Dr. Louis Sullivan and the 5K run he started on Martha’s Vineyard

Louis and Eve Sullivan on the deck of their home in Oak Bluffs. Islanders since 1966, they started walking together every morning some 30 years ago.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Louis and Eve Sullivan on the deck of their home in Oak Bluffs. Islanders since 1966, they started walking together every morning some 30 years ago.

Dr. Louis W. Sullivan knows that life is a long race and the important part is showing up to run it.

In 1989, he founded The Sullivan 5K race/walk, an event that represents an important part of his successful life philosophy while it serves as a major fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. An Oak Bluffs summer resident, Dr. Sullivan has lent his name, his presence, and his commitment to the 5K road race for the last 23 years.

An internist who was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993, Dr. Sullivan has used running as a personal and professional life tool for almost thirty years. “I walk the race every year,” he said.

This year’s race is coming up on Saturday, August 27. The course runs from Washington Park out around East Chop and back. The kids’ fun run begins at 8:45, walkers start at 9, and runners at 9:30. Participants can register for $15 from 3 to 6 pm on Friday, August 26, in the main lobby of the hospital, or for $20 on race day between 7:30 and 8:30 at Washington Park. The fee for the Kids Fun Run is the same both days, $5. Free tee-shirts will go to the first 300 registered participants.

Certified by the U.S. Track and Field Association, the 5K race is a mainstay on the professional and amateur running and walking circuits, according to hospital spokesman Rachel Vanderhoop. “In addition to promoting the benefits of daily exercise, the race has raised over $250,000 to support the hospital and the health of residents and visitors,” she said.

Sponsorships are available. All include race registrations and the sponsor’s name on the race tee-shirt. Levels of support are Platinum, $2,500; Gold, $1,500; Silver, $750; Bronze, $350; and Friend, $150. Additional information about the event is available at www.mvhospital.com/runwalk. Contact Erin Tilton at 508-693-4645 with questions.

While the race promotes Dr. and Mrs. Sullivan’s belief in the health benefits of daily exercise, Dr. Sullivan has also observed the community and relationship value of trotting together in his travels through more than 30 countries .

“My wife, Eve, and I began daily walks more than 30 years ago for fitness and weight control. We began using our fitness time to share information about our lives and families, to discuss the problems of everyday life,” he said in an interview with the Times last week.

Dr. Sullivan has had some experience with problems. “In 1954, there were no opportunities for African-Americans in Atlanta to be admitted to medical school. So I came to Boston University to complete my medical training,” he said.

The Sullivans continued their daily running practice and “When we got to Washington I was new to government and I had 164,000 colleagues who didn’t know me, so I invited them to join me on my morning run.

“It turned out to be popular, so as I traveled around the country, I invited employees at regional (HHS) offices to join me on a morning 5K run. Word spread and we established some great relationships within the agency. I met one employee who said he had spent 26 years at Health and Human Services and the run was the first interaction he’d ever had with its secretary,” he said.

Dr. Sullivan began the ascent to HHS secretary as a result of then-President George H. and Barbara Bush’s attendance at the dedication in Atlanta of Morehouse University’s new medical school in 1975, at which Dr. Sullivan was installed as president, 21 years after he left Atlanta to seek medical training denied him in his hometown. He was a prime mover in establishing the medical school at his alma mater.

Johns Hopkins Press is readying his history of the Morehouse School of Medicine next year. “Really, it’s a story of changing social dynamics in that time,” Dr. Sullivan said.

Dr. Sullivan has also had an active business life, serving on the boards of several major U.S. medical and healthcare product companies. He is chairman of the board of the National Health Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, whose goal is to improve the health of Americans by enhancing health literacy and advancing healthy behaviors. He also is chairman of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions, based in Washington, and an advocate of a “cost over care” approach to the nation’s healthcare planning.

Dr. Sullivan invests as much passion in his annual Island race as he does in a variety of national projects. “We’ve been coming to the Island since 1966,” he said. “I was telling some friends about our running experiences in other places and they said: ‘Do one here.’ So we began with 25 tee-shirts and a race in Waban Park. Fifty-two people showed up. Now it draws up to 350 people and we’ve moved to East Chop.

“During the third year, hospital employees showed up with water and oranges and a volunteer in his pickup truck came with a timer. We decided to turn the race into a hospital fundraiser with a theme of taking charge of your own health.”

Will the nation’s First Jogger attend? “We send the President an invitation each year but we understand the logistics may be too difficult to overcome,” Dr. Sullivan said.