When one thinks of the New York City Marathon, one cannot help but think of Michael Capiraso. The two are synonymous because of his time with the New York Road Runners. Recognized as a visionary and transformative leader, Michael is the former CEO and president of NYRR. Over the years, he has established himself as an avid supporter of the running community and city of New York.
Throughout his tenure, Michael built a top-performing team of associates and expanded and diversified the company’s revenue streams. He nearly doubled the organization’s revenue to more than $100,000,000 and has doubled the number of participants in NYRR events, as well as in youth and community programs, to approximately 700,000. Additionally, he has established multi-year partnerships with TCS and New Balance; developed a partnership with Trust for Public Land in NYC to build playgrounds at schools in under-served communities; opened the NYRR Run Center; planned and implemented a profitable virtual racing platform; and played a vital role in evolving the runners experience.
Why was it so important for you to create a group that works toward a common goal?
New York Road Runners is so incredibly fortunate. The organization has been around for 60 years — putting on events, being out in the community, supporting runners, not only here in New York City but globally, obviously through the marathon and a few other big events and now through digital platforms.
The culture of the running community is fascinating. Having been a part of it now for almost 30 years, both outside and inside of New York Road Runners, I feel it is about the people. I say this — my wife says it all the time — runners are generally nice people. So, if you take a pretty nice group of people and get them to do something they enjoy or are passionate about, you’ve got a pretty good culture to start with. Then I think the best thing you can do is keep providing them with more opportunities to engage, more opportunities to come together and share experiences and give them exciting world-class events in which to participate.
Welcoming diverse people of all ages and abilities is really important. And I think, over the years, running has done that in a way. New York Road Runners makes that a big part of its mission — to help and inspire people through running. We wanted you to come and run with us, regardless of your speed, pace, ability, or background. We wanted all people to come and experience what we think is a special thing. We wanted to help people on their journey, and we try offering different things to welcome all to the running community.
They still have free 5K open runs in parks around the city. They also have group training, and kids running programs in school, as well as virtual products. The more opportunities you can give people to enter the sport and continue their journey, the more you can build the participation.
At NYRR, we were fortunate to have an incredible group of diverse talented people who are passionate about the mission and wanted to keep adding to it and sharing it throughout the community.
So again, I think we’re fortunate to be a part of an organization that has been doing this for 60 years. All of the people that have come before us have helped to build NYRR into something special.
Do you have any advice for someone who is building a running team? Maybe they’re building a college team. Maybe they want to change the culture of their high school athletes. Maybe it’s a team they’re creating for some work project.
One of the things I say to people when we’re looking to build a team is that we want people who have the right skills or care about what you do. One or the other is good. But if you can find people who have the skills to be part of your team and who have a real passion for what you do, then you have a really powerful combination. It’s where, according to that old saying, if you can find good qualities in people with real passion, you’re going to over-perform in whatever area it is.
Another thing I say is that it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. We all want to achieve things in one way or another. It is really important in life if we can look at the greater good and try to support it.
We get many people who apply for the opportunity to work here, and we spend much time making sure we find the right skills in people who are passionate about what we do. I’d give that advice to people.
Let’s go in a little deeper. Talk about the Run Center, featuring the New Balance Run Hub. How did that come about? Were people skeptical about the idea at first?
I give so much credit to Mary Wittenberg, the CEO before me, a good friend, and a running buddy as well. For years, Mary said we need to create this international running center. We had a building on 89th St. in New York City that was a mini version of that, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.
So, for years, Mary was on this journey. And when I was hired, I joined her on that journey. Along the way, we kept looking, and then finally we found a great location, and everything just came together.
It was one of those things that received great internal support; we had great support from our Board. And I think our running community was looking for that, but maybe they didn’t know they were looking for it in the same way. Mary and I used to hear it all the time — so what are you going to do in that run center?
It has become not only what we had envisioned but more. It’s a community hub for people. I have said this before: People love to run, and they love to talk about running. So, it’s a place where people can gather and talk about running; they can learn about running; they can share things. New Balance has a store there where people can get the latest gear. There are lockers, so people can drop off their stuff and go for a run. It has become one of those must-see places for runners and tourists when they visit New York City. We do history tours out of the Run Center; we do Run Talks. And the cool thing is that we’ve started to share those activities on digital platforms. People can now experience part of the Run Center from wherever they are in the world. And to me, that shows how we continue evolving along the way.
What do you see for the future of the Run Center? Are you coming up with more ideas all the time? Or do you feel you’ve hit capacity for what you can handle? Anything you or your team sees in the future?
There were more things being implemented. We had started doing a lot more free programming — free yoga, stretching, nutrition, and things like that. The idea was to increase the different activities that runners are doing because we feel that the non-running support is critical to the running community. Education and things like that, we had done some of it past, but we wanted to do more in the future. There are also opportunities to do more digital broadcasting as well. We’ve done some book signings and run talks, but there’s more to do there.
You helped organize Team for Kids and Rising New York Road Runners which serve more than 250,000 youth nationally. Can you tell us about this initiative – where New Balance donated a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased in the New York Road Runners Run Hub? Tell us where that idea came from, why you felt it was important, and why working with kids, in general, is so important to you.
So, our One for You, One for You program was terrific. We had given out close to 15,000 pairs of shoes over the past few years as part of the partnership with New Balance.
It was interesting how the idea came about, and I give my wife much credit for it. We were about to partner with New Balance when she and I went out to celebrate our anniversary. I was talking about how excited I was about the partnership. I said we want to keep doing more, and she said — well, why don’t you give away a pair of shoes for every pair you sell at the Run Center? And I was like, that’s a great idea. So, I called up the CEO of New Balance and shared the idea. They are so great about supporting the community and giving back. The program has been going strong for the past few years, and we’re looking to expand it and give away even more shoes to kids in New York City.
We often say running is a fairly easy sport to get into — all you need is a pair of sneakers, and you can get out there and start running. If we can help people get into the sport, we want to continue doing that through our great partnership with New Balance.
Overall, the commitment to youth and the local community has existed for many years; it’s part of the New York Road Runners mission. During my time we celebrated 20 years of free youth running programs in schools. All of the youth programs are free, whether it’s a school program or a race. They are in more than 800 schools around the NYC and nearly that many schools around the country. It’s a great program, and it teaches kids the importance of running, health, and fitness. It’s also a fun program to get kids moving. They have different games kids can play that get them moving as part of the Rising New York Road Runners curriculum. It’s a great way to create the next generation of runners and support the community.
As part of that mission, they also look at how they can support adult runners. NYRR has 20 per week 5K runs/walks in the city. There is also a seniors program where they get seniors out walking in community centers and parks around the city. It’s all part of that mission to inspire people through running, and we are very passionate about making sure that diverse groups of people feel welcome to gather and run with others and be a part of the great running community. I always woke up in the morning thinking about how we can continue to do that and remain inspired by it.
How does helping kids get started in running help the future of the sport? What are some of the benefits for these kids?
Besides the obvious benefit they get from moving and the health aspect, running is part of most sports. Many kids are not going to be introduced to the sport of running itself. They may not have a track program; they may not even have an opportunity to run races. By introducing them to Rising New York Road Runners, I felt that they may decide that they want to run a short race or decide that they want to explore more about running as they grow up. We wanted them to be open to it the same way they’re open to other sports. Giving them these free programs in school at least opened them up to the opportunity and made them aware of it.
We even saw people who started in our Rising New York Road Runners program that are now running NYRR adult races. We’ve even had one come back and run the marathon — not that that’s the end goal, but we helped get them into the sport of running, and some of them are now lifelong runners.
What about Team for Kids? People often see these green jerseys around the city that says “Team for Kids.” Explain that part of what you do.
It involves an amazing group of adults who run to raise money for the free youth programs. It gives people an opportunity to enter some of the premier races. It’s become a great community of runners.
We had about 1,300 or 1,400 finishers in the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon during my time there, in fact the number may be higher than that — and we raised money for our youth programs. I’ve run with Team for Kids during the New York City Marathon for more than a decade, and I’ve raised money as well. It’s a great way to give back to the community. The program continues to grow, and we love seeing those green shirts with the Team for Kids logo and knowing that people are giving back to the community.
It’s cool, too, because it’s a training group in and of itself. We provided training, tools, and coaching for runners — certainly here in New York City and around the country and the world as well — who run with Team for Kids. We’re were so thrilled that it became such a great way to get people into running and have them give back to the community and provide kids with the opportunity to experience the benefits and fun of running.
Check out Michael’s Medium for more information on his next charitable cause.