A conversation with her mother and a television documentary changed the trajectory of Vanessa Peralta-Mitchell’s life. They led her to take up running; become a Certified Run Coach; and create the Game Changers and L.E.A.D. programs, redefining who is seen as the experts and leaders in the run industry. This year she was honored with Running USA’s Award of Excellence, which recognizes “outstanding contributions, initiative, leadership or innovation in the running industry.” Vanessa checks all of those boxes.

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Vanessa’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, each with their own aspirations. But her mother set her dreams aside to support her husband and raise their children. She didn’t regret choosing marriage and motherhood, but when her children were grown she couldn’t help but think of the goals she had sacrificed and one day she told Vanessa, her youngest daughter, about them.

“Here’s the strongest woman I’ve known my whole life,” Vanessa recalls, “being so vulnerable in front of me. She was sharing with me that she didn’t get to fulfill certain aspirations she had when she came here. And looking back, it was almost as if she was pouring into me to tell me that I don’t have to wait for my goals, for my dreams, for my aspirations. I can do them right now. Owning a business, creating a program, or anything like that was never on my radar. And even on that day, in that moment, it still wasn’t on my radar. But in some way, it was like she granted me permission to seek out this new space, seek out this possibility, this potential of ‘What if I could,’ and passing me that baton.”

Vanessa wasn’t ready to run with the baton yet, and it took her a while to realize how deeply her mother’s words affected her. “It took me a long time to understand that maybe I do have an idea, or maybe I should build a business, or maybe there’s more than what I know that I’m capable of. That doesn’t happen overnight; that doesn’t even happen in a couple of days. It’s really a journey. And then once you get to a certain milepost, you can look back and understand what has gotten you to that milepost. And my mom was definitely the starting point. That was the moment that gave me the okay, that green light, that permission, that space, that platform essentially, to live a life without limits.”

While it was her mother who inspired Vanessa to pursue her dreams, those dreams stemmed from an unusual source: a TV documentary. Neither her high school nor her college had track teams, so although she ran as part of playing other sports, she didn’t think of herself as a runner. Then she saw the HBO documentary, Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports. “It totally changed the trajectory of my life,” she says.

“After seeing K. V. Switzer’s story, and not just hers, but every woman who dared to go against the grain and dared to proclaim her presence in a space that wasn’t designed or created for her, It just made me think, ‘Wow, they did so much for us just to simply register for a race or be in sports, and how dare I not pay homage to them in some way?’ And for me, it was like, ‘I’m going to run a marathon.’ I never ran other than soccer, basketball, you know. But that day I promised myself and it took me a lot of years, but along that journey, it became known among my friends, family, community, that I was running. And all of a sudden I became that expert among my circles and I wanted to step up to that level of responsibility and that’s why I got certified.” 

When Vanessa went to get certified as a Run Coach, she was one of only two People of Color in the room, and the only woman. After she got her certification and started looking for opportunities within the running space, she saw the same thing everywhere; the businesses she approached were all headed by white males. “It just started enabling me to connect the dots of certification; who was in front of the room, who was teaching me all the information I needed to learn? Same gender, same race. So I go back to thinking about my marathon, joining a training program, getting coached; who are those people that were teaching me and giving me the green light in terms of, ‘Yes, you can move on to this’? Again, same gender, same race. The people I was working with, brands and businesses in the running industry, it was the same message over and over and over again. And finally, I was like, ‘You know what? That’s it. I’m gonna do something to showcase that there are other experts in the industry.’”

She wanted to put together a panel of experts who were Women of Color and she wanted them to be certified. She discovered, however, that there were very few Women of Color who were Certified Run Coaches, and that many of the women she approached either didn’t know about certification or the cost made it inaccessible for them. From that seed, Game Changers was born, a program that aims to bring in more Women of Color as Certified Run Coaches through funding, mentorship, and business strategy.

The first panel that Vanessa assembled, in 2020, had only two Women of Color on it. Three years later, thanks to Game Changers, there were six. “That we can provide these diverse perspectives to race expos really shows that we are the thing that we were looking for back in 2020. We have built this space, this opportunity, this platform for ourselves to be the solution to the problem that we were having in terms of not having a lot of us in this expert space.”

Vanessa has also created The Female Coach L.E.A.D. (Leveraging – Educating – Amplifying – Diversity), a monthly IG Live series that showcases different expertise within the running industry. In April, the Game Changers panel will be at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and 5K Run-Walk. There will also be 30-35 Game Changers coaches there, and two Game Changers are the official coaches for the Cherry Blossom 5K. Vanessa herself is one of the three coaches who created the training programs for the Every Woman’s Marathon.

Winning Running USA’s Award of Excellence was a complete surprise to Vanessa, so she had nothing planned to say when she went onstage to accept it. “I don’t know what I said in that moment right after, but I know I said something and whatever it is that I needed to say in that moment, it felt so effortless. And I think that’s just for me, such a clear sign of what it is that I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It’s so rooted in my soul and my gut of who I am.

“After I left the stage, I couldn’t have told you what I said. But I know that I confidently showed up representing me, my mom, our Game Changers, and every Woman of Color whose voice has not been heard in a room. And that’s how I know what I’m doing is not only important and impactful, but I know that I’m supposed to be doing it. I know this is my assignment. I know this is what my life and God have guided me to do. Moments like that, that I can just speak freely and accurately and boldly and confidently about what we’re doing with Game Changers, I sure as heck know that it’s for a reason.” 


Vanessa’s website

Vanessa’s Instagram

Vanessa’s LinkedIn

Game Changers Panel video

Female Coach L.E.A.D.

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