Tom Sisulak ran his first marathon 40 years ago on July 24, 1973 in Madison, Wis. On Sunday, the now 66-year-old Riverside resident completed his 36th marathon finishing the Chicago Marathon in 4:43.03.
Sisulak has also completed 30 Birkebeiner cross-country skiing marathons that are about 34 miles long, so he likes to say that his has now done 66 marathons at age 66.
Why does he do it?
“I guess I just love to run,” Sisulak says.
Physical fitness has always been part of Sisulak’s life. His father, Frank, who lived to age 102, had young Tom doing arm exercises as a toddler. Frank Sisulak was a star schoolboy athlete in Chicago in the 1920s and in 1929 was named the YMCA’s No. 1 athlete in Chicago, an award given to him by legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.
Tom Sisulak still has that award displayed in the living room of the house where he grew on Herrick Road, where he now lives again. The living room in the white stucco house is practically a museum to his father and Tom’s accomplishments.
Growing up in Riverside, Tom always loved sports. At Riverside-Brookfield High School he competed in cross country, gymnastics and track and field. He was no star, but a solid contributor on his teams and was named most improved runner his senior year in cross country, a sport that he didn’t begin until his junior year.
He graduated in 1965 and moved on to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., where he continued to compete in all three sports. He ran on a conference championship cross country team at Carthage and helped start the gymnastics program.
When a physical education teacher offered to give an A to anyone who broke a school physical fitness record, Sisulak was up the challenge. He did 100 pushups in one minute and did sit-ups non-stop for one hour and 45 minutes, doing 2,117 in all.
He graduated from Carthage in 1969 and got a job as teacher and coach at West Aurora High School. Two years later he was let go in a round of budget cuts, but landed a job teaching math and physical education at LaFollette High School in Madison, where he stayed for 31 years.
He coached cross country, gymnastics and track and field at LaFollette and his teams won five state championships and 25 conference championships.
He moved back to Riverside in the early 2002 to take care of his aging parents. His mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died at age 94 in 2005. His father was active until the end of his life, even throwing a lighter weight discus and a javelin at masters track-and-field meets when he was more than 100 years old.
Sisulak coaches the RBHS girls gymnastics team and has also served as a volunteer assistant coach for the Concordia University men’s and women’s track-and-field teams for the last few years.
Coach Tom, as he is known to many, loves to coach. He does private coaching of kids and adults through the Riverside Sports Academy, which he founded. Sisulak also makes and sells cross-country skis and kayaks out of his home.
He is as active at age 66 as he was as a 6 year old. In addition to running marathons and other road races, he competes in many masters age group track meets and has won three national titles at 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters. He completed the Boston Marathon in 2011.
He says that has run every Riverside Fourth of July 5K race since the race began, and admitted that he is more competitive now than he was when he was younger; he still gets nervous the night before a race.
“Even at this age I get nervous and sometimes have a hard time sleeping,” Sisulak says.
He trains no matter what. Sisulak says that he has run at least one mile every day since June 24, 2008. He forces himself to jog a mile even if he is sick. He has managed to avoid injuries for the past seven years, which he credits to his accumulated strength from a lifetime of training combined with the knowledge he picked up as a coach.
“I developed systems to avoid any and all injuries,” Sisulak said.
He typically runs 30 to 40 miles a week. He does weight work with dumbbells and also rides his bike.
Sisulak is a goal-oriented person. Before every major race he makes a list of 10 goals, some easy, some very difficult.
At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon he met three of his 10 goals — he got to the starting line, he finished the race and he finished in less than five hours. But he didn’t meet his more lofty goals. He was hoping to qualify again for the Boston Marathon, which would have required, at his age, a 4 hour, 10 minute marathon, and he had visions of breaking four hours.
Despite what seemed to be ideal conditions, however, he ran his slowest time since he began running the Chicago Marathon in 2007.
The race went well for the first half. He was running a steady pace and passed the hallway point in 1:55.56, on pace for a sub four-hour marathon. But the second half of the race was a different story as Sisulak slowed substantially over the last eight miles.
“My race pace began sliding away very quickly,” Sisulak said in an email. “The final four miles were an unexpected struggle.”
He ended up finishing 80th in his age group and 23,877th overall.
By Sunday night Sisulak was already analyzing what happened. He says that he thinks he may have been victim to what he called “the perfect weather negative factor.” The low humidity caused him to drink too much during the race he said.
He wrote a five-page race summary and already has set up a training plan to get ready for the 2014 Chicago Marathon.