At 53, Rachel Pratt Is Still Reaping the Rewards of an Active Childhood
Rachel Pratt joined New York Road Runners in 2015 as the senior vice president, youth & community services. Last year she led the organization in launching Rising New York Road Runners, a free youth fitness platform based on physical literacy, or the ability, confidence, and motivation to be active for life. The program centers on long-term athlete development—a lifelong journey that begins in early childhood and guides an individual’s lifelong experience in sport and physical activity. At the start of the year, Pratt also took on leadership of all of NYRR’s community efforts as well as Team for Kids, our adult runners who raise money for youth programs.
Pratt represents NYRR in the Aspen Institute’s Project Play 2020, a national, multiyear effort by leading organizations to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth.
Pratt recently sat down with The Run On to discuss her own personal and professional journey and her beliefs about lifelong health and well-being.
I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, the youngest of five kids. We were always active—playing kickball in the yard, doing gymnastics in the basement, riding our bikes, swimming in the lake, climbing on rocks. Living that way, getting those fundamental movement skills, gave me a confidence and a joy in moving that have stayed with me ever since.
I wasn’t much of a team sports person. I played basketball, and in high school I ran for two years—first the 100-meter hurdles and then the 2-mile, which I found painful. I always felt like everyone else was sitting on the bus waiting for me to finish. So for me, running didn’t really stick, and team sports in general felt like something you sort of had to do, versus just being active and physically confident as a natural way to live.
In college my sister’s boyfriend ran the Philadelphia Marathon and we went to watch. We saw him a couple of times along the course and then at the finish, all salt-lined and worn out but with a look of triumph in his eyes that struck me. I said to myself, someday I’m going to run a marathon. It was just too bad I didn’t like running! I was active, though—I biked, swam, lifted weights, worked as a lifeguard. When I moved to New York for graduate school and my career I never got completely out of shape—and I didn’t forget about my promise to myself to run a marathon someday.
For two decades I had a career in child welfare and human services. I was the Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, and then became the CEO of the Adoption Exchange Association, a national membership organization and the lead agency in AdoptUsKids, the Children’s Bureau’s national initiative to recruit and support foster and adoptive families for waiting children. It was fascinating work and felt like such an important cause, but at the same time I felt like it wasn’t a perfect fit for me.
In child welfare there’s a three-part mantra: safety, permanency, and well-being. To me, it always felt like well-being was given the short shrift. I started having conversations with a colleague who’d started a program in Chicago called Pathways to Development, which brought quality classes to kids—music, drama, cooking, theater, all kinds of things. It was a way to give kids something to become interested in and passionate about that they could carry through life. Because that’s what we want for our own kids, so why couldn’t we give it to kids in foster care?
At the same time I was also feeling like I had to claim back a part of myself. I was 44, working from home, with a 2-year-old, 4-year-old, and 17-year-old. Where was me? I wondered. I thought about the promise I’d made 25 years before to run a marathon. I started running two miles a day, three times a week. The next fall I ran the Portland Marathon in Maine and was totally blissed out the entire time. Since then I’ve run a total of 12 marathons and dozens of shorter races. I have a goal of finishing all six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors—I’ve done New York, Boston, Chicago, London, and Tokyo, and in September I’ll finish up with Berlin.
I could never have taken up running in my 40s—never have had the confidence—without the physical literacy I developed in childhood—the playing and climbing and riding and jumping and just being confident in my body. That is what allowed me to choose to run marathons as an adult, decades later. We all know that running long distances is a challenge—there are times it really hurts! But if we have that foundation of movement from childhood we have the confidence to push ourselves, take chances, and not be fearful.
When the opportunity came along for me to work at New York Road Runners I thought it was the perfect merger of my passion for children’s services and my love of running and movement. I knew that getting kids moving could give them confidence that would change them forever. I remember shortly after I started working here, listening to some kids tell their stories and tearing up. Even though I’d heard so many stories during my years in child welfare from kids who’d been through so much, the stories of kids who’ve found running and movement are somehow even more moving to me. They’re so empowered by what they’ve discovered about themselves, by finding strength inside themselves and doing things they never knew they were capable of.
One story I’ve shared many times is that of a young girl named Hope, from the Bronx (above, second from right). Hope’s parents had split up and she was angry and depressed and isolating herself and letting her grades slip. She discovered running through our program and it turned everything around. Her mother started running with her and lost 70 pounds. Hope is now a Rising New York Road Runners Youth Ambassador and she rode on the lead vehicle at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon as one of our grand marshals.
Through Rising New York Road Runners we’re able to have this impact on hundreds of thousands of kids. It has been extraordinary to work with the team here at NYRR who have grown an incredible free youth program since 1999 and really know their stuff. And across the organization, across all departments, I feel incredibly supported and inspired. The team at NYRR is the best in the business, truly.
Now that I am also deeply involved in our community efforts and with Team for Kids, my perspective on the importance of running and the linkages between runners of all ages is unfolding. I got to dive right into this work as we met with neighborhoods about the new course for the United Airlines NYC Half and as we get ready to launch three new Open Run sites across the city.
Looking ahead, we want to deepen our connections in communities and make a real impact in all neighborhoods across the city through free running opportunities for people of all ages. We are also working to bring Rising New York Road Runners to even more kids—including preschoolers, where we feel like we can have a big impact, and to programs run by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, where there’s a tremendous need. And we’re starting to shape a multi-year evaluation on Rising New York Road Runners to demonstrate a definitive improvement not just in physical activity and physical literacy, but also in behavioral, educational, and social outcomes. Ultimately we want to add to the body of research that shows that physical literacy leads to a lifetime of physical activity and better health.