Dr. Joan Ullyot 07/01/1940 – 6/18/2021
These are the words I wrote for her RRCA Hall of Fame induction in 2018:
Joan Ullyot is a pioneer distance runner, an author and medical physician. Her expertise helped change the minds of the IAAF and IOC who held an archaic view that running was detrimental to a woman’s health. In fact, her research was presented to the IOC by Dr. Daly, LA Olympic Organizing Committee before the vote to include the women’s marathon in the 1984 Games. She is the only woman who ran the first and each sequential women’s international marathon championships in Waldniel, West Germany (1974, 1976 & 1979). Her PR 2:47:39 was winning the St. George Marathon in 1988 at age 48. She is a Wellesley College graduate, 1961. She ran Boston 10 times, winning the Master’s title in 1984. She helped unknown numbers of aspiring runners through her columns for Runners World and Women’s Sports & Fitness magazines and her books, Women’s Running and Running Free. She also served on the Advisory Board for the Melpomene Institute, a research organization on behalf of women athletes. She served on the International Runners Committee, seeking parity for women distance runners in the Olympic Games and all international competition.
Today, years of memories wash over me in mixed emotions, from revered to irreverent. Joan left big footsteps in her wake, and she has brought lots of smiles and laughter. She is legendary.
The world of running owes a debt of gratitude for Joan’s contribution to our history.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment we met, and while I feel sure it must have been prior to 1974, my most vivid memories emanate from the first Women’s International Marathon Championships in Waldniel, West Germany in the Fall of 1974 (yes, when there was a West Germany). Joan had earned her berth on the USA team from her participation in the first USA National Championships earlier that year. Beyond her role as a runner, Joan served as the team’s translator, being fluent in German, and our goodwill ambassador. The race sponsor was the world renowned sports medicine doctor, Dr. Ernest van Aaken. There was solid mutual admiration between them from the moment they met. This relationship continued for years, including book tours across the US by the German doctor, with Joan as translator and author.
In the book, First Ladies of Running, author Amby Burfoot writes about how Joan was inspired and mentored by Dr. van Aaken. He coached her to faster marathon times, and mentored her to take a leadership role in explaining the growth of the women’s running movement.
Joan wrote her own books, and scores of articles plus book chapters, for Runners’ World magazine. Any road running athlete of the early decades will tell you the magazine and related books were our bible of the sport. All these decades later, I still encounter women who attribute their start to running to the inspiration of Joan’s books.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Dr. Joan Ullyot’s role in advocating for our rights in the sport.
I appreciate this opportunity to point out the importance of the International Runners’ Committee work, and how Joan’s role was a critical factor to our success. There were 13 members of the IRC, who I call the “movers and shakers” in our sport. In brief, the IRC mission was to seek the inclusion of women’s distance running events on the Olympic Games program. It’s a long history since the creation of the men’s “modern Olympic Games” were formed without women’s events and it’s been an uphill battle ever since to add women’s events.
Even as late as the mid-70s, when Joan and I were at our prime, the longest event on the program was the 1500-meter race (the metric mile). That event was only added in 1972. The IRC sought the inclusion of the 5,000m, 10,000m and Marathon into the Games. It took until 1984 to add the marathon, and until 2008 to see all distance events included (5,000m, 10,000m and steeplechase). There’s a lot of history in those years, but suffice to say that without Joan’s professional testimony to women’s ability to endure distance events, we would not be where we are today. I know it is difficult to comprehend how and why the officials of our governing federations ever denied women the right to run, but this was the state of the sport up to and including most of Joan’s and my running careers.
Rest in peace, Joan. Your friends, colleagues, and indeed, the running community worldwide honors you and your contributions.
Here is a collection of photos with Joan: in the International Women’s Marathon Championships (1974 and 1976), a book tour in southern California with Dr. van Aaken, the International Runners Committee she hosted in her home in 1980, her place in the Boston Marathon Champions’ Circle (her Masters win is 1984, the monument came in 1996), and finally, meeting in San Jose, at the West Valley Track Club Reunion.
Here is a video of that 1974 International Marathon, which features Joan.