On November 4, 2018, Peter Ciaccia leapt up on the starter’s platform of the TCS New York City Marathon and scanned the crowd spread out before him, a multicolored blob of runners bobbing up and down for as far as his eyes could see. More than 52,000 in all, the largest marathon field ever established.
Ciaccia exhaled. He clutched the microphone, and he began addressing the crowd as he has done for the past four years he’s served as the marathon’s race director. But this time was different. Ciaccia’s voice, usually strong and commanding, wavered. The emotions, it seemed, were creeping in. As though aware of his own fragility, Ciaccia took his time with his standard pre-race message. He acknowledged his dear friend and colleague Michael Capiraso, New York Road Runners CEO, with an impassioned hug. And, finally, he took one last deep breath and delivered the seven words that can instantly inject anxiety and excitement into anyone who has ever run this historic race.
“Do I have clearance on the roadway?”
With that, the howitzer fired, the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” floated through the crisp, autumn air, and the runners took off. The marathon had begun. And Ciaccia’s career was just hours away from ending.
A Fearless Vision
Ciaccia, 65, didn’t always aspire to be at the helm of the world’s largest marathon. Rather, he honed his business savvy in the music industry, where he held executive positions for CBS Records and Sony Music Entertainment. But it was his love for running—first discovered as a kid growing up in the Bronx—that eventually brought him to NYRR. An avid runner prior to taking his position as the technical director of NYRR 18 years ago, Ciaccia clocked 3:22:29 in the 2001 New York City Marathon.
At the time, he was the right-hand man to Mary Wittenberg, NYRR’s CEO and the first female director of a major international marathon. From the start, Ciaccia admired Wittenberg’s visionary spirit. He found a kinship in their shared desire to grow and nurture their sport, not only in New York City but around the world.
“She was a woman in a male-dominated field, and that’s a tough thing. But Mary didn’t feel that pressure. It was always about how can we make this organization and these running events the best,” Ciaccia says. “What I loved about Mary is that no idea was ever too big. That plays into my DNA. I’m wired like that, too. We respect how to get things done and we do it. That’s how we got to where we are today.”
Indeed, during Wittenberg’s tenure, NYRR expanded from a grassroots organization to a global force. When she resigned from her position and passed the baton to Ciaccia and Capiraso in 2015, the staff had ballooned from 45 full-time employees to a roster of more than 150. In 2016, the company moved out of its original digs in a restored brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a sleek office building in Columbus Circle. Inspired by Wittenberg’s bold, broad thinking, Ciaccia continued to fearlessly aim high.
It was an approach not lost on Ciaccia’s colleagues, who learned to constantly embrace change as NYRR evolved.
Jim Heim,NYRR’s senior vice president of event development and production and Ciaccia’s successor, cites the recent course change of the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon as an example of how Ciaccia successfully shook things up. He championed Heim’s vision to shift the event from a race run strictly within the boundaries of Manhattan to a multi-borough event starting in Brooklyn and finishing in Central Park. It was a plan met with plenty of skepticism, but Ciaccia refused to back down.
“Change can be tough to adapt, and while Peter is certainly very cognizant of that, he also preached that if you really believe in something to be fearless in seeing it through,” Heim says. “He never stopped pushing us forward. ‘Good’ was the enemy of ‘Great’ for him when it came to our events.”
Emboldening Women Runners
One of the major initiatives born out of the Wittenberg era was the desire to propel American long-distance runners—women in particular—to the forefront of the sport. After all, at the time, no American woman had broken the tape in Central Park since 1977. Wittenberg wanted to shift that narrative. So NYRR began funding Olympic-development training groups across the country. They also reached out to emerging American talent, enticing them to debut at the marathon distance in New York.
Among those runners was Shalane Flanagan, who first ran the NYC Marathon in 2010, finishing third. That run set the stage for 2017 when Flanagan famously strode down Central Park West, and with an emphatic “F%&$ yes!”, won the race and sealed her place in the annals of sports history.
Ciaccia was there to catch her at the finish, planting a kiss above her blonde ponytail while draping the American flag over her shoulders. His beaming smile—broadcast across the world—said it all: As much as the victory was Flanagan’s, it was NYRR’s, too. It was Wittenberg’s. It was Ciaccia’s.
A Running Respect
Through the years, Ciaccia and his team made it a priority to develop lasting, personal relationships with the professional athletes who run their races. It’s this rapport that’s kept runners like Flanagan coming back to NYRR’s marquee events year after year. (In fact, when Flanagan made her decision to run New York this year, perhaps as the final chapter in her own storied career, she joked that her reason for returning was that she “couldn’t pass up being a part of Peter Ciaccia’s last race.”)
Jenny Simpson, the five-time reigning champion of the NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile, says it’s not just the way Ciaccia treats the pros that makes him stand out. It’s how he has an obvious respect for all runners. And, Simpson says, the feeling is mutual.
“I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with Peter over many miles of racing in the city. My deep respect for him comes from how I’ve observed his heart for inclusion,” Simpson says. “He is a champion of what it looks like to expand our sport by truly valuing each person at every age and skill level. I have learned from his example how to be more that way myself.”
The Road Ahead
Ciaccia’s decision to retire did not come easily. But he admits his all-consuming career forced him to sacrifice time with his family and his ability to pursue other passions, like traveling (he’s currently on a bucket-list trip to New Zealand and Australia) and yes, even running.
“I came into this job because I was a runner, but I haven’t had much time to do that lately,” he says. “There are a few races I’ve been eyeing, and I have some open invitations to enter them.”
So, will we see Ciaccia among the masses in Staten Island one day?
“Maybe,” he says with a laugh. “It would be nice to see things from the other side.”