The Victory Lap: Susanna Sullivan🏆

Joining us this week is quite possibly America’s Fastest Teacher, Susanna Sullivan! Just three weeks ago Susanna stuck to her race plan, placed 8th overall, was second overall American, and finished with a new personal best of 2:25:14. She chats with us about how she’s stayed healthy, how she battled through her last two marathons, and her goals for this upcoming year. Susanna also makes some connections between her own running career and her 6th grade students that could be of use for just about anyone!

I believe Kyle talked to you just after you took home the win at Cherry Blossom earlier this year, and in that conversation, you chatted about what your goals were for the rest of the year. Now, looking back, it’s pretty cool to see you put your intentions out there and to be talking to you now after some massive marathon performances. Let's start with your third-place finish and huge PB at Grandma’s Marathon — was that everything you wanted going into it? How did that set you up for yet another PB at Chicago, and a top-ten finish to boot?

So after Cherry Blossom, we kind of went back to the track for a little bit. I won Penn Relays two weeks later, and that was a nice confidence booster. I ran 15:29 there and ran pretty much everything except for like, the first mile all by myself. So I knew that when I went back out to California for the Track Meet, if for some reason I lost contact I could just, like, lock in on a pace and kind of grind. ButI was cautiously optimistic that the Track Meet would go well. I ran 31:56, and the standard was 31:48 or something like that [editor’s note, it’s 31:45]. But based on the rankings, it was pretty clear that I was going to get in.

And so I got in but it didn't really make sense to do USAs with Grandma’s being so close. We knew I hadn't gotten Covid yet, so we knew that there was a risk with it surging. If I traveled to Oregon, I could get sick with the travel and all that.

At the same time it was kind of like, “do you put all your eggs in one basket for Grandma's? or do you take advantage of this amazing opportunity?” When I was in college, I wasn't really that good. So I never had a Hayward experience or like a national championship experience. So I really, really wanted to go to Hayward Field. And of course I got Covid on that trip! It really was the worst kind of thing to happen.

I got back from that trip and still ran Grandma’s, but I didn't feel well in the race. I mean, it was okay, and I would’ve been very happy with it if I ran it a year prior, but like it just wasn't how the rest of the season had gone. I think June 1st was when I tested positive and Grandma's was on the 18th. So heading into Grandma’s, my coach kept saying at the end of the day, you just want to qualify for the Trials. I did not want to redo the 2020 Trials where I didn’t have a qualifier 3 months out. So the goal was to qualify for the Trials, but we did think that I was fit enough to run a pretty sizable PR.

Dakotah Lindwurm took it out harder than I had planned to run, and I decided to not chase after her, but I still ended up going out a bit faster than planned, and I ended up feeling great. I think just like having not much pressure — there was something to blame it on if it really went sideways! I felt pretty good the whole way. Something’s always going wrong in the marathon. And I had a little bit of side stitching, but nothing major, and I feel like I managed that well.

2:26, it was a big, big break. I know that it’s slightly downhill and we did have a tailwind, but it was still a six-minute PR. Even with that stuff, it was like, okay, this was objectively like a good step in the right direction.

You mentioned not really having that great of a college career, but now you’re competing at USAs and finishing pretty high up in these big marathons — how exciting is it to be competing against, and beating some of the best runners in the country now?

I feel like it's been a long time coming. I dreamed about this for a really long time and that I’ve taken small steps in the right direction for a long time. The last couple years, running has really been my priority. I kind of limited the distractions.

I live by myself. I run and I teach. I really dial in on nutrition and the strength stuff has kept me healthy. And I think that I’m finally being able to take advantage of a consistent block of training.

For a very, very long time, coaches and teammates along the way would tell me “nobody works as hard as you do.” And for a long time I was like, well then when is this going to happen? Or am I just not as good as I’m hoping I am? 

So it's just been totally cool the last two years or so to feel like it's all clicking. I see it with my sixth graders all the time, when you are feeling successful, it breeds more success. And when you're not feeling successful, I guess it's hard to get out of that feedback loop.

