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These elite runners say having a full-time job helps their performance

Susanna Sullivan, left, finished first in the 2022 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. (Dani Seiss/The Washington Post)

Just hours after winning the 2022 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in D.C. on April 3, Susanna Sullivan returned to her home in the suburbs, opened Zoom and prepared for an afternoon of virtual tutoring sessions. The unsponsored elite runner had just won the biggest race of her career and earned $14,500, but her life and routine as an elementary school teacher and high school math tutor in Northern Virginia continued.

“I had a foot in both worlds that day,” Sullivan, 32, said of running and teaching.

Most nationally ranked runners are full-time professionals, meaning they are sponsored and paid to run. But there are several successful elite runners who have elected to have full-time jobs outside of running, and they may have something to teach runners of all levels about how sports-life balance can improve performance.

The second-place finisher in the women’s division at the Cherry Blossom race this year, 28-year-old Carrie Verdon, is also an elementary school teacher. Sarah Sellers, 30, finished second at the 2018 Boston Marathon while working as a nurse anesthetist. Reebok-sponsored marathoner Martin Hehir, 29, is running career bests while juggling his duties as an anesthesiology resident. And earlier this year at the Houston Marathon, 37-year-old Keira D’Amato broke the American women’s record in the marathon there. D’Amato, a Nike-sponsored runner and mother of two, works as an associate broker and Realtor in Virginia.

For these elite runners, running often becomes an escape rather than an all-consuming career. And that, they believe, can lead to greater success. “​​I think, because everything outside of running is just kind of nonstop, running actually ends up being … an outlet,” Sullivan said. “I think just having so many things going on at once has gotten me very, very good at compartmentalizing. And I think you have to do that to race effectively.”

Sports psychologists and researchers in the field have emphasized the importance of athletes prioritizing their mental health and finding an identity beyond sports. “A happy, healthy human is going to be a happier, healthier athlete,” said Kristin Keim, a clinical sports psychologist. “So you’re going to perform better, whatever that better is.”

Keim is a former ballet dancer and competitive cyclist who has worked with a range of athletes, including collegiate and professional runners. She prefers the term “energy management” instead of “time management” or “balanced life.”

“Energy management can be another way of being present and practicing mindfulness,” she said. “This is important for athletes and really anyone, no matter what you’re doing each day. There is enough time each day when you set daily intentions.”

Keim believes that athletes can experience a performance enhancement if they allow themselves to be more well-rounded. “If running is your self care, that’s awesome,” she said. “If running is your pro job, they really shouldn’t look that different, because you should enjoy it. It’s just a different context.”

Anna-Maria Broomes, a PhD student in organizational behavior at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management who has researched sports-life balance, believes it facilitates performance. “And it’s not only performance in sports, but sports-life balance gives rise to a person’s value that exists beyond sports. So we find that, in terms of emotional well-being and strong social ties, work-life balance is important.”

Broomes also emphasized the importance of support networks that allow athletes to “make the best out of both worlds.” It’s important for athletes and coaches to remember that athletes are more than athletes, she said. “They’re holistic beings who desire to excel and to thrive, but in order to do that, they’re going to need support from loved ones and professionals who are in their corner.”

The 60 or so sub-elite runners of the Georgetown Running Club based out of D.C. are all full-time students or have jobs outside of their competitive running careers. Head coach Jerry Alexander schedules the team’s workouts on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings with that in mind, and he maintains that having a career outside of running benefits the athletes.

“When running is your job, when anything goes wrong — you get a little niggle in your Achilles or something — it’s like the world ended,” said Alexander, who has trained several U.S. Olympic marathon trials qualifiers. “And having balance in your life, I think, makes people run better.”

Sullivan believes that not having one all-consuming focus empowers her to become better in all of her pursuits. “I’m a teacher and I’m a runner,” she said. “It kind of helps me find satisfaction at the end of the day, when I feel like I’ve lived a day that has maximized my potential as a teacher and as a runner.”

A typical day during the school year looks like this: Sullivan gets up around 6 a.m. and goes on a seven- or eight-mile run. She will often include strength training before or after, then will go to work at Haycock Elementary School as a fifth-grade teacher from 8:30 a.m. to about 5 p.m. She then tutors for about two hours before running three or four miles and spending 45 minutes swimming at a local pool. Sullivan gets home around 9 p.m.

Fitting it all in requires a lot of planning and prep work. “If it didn’t happen on the weekend, it’s probably not happening during the week,” Sullivan said of meal planning.

But juggling running and teaching also means that she can’t always adhere to her schedule, something Sullivan is learning isn’t always a bad thing. “I’m gaining the perspective that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be nudging the needle in the right direction,” she said.

For D’Amato, working full time in real estate has allowed her to have a lucrative career outside of running and has kept it as her fun activity. “I was able to take risks that did not involve financial gains and running,” she said. “I wasn’t chasing paychecks. I was chasing my best times, and I was doing everything that I felt would make me the fastest runner.”

Hehir, who works for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and whose wife is expecting their third child in August, spent a year after college focused solely on running professionally. Looking back, he believes being a full-time runner was more difficult than balancing running and a full-time job outside of the sport. “There was a lot of downtime, a lot of thinking, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to just overthink and be too into your running,” he said.

He now sees running as a “perfect way to just distract yourself from work [and] de-stress.” It keeps him balanced. Working full time has made him a happier — and better — runner. “I can kind of say that I do it because I love it and because it’s fun, not because I have to and it’s my job,” Hehir said.

Kelyn Soong is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Find him on Twitter: @KelynSoong.