U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker’s Passion For Triathlon

Penny Pritzker. Photo: Stephen Voss

Penny Pritzker juggles her high-powered job in Washington with a pioneering passion for multisport.

When President Obama appointed her United States Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker was only one of a few women to ever hold that cabinet position. But with more than 27 years of large business leadership and a successful track record of entrepreneurship, she was a natural candidate for the job. As with this appointment, Secretary Pritzker has made a practice of reimagining personal potential.

Born in 1959, Pritzker came of age before many high schools had women’s athletic teams. Indeed, her school did not. Her solution? Train and race with the nearby boys’ school’s track and cross-country teams.

As an undergraduate economics student at Harvard University, Pritzker continued to run. But it wasn’t until she was in the thick of graduate work at Stanford University, simultaneously pursuing her MBA and her law degree, that she returned to racing. During a jam-packed first year of graduate school, when most would have found it impossible to train, she found a team instead of an excuse. With them, she logged many miles on the way to her first marathon, the 1983 Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, Calif.

That was around the time that Pritzker learned from one of her marathon mates about the fledgling sport of triathlon. In 1984, the year that Pritzker competed in her first Olympic-distance triathlon in California, 150 women crossed the finish line at the Ironman World Championship. One year later, she would follow suit. In her first race of 140.6 miles and without access to modern racing technology (e.g., a carbon fiber TT bike, power meter, aero helmet), Pritzker clocked a time of 12:59:43, just sneaking under the 13-hour mark.

In the nearly 30 years since then, triathlon has remained an important part of Pritzker’s life. In the early stages of courtship, Pritzker and her future husband, fellow triathlete Dr. Bryan Traubert, “got to know each other running.” A typical date consisted of a run, dinner and a movie. They still race triathlons together. “Well,” Pritzker clarifies, “we’re on the starting line together. He’s much faster than I am.”

Just as they pursued athletic goals together, Pritzker and her husband are helping their native Chicago rise above one of the great hurdles of the 21st century: the childhood obesity epidemic. They focus much of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation’s efforts on increasing youth access to physical activity. The couple also founded ChicagoRun, an innovative program that instills in elementary children the healthy practice of jogging and prepares middle school students to run their first 5K. Thanks to ChicagoRun, more than 13,000 Chicago-area students, many of whom live below the poverty line, now include physical activity as part of their daily routines. In 2012, Pritzker and her husband established the Take the Field program with a $5 million grant and a call for more private investment in health outcomes for the city’s youth. As a result of their initiative, they helped to bring 11 state-of-the-art artificial turf fields to a geographically diverse set of Chicago parks, thereby increasing access to sport for more of Chicago’s kids. Pritzker explains, “I am a big believer that [fitness] is good for everybody.”

Indeed, Pritzker also supports the athletic pursuits of even the busiest members of her staff. “We at the Department of Commerce,” she explains, “promote a healthy lifestyle.” With her encouragement, a number of her staff ran the Nike Women’s Half Marathon together. They joined the ranks of the other decorated marathoners, ultra-marathoners and Ironman finishers on her team.

Perhaps most impressive of all, Pritzker leads her Washington staff and Chicago-based fitness initiatives by example. Decades after her Kona debut, and even after her acceptance of one of the nation’s most demanding appointments, she continues to compete and podium in road races and triathlons alike. With a daily dose of exercise, she faces the complex challenges typical only to a member of the president’s cabinet.

“There’s nothing that a 45-minute run can’t fix,” she reasons.

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Making Time to Train

So how does Pritzker, a wife, mother of two, a philanthropic leader, and the secretary of commerce in the world’s largest economy, find space in her day to train? Her top three tips:

  1. Work out in the morning. Secretary Pritzker knows all too well that one can’t predict what the day will bring. “There is no guarantee that you will have the time at night,” she says. Instead, schedule your exercise time for the morning.
  1. Have a plan. Before you go to sleep, know if you are going to swim, bike or run the next day and what that workout will entail. With a plan, she says, “you know what you are trying to fit into your schedule” and can plan your busy day accordingly.
  1. Buddy up. Whenever possible, Pritzker says, it is “helpful to have a workout buddy.” Sometimes she too needs the extra motivation.

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