Rob Simmelkjaer’s career has touched numerous segments of the sports business, from the top echelons of management at ESPN, to on-air stints at the Olympics for NBC, to running sports-gaming policy in Connecticut in his capacity as the director of the state’s lottery.
But Simmelkjaer has always had his eye on one job — chief executive of New York Road Runners, the organization that stages the New York City Marathon and dozens of other races in the city. He made some informal inquiries about it when Mary Wittenberg left the organization in 2015 but was told the leadership was focused on internal candidates. During the last year, though, New York Road Runners conducted a national search to find its next leader, and Simmelkjaer threw his hat in the ring.
“It’s always been a dream job,” said Simmelkjaer, a two-time finisher of the New York City Marathon who spent the early years of his childhood in the city and attended high school in the Bronx.
His plans for the organization, which he will take over later this month, include new events and an emphasis on running as medicine to treat mental health struggles. He spoke with The New York Times recently about where he hopes the organization that has become part of the fabric of New York over the last 50 years can go in the coming decade.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
After being behind and in front of the camera, why did you want this job?
I have always loved this institution. I have run the marathon twice and have this connection from 1997. I ran that and was about to become a practicing lawyer. I trained that summer when I was studying for the bar. I’d been at Harvard Law School and went to the Red Sox game on Patriots’ Day, and I was so inspired by coming out and watching the runners run across the finish at the Boston Marathon. I ran cross country at Horace Mann. So I entered the lottery and got a number. I ran that race a week after I started at my law firm in New York. I was in love with that kind of running and Road Runners from that point forward.
Racing to the Finish Line
The New York City Marathon will take place on Nov. 6. The 26.2-mile, five-borough race begins in Staten Island and ends in Central Park.
What do you want to do with the job?
Road Runners is in a unique position to do a lot of things. It’s been through a challenging couple years. It is now perfectly poised to go on offense. There are a few things I am thinking about.
The first is creating some new events. I’ve got some ideas for things to bring new people into the ecosystem, new runners from diverse backgrounds. That is a big focus of mine, getting new runners. That is core to the mission. Improve peoples lives through running, then get people running.
We want to find some new partnerships. The organization has been playing catch up, and we want to be getting partnerships back on the board, brands and other entities that can help grow the mission and give Road Runners the resources it needs to create new programs.
I also would like to see Road Runners as not just a running organization, but also a mental health organization. The city and the country are in a mental health crisis. Anyone who has ever run any distance knows the benefits of running to mental health, to feeling that runner’s high. I think it can be a part of the solution. We need to focus on using running to improve not just physical but mental health.
What kinds of new events?
I have ideas but none are ready for public consumption. But they can be different types and locations and formats and themes and partners. We need to engage people. We need to move beyond the 5k in Central Park.
What does promoting running as a solution for mental health look like?
Getting more people to see running as a solution for whatever mental health challenges they have. Working with people in the mental health community. Getting people to see running as a pathway to improving their mental health can take the form of content and messaging. You saw folks posting about this during the pandemic. We have a post-pandemic population that is still struggling. We need to make it OK to be someone who says, “I was running because I was battling depression. Running is part of the solution for me.”
Do you see Road Runners as a big-event company or a community organization?
It’s both. There is no getting around that. There is no reason you have to choose one or the other. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. The events are part of the community mission. The revenue that is generated goes to fund other community activities, like outreach to kids’ running. Those things are symbiotic, not in opposition but supportive of each other.
Getting back to new events, will you incorporate things like Spartan Races or other events that stretch beyond the basic concept of road races?
I am supportive of any physical activity. Our lane is running, though. We’re going to try to make running less intimidating and more accessible to someone who defines themselves as not a runner. Can you run one lap around a track three days a week? You’re a runner. Then, can you go for two or four laps? Now, you are a running miles.
Do you see N.Y.R.R. as a leader in the sport nationally and internationally, or are you more focused on this city and this region?
Nationally, it’s already there. You put on the biggest marathon in the country, so it’s already there. People are bringing that experience back with them in their communities. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from people not in the New York area telling me they ran the marathon five, 10, 20 years ago and it was the best day of their lives. I’ve got former colleagues from running asking me, “How do I get in?” Road Runners has a world class antidoping program, teaches training techniques and has all levels of content. There is no reason your reach has to be limited, but our bread and butter is in New York.
This is the last marathon before you take over and have to work on marathon day. Are you going to run this Sunday, or in the future?
I have not been training. I ran in 2013. It was perfect. It was five days after my second daughter was born. I was living on 89th and Madison. I ran that race as part of Fred’s Team. But there is so much going on that day, I don’t think I can run the race. I will be making sure everyone else is having a great time.