Get To Know Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Champion Susanna Sullivan

By Kyle Merber

April 6, 2022

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What started in 1973 as a tuneup race for elite runners looking to rev the ol’ engine a bit before the Boston Marathon, the Cherry Blossom 10 miler is a must-run for road warriors of all ages and abilities, regardless of whether Boston’s also on their racing calendar. That said, it now draws a pretty quick pro field each year.

On the men’s side, Kenya’s Nicholas Kosimbei followed up his win at February’s Atlanta Half Marathon by tying the course record: a swift 45:15.

And the story of the day in the women’s field was a familiar local elite face turning straight up elite. Susanna Sullivan won the race in a two-minute personal best of 52:32. Growing up in Falls Church, Virginia, and now residing in nearby Reston, Sullivan took home the victory in what was her seventh go at it. Now 31-years-old and a fifth-grade teacher, Sullivan is running the best she ever has. Her college bests of 16:56 and 36:14 have been, well, completely obliterated, as this season she ran 15:38 for 5000m and 32:04 for 10000m.

I spoke with her to learn more about her inspiring trajectory.

How long was Cherry Blossom circled on your calendar, being that it’s a local race? Does that create any added pressure or expectations being that it’s in your community? This must have been a special win for you!

If I’m healthy, I want to do Cherry Blossom every year. It’s a race with a lot of friends and teammates and I know the course well. When the weather is good, it can run really fast. It was a perfect day yesterday.

This whole spring is mostly focused on track, so I guess in a way, this one was circled because it was my best opportunity to get on the roads until I hopefully run Grandma’s Marathon, where I’d like to get the Trials qualifier out of the way. But this was really kind of that chance to get on the roads, and hopefully have a payday. My strength is the longer stuff and the track 5000m and 10000m are rewarding because I have been getting some personal bests, but those are definitely harder fought.

Could you share a bit about your career since graduating from Notre Dame in 2012? You’ve improved considerably since, but there have been some ups and downs along the way. Although you’re clearly at your best currently – how’d it all happen?

My time at Notre Dame was completely unspectacular in every way. I liked it and I made some great friends on the team. That whole side was great, but the racing was lackluster at best. I was just tired all the time and didn’t really understand the contrast between an easy and hard day. I was setting out every day to prove that I belonged, and it was just a cycle that I was always a little banged up and didn’t have it on race day.

After I graduated I joined Capital Runners until 2020 and things were really good there. The workouts weren’t as intense as they were in college, so I was able to pile on more miles. And that long grinding stuff is something that I think I thrive off of, even though it’s not necessarily the most fun, but it helps me stay healthy because the intensity was a little lower.

I ran my first marathon in 2015 and in 2016 I was 20th in the Olympic Trials. But that was kind of a bloodbath of a race because it was in L.A. and it was really hot and a whole bunch of people were dropping out. I don’t think I passed anybody on the third lap and I went up seven spots. It was a race of attrition.

In 2017, two weeks before the Philly Marathon, I was rear-ended and it really screwed up my hamstrings and it took a long time to heal. Every time I tried to come back, something else would hurt in that same region. I do look at it as a blessing in disguise because even though it was a hard two years physically, emotionally and all that, I realize that weakness was the root cause of my injuries. Now I have a strength regimen with a lot of single-leg balance and functional core stuff that’s helped me.

What’s your current situation with coaching and training? Are you up early every morning before school getting your runs in?

After 2020, I needed a change of scenery, and I linked up with Andrew Gerard, who’s at George Mason University. It’s a lot of longer things — my workout volume doubled and the intensity went down. It did wonders for my confidence as I adjusted to that. I’ve seen people post their workouts on Instagram and thought, ‘Oh my God, I could never!’ I might have been able to race against them, but I couldn’t do their workouts. Now I can.

I meet up with Gerard like, once or twice a week. The coach of Capital Area Runners, George, is like a dad to me. Even though I don’t do all of my training with him, I’m welcome to come to workouts and join for long runs. I run with some of my old training partners from CAR who are new dads and they can’t make practice and will jump in with me.

I’ve gotten a lot better at staying engaged in the workout when I’m on my own because the first couple of months I was miserable. I think I’m just generally hard on myself, but I was finding myself getting frustrated not having people around me to keep me accountable. I’ve gotten much, much better at that. It’s also just a maturity thing where I realized not every day has to be perfect for it to be progress.

Even though my teaching schedule is really predictable, I tutor a lot outside. And so I usually work another three or so hours after school. I go to the pool every day, so I play calendar Tetris to figure out where everything is going to fit.

As someone who is starting to come into their own a bit later, do you still have the same aspirations as earlier in your career — to go full-time as a pro or make the Olympics? Or do you approach the sport with the balance of someone who works full-time?

I definitely want to run as fast as I possibly can, and yesterday’s success has sort of got me starting to think, ‘am I doing everything that I can in my life outside of running to make sure that I can maximize it?’ I mean, I’m 31 and I’ve got a couple more good years to see what I can do. So it’s definitely not just a hobby – I like it, but it is also my priority.

I would love for this current situation to continue to bring the progress it has — a two minute best at 10 miles – clearly things are working. But every once in a while, I wonder what I could do. I actually think I do better with a highly regimented schedule and so I want to keep teaching. But if the right opportunity presented itself where I could focus full-time on running because I was running fast enough to justify that to a sponsor, I would be 100 percent open to that.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.