effort and big dreams. A lot of people are intimidated by that. What I think is a huge advantage is that if one knows all of the benefits of sports personally but knows that so many people are intimidated by it, when you put the word Virgin in front of Sport, I think it widens and breaks that barriers that have surrounded sport. I knew this was an opportunity to make people feel like they’re welcomed. You add the attributes that Virgin is known for like the music and spirit and mix it with a purpose side, suddenly you can see this opportunity to appeal to more people while delivering experiences that meet the most committed and avid fitness enthusiast as well.
So what can we expect from Virgin Sport for this events this year?
Where we started was with an idea of what type of event we wanted to put on. From a purpose perspective, where we want to get millions of people moving, we are taking the approach of putting our arms around everyone else who is doing the same. What is clear is there are plenty of races out there, so we don’t need another one of those in the US or UK. We stepped back to see what was needed and what we found was that no one was putting together a mixture of run in long and short with other fitness activities. Down the line, we will incorporate cycling. Core, studio and outdoor free fitness are really big right now and I think that there is an understanding, certainly amongst runners, of the importance of core in their lives. But even beyond that, there are people who see planks and push-ups more intimidating than running and we want to give them a place as well.
Our focus is the half and short run mixed in with music, culture, art, food and fashion over time. We started things this year in East London, three weeks ago and had a really great time. Thrilled when people like Charlie Dark from Run Dem Crew reach out and say “I’ve never seen anything like this, this is awesome.” For us, he is a valuable partner in his community and we want those in each and every community. Now we head to the center of London on July 9th, where we’re doing a British Day Out and the headline there is a 10K, so that will be really fun. Westminster, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, are all a nice contrast. As you know, connecting with these hosts is really big and we want to connect to them and their identities and what they want to celebrate. From there we go to Oxford, October 8th. I’m intrigued by our opportunity to do this in a university and college setting. We are doing a half marathon there and we will have a big green village center like we did in East London, and there will be a great chance to set the party and have a town square for the running and fitness.
Very excited for our first event in the US. We love San Francisco as a starting place for us. It’s a beautiful city and its a really active place. I think SF is just now starting to gather a crew mentality and become more open to all types of people running so I think that there is a real opportunity there. I remember at NYRR, 10 years ago, where I thought we would have to wait for our youth programs to a get to a point where we had a much greater diverse community but what started happening is that we had an influx of all these great crews and clubs start. From Tri Latinas to Black Girls Run to Harlem Run and Harlem United, all these groups brought that. I don’t get to see that as much in SF and in the Bay Area and I’m super excited for that. Virgin loves San Francisco and San Francisco loves Virgin. Virgin America was created there and declared SF its home early on. Part of it is the entrepreneurial spirit of the city and Richard has always been about supporting other start-ups and entrepreneurs. It’s a mixture of Virgin, a beautiful destination, a great purpose and I think we have a chance to get more people moving.
How has this wave of fitness affected you and what are your hopes for the future?
I think we are in the best place we have been in decades in terms of helping people really get and stay fit for life. I don’t think you can do only one thing for life. I think for real, overall, total body fitness, a mixture is necessary. For me, it has been great to go to things like November Projects where it is more planks and functional fitness mixed with running and I do yoga now and barre. I think that has personally made me stronger and its made me much more physically balanced. I think the other big movement in the last decade or at least the last five years is the greater recognize that fitness is not just physical but that it is mind, body, and spirit. I think we are just scratching the service. For people who run and workout, they notice the change in their creativity and the capacity to do more. I think there is a greater understanding of that today and I think that people will stay interested in ways to stay moving and ways to stay connected to others through life.
We at UNDO are excited to announce that we will be participating in this year’s launch. Festivities start with a pre-party at City Hall. The fitness party continues with the Twin Peaks Mile Hill climb, a new one-mile run up one of the most iconic views of the city. The climb will feature waves of runners based on speed, costume, team and more, all in a celebratory atmosphere. Throughout the weekend, the Civic Center Plaza will be transformed into the Go Fit Yourself fitness hub, offering diverse workout challenges from boot camps to yoga classes, led by top local instructors. At Go Fit Yourself, participants and fans can also fuel up with healthy local food, dance to live music, view art installations, and enjoy the spirit and culture of San Francisco. Activations will be both free and paid.
Registration fees start at $89 for the Virgin Sport SF Half, and participants will be invited to make a donation for Virgin Sport’s local Give Back partner, Playworks, who are increasing physical activity by leveraging the power of safe, fun, and healthy play at school every day. Virgin Sport is committed to supporting youth and free fitness in each of its host communities.
Registration is open for Virgin Sport San Francisco’s new half-marathon, Twin Peaks Mile, and a weekend of fitness, October 14-15 in San Francisco.
Register for Virgin Sport SF: Virginsport.com/event/san-francisco-2017
Official hashtag: #VirginSportSF