Dr. Joan Ullyot “Age, experience and cunning can overcome youth and ability.”

Dr. Joan Ullyot was an inspiration, women’s running pioneer and trailblazer who Liz and I ran with in several Dolphin South End Club (DSE) races in San Francisco. 

When Dr. Ullyot ran in a DSE race it was always a topic of conversation. She was bound to finish amongst the top runners.

Liz and I have been running for 50 years. We started this effort in Germany in 1971.

We say with pride that at one time each one of us finished ahead of Dr. Ullyot. Liz finished ahead of the Doctor in an arduous race whose course traversed the steep hills adjacent to the Legion of Honor and ended at the ss San Francisco memorial at Lands End. I will always remember the shock I experienced passing Dr. Ullyot as we ran by Spreckels Lake towards the finish line at the Windmills by Ocean Beach.  It was a once in a lifetime experience.

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Ribbons chronicling Liz and Lee’s DSE race history in their 50’s

Excerpted from The New York Times. 8.5.2021

When Joan Ullyot, a physician and an accomplished runner, published her book “Women’s Running” in 1976, she took on a daunting set of traditional ideas that boiled down to one admonition: Women should not run long distances.

Dr. Ullyot ran her last marathon, the Boston, at 56. But she never lost her competitive spirit. When her son Theodore ran a marathon in two hours and 50 minutes, beating Dr. Ullyot’s personal record, she resolved to outdo him. After intense training, she beat his time by a full two minutes.

Mr. Ullyot recalled his mother saying, “You boys can have all the records in this family short of a marathon, but you’re not taking the marathon record from me.”

“I’ve had a motto since turning 40,” Dr. Ullyot told The Times in 1989, when she was 48. “Age, experience and cunning can overcome youth and ability.”

They were not physiologically built for it, women were told. Compared with men, they typically had higher body fat, less muscle bulk and lighter bone structure, factors that should discourage them from engaging in long-distance running — or so it was believed. Moreover, many authorities in the field warned that extended running might harm women’s reproductive organs.

SAN FRANCISCO – SEPTEMBER 1985: Dr. Joan Ullyot runs on the beach near her home in San Francisco, California in September 1985. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

But Dr. Ullyot (pronounced UH-lee-yet) methodically debunked those assertions in her book, one of the first to examine the sport from a female perspective, and one of the first books on the subject by a female author.

“You just have no idea how many myths and superstitions there were around vigorous activity for women then,” the marathoner Kathrine Switzer said, “so we needed this a lot.”

Dr. Ullyot ran more than 75 marathons and numerous other races while working as a medical researcher in cellular pathology at facilities like the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

She was a single mother of two sons for much of her life: Her marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

Her son Theodore Ullyot recalled that she had mandated that he and his brother, John, run three miles to middle school with her a few days a week, backpacks and all.

“It was extremely embarrassing for a couple of teenagers,” Mr. Ullyot said. Nevertheless, both sons took up running as well.

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Joan Ullyot at women’s marathon in Waldniel, Germany – 1974

Dr. Ullyot, one of six runners from the United States, attended the first international women’s marathon, in Waldniel, Germany, in 1974. Having learned German in college, she served as the team’s interpreter.

During the event she met Ernst van Aaken, a German doctor who was an early proponent of women’s running. He pioneered the “long slow distance” method of training, which emphasizes running long distances at a slow speed, rather than the shorter-distance and more intense interval training that was standard at the time. The two became friends and collaborators.

Joan Ullyot IV 8.8.2021
Dr. Ullyot

Together they developed training programs, for both men and women, to maximize endurance and minimize damage to the body. (She told Gary Cohen, the running blogger, that Dr. van Aaken, who died in 1984, had introduced