Chicago came across like it was a bit chaotic on TV. With the tailwind and record attempts, that first half looked wild for a lot of people. How was it out there for you?

It's funny that you say that because I was aware that all that was happening, but like this was a race where I felt very calm. One of my teammates I hadn't seen in a while was at Chicago. I saw her for the first time that morning and she said, “you just seem very chill.” You know, there hadn't been a hiccup since Grandma’s so I knew that I was in better shape, but I just didn't know by how much more.

I will say that one of the takeaways from that weekend was just how locked in all of the athletes were. Everyone was talking about which pacer or group they were going to key off of and I think almost everyone committed to their goal. So that was pretty cool.

Grandma’s was also helpful going into Chicago because I think that was the first marathon since my debut where I felt like I had executed a marathon properly. The five previous marathons before that got uncomfortable and a little out of control. So I went into Chicago hoping that 2:26 pace was going to feel somewhat comfortable.

I just needed to focus on running within myself and trying to get to 16 or 17 miles and still feeling like I could go faster and start picking people off. And that's what happened. I mean, I couldn't have asked for more. I was a little stressed out at points between 10km and maybe 10 miles because I started thinking I don't know if they're going to come back, but then all of a sudden I could feel it happening. There was always someone I could see in front of me. That really helped keep me in the race. I was kind of nervous about passing because you never really know if you’re going to hold up that placing, but it was really fun. I passed somebody and then I could see somebody else and could focus on going after them for the next mile or two.

What’s the plan from here? Full Olympic Trials cycle reset or are there some more races you have planned already?

It sounds cliche, but I’m just going to keep doing what we're doing. I don't need to start training differently. I just need consistency in training and I think I’ll keep improving from that accumulation.

I mean, this has been two solid marathon performances where I haven’t had a traditional marathon build, by other people’s standards, but it’s working for me. My mileage isn’t particularly high and my long runs aren’t super long. I get up to the mid-eighties, for the most part — sometimes a little bit more, sometimes I get up into the mid-nineties in the summer.

But I do a lot of cross-training, so I'm definitely getting a ton of aerobic volume all over the course of the week. I'm just not getting as much mileage on my legs. I think the plan for the spring is potentially doing London, but I think I’m going to go back to shorter stuff for the next couple of months, and hop back onto the track.

And I love Cherry Blossom, so I'd like to do Cherry Blossom again. It's my hometown race and it was good to me last year. If I end up doing London, then it would be a great tuneup before — I think it's three weeks before so the timing would be perfect. But yeah, I want to do some indoor races… go back up to Boston for some indoor races.

Yeah, that's kind of the plan!

It’s fun to hear someone who’s having a career breakthrough in the marathon say they want to go get back on an indoor track for some shorter races.

I mean, it's really cool. I am loving racing, and I feel like for so long racing was so frustrating. You just get to race more if you’re running shorter races, so that's a ton of fun. I'm 32, so hopefully I have a couple more good years in me. But I feel like if I neglect this side of things, then I won't have as many good years in me. I need the marathon pace to feel slow and the only way to do that is to run fast.

This is giving me hope that Kyle can run a solid one in New York. I think he’s trying to purposefully run as little mileage as possible and have a decent showing to prove a point.

Yeah, I think he'll probably run really fast!

His heart rate is the one thing that scares me — he just doesn’t have that many marathon miles under his belt to keep it in the 150s like everyone else.

Oh no, can’t be having that going through halfway.

When is your next race?

I think I'm going to do the Dash to the Finish in New York. So I'm going to go up there for the weekend. TCS is the title sponsor of New York and they have a team of teachers that they help out and get entries for and support through the whole marathon build. They've got like 50-something teachers running! So I'm going up there to be a cheerleader and run the 5k. And I think I'm judging a competition, too, a tech competition the day before. So it'll be a busy, but fun weekend.

Thank you so much to Susanna for sharing her story with us! If you’d like to follow along with her journey, you can do so on Instagram and Twitter.