When it comes to innovation, pushing the envelope, entrepreneurship and just plain experiencing life at its most challenging and enjoyable heights, Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin brand are among the all-time great facilitators of achieving what others might deem impossible. When it came time for Branson and Virgin to break the mold and branch out to the world of sports and fitness, they sought-out another visionary and overachiever in Mary Wittenberg, the one time head of the New York Road Runners who took the New York City Marathon from being "just" another marathon to one of - if not the - biggest and best in the world.
Branson, together with co-founder Freddie Andrewes, tapped Wittenberg as their brand new CEO and Chief Exercise Officer to guide their vision to launch Virgin Sport and the result will be the first-ever Virgin Sport Festival of Fitness to be staged in conjunction with a full weekend of fitness activities in the San Francisco Bay area on the weekend of October 14-15, 2017.
Athletes, both expert and beginners, can participate in the festival which is anchored by the Twin Peaks Mile on October 14, and the SF Bay Half Marathon on October 15. All around those events, meaning before, after, in-between and during, Wittenberg and the Virgin Sport San Francisco team are creating a weekend-long calendar of active lifestyle challenges and events to entertain the participants. From music and food vendors to highlight the local SF-Bay fare, the family-friendly event is geared to building a full weekend for active lifestyle lovers.
"I was at NY Road Runners and always able to grow but heard that Richard Branson really wanted to go global with trying to 'get people moving' all around the world and bring some of that 'spirit' that really motivates me. I always wanted to take what we were doing 'on the road,' and thought, 'Wow, I can do this,'" said Wittenberg when asked about her transition from heading the NYC Marathon to climbing the mountain of a start-up like Virgin Sport. "For me, this is a perfect fit. I care a lot about making an impact everyday and I need to be in an environment where it's inspirational, it's forward-thinking, very dynamic and it's open to seizing opportunity and working for Richard and Virgin, it's the best of both worlds."
"He is so far ahead of his time," added Wittenberg on Branson. "He cares about things I care about, creating a great workplace with diversity. He cares about having impact and creating value, and that's a great combination, right? Can you create value for the consumer, for the community and for your company. It's a really nice mix of delivering at a high level and having the runway for being creative and entrepreneurial and opportunistic."
At the Virgin Sport San Francisco events, Wittenberg's goals are plain, simple and, at the same time, daunting: "We want to get millions of people moving, and second, we want to get people to take on challenges and get out of their comfort zone and get that satisfaction and fulfillment. We, at Virgin, can just wrap it in 'fun' and make it much more accessible for people. Sports fans love challenge and putting 'Virgin' in front of 'Sport' is the opportunity.
"We looked at the space and said we don't need to do what other people are doing, so we looked and asked ourselves, 'what is missing?' asked Wittenberg. "So we realized there is nowhere where all your friends and family can come be apart and active participants in a weekend of sport fitness. So often, it's 'the marathon' or the 'Iron-Man' so we wanted to create a happening where it's wrapped in culture and fun and the spirit of a community, like San Francisco. So whether you do the 'Half' or the 'Twin Peaks' fit and run or the Flywheel classes we have or a meditation with the CEO of Headspace, there's something for everybody with a spirit of 'all-in, give-it-a-go and I'm going for it. That's the idea - we created the Festival of Fitness. We wrapped it in a variety of culture, food, fun and fashion," she said.
As Wittenberg completes the first event in San Francisco, Virgin Sport will be looking to London for additional "Festival of Fitness" event(s). "In 2018, we'll have three London-based events," said the Virgin Sport CEO. "In the US, we'll have a footprint in different cities - like San Francisco - and build around those, maybe two more next year in the US."