Babcock McGraw: Suburban mom ready to tackle Chicago Marathon, eyes Olympics
Raising four children under the age of 9 makes running a marathon seem ... well, not easy exactly, but ... easier.
And maybe somewhat therapeutic, too.
Just ask Jeannie Sullivan of Clarendon Hills.
She was an all-Big Ten cross country runner at the University of Michigan in her prime. Now 38, Sullivan is starting to wonder if there is such a thing as a prime, part two.
Sullivan, a stay-at-home mom while husband Todd works in advertising, took at least five years off from serious distance running to birth and raise her young children, 8-year-old daughter Natalie, 6-year-old daughter Rory, 4-year-old son Dash and 2-year-old daughter Phoebe.
Life in the Sullivan household is hectic.
But Sullivan, who will run in the Chicago Marathon today, her first marathon since 2012, has found solace, sanity and fulfillment in returning to the marathon circuit.
She's also found new life, new possibilities.
Sullivan, post children, is running better than she ever has, setting personal records, winning all kinds of primer races and now believing that she could even qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2020 in Atlanta.
Her goal of a 2:50 at the Chicago Marathon is within reach considering her current PR is a 2:59, set four years ago. With a 2:50, Sullivan would be stunningly close to the qualifying time of 2:45 for the Olympic Trials. And she would have an entire year to work toward that mark.
"It's amazing how many women runners peak later in life, even after kids," Sullivan said. "Men in running usually peak a little earlier, in their late 20s to early 30s. I've seen a lot of elite women runners just killing it in their late 30s.
"I've realized that it (competing with elite runners) is totally possible for me. I've realized that I'm not done with this (sport). I still see myself with time to peak.
"Just because you are in your 30s and have children doesn't mean your athletic life is over."
The Chicago Marathon will be Sullivan's sixth marathon. She has run New York twice, Boston twice and San Francisco. San Francisco in 2012 was her last marathon before she took her "mommy break."
"When you have kids, everything changes and your body goes through so many changes. Your body is not your own. And it's also so easy to get wrapped up in everything that your kids are doing, that you have little time for anything else," Sullivan said. "That's why I decided that I didn't want to run a marathon again until my youngest baby was 2. It's a lot of time to invest to train for a marathon and it's not easy with young babies. It's just the energy level. It's hard to keep up with four very young kids all the time.
"But at the same time, I was anxious to be able to challenge myself to find a bigger purpose for myself. It was big for me to be able to get back into it and give myself something to strive for. So my youngest baby is 2 now, and I'm so excited to be doing this again."
Although Sullivan stayed away from marathons over the last five years, she was running other smaller races with the hope of being able to stay tuned up for her big return.
Even though she was busy with the kids and often tired and sleep-deprived, her times remained competitive and her results were impressive. She's got an entire corner of her finished basement, where she sometimes trains on her treadmill, devoted to all the medals and trophies she's won in these smaller races.
Just recently, as one of her final tuneups for the Chicago Marathon, Sullivan ran a 5K in Chicago and won it, surprising even herself in the process.
"My PR in college for a 5K was a mid-17 (minutes) and at this 5K two weeks ago, I ran a 17:45," Sullivan said. "At age 38 and with four kids, I never thought I'd be able to run that time again in a 5K. It just made me feel like, 'OK. Anything really is possible.' It's not like this ship has sailed. If I keep training, running fast is definitely possible."
It's possible that Sullivan could be training with her kids in the near future, too.
Her three oldest children have all run in local kids fun races already, and her oldest will run a mile with her here or there when she is training. And all of the kids are often at her races, stationed excitedly at the end to watch her cross the finish line, and in many cases break the tape.
"I think it's pretty cool for them to watch me run, and to see all the trophies and medals in the basement," Sullivan said. "I think it's valuable for them to see their Mom working really hard, trying to reach goals.
"I think that makes me a pretty good role model, and that's important to me."
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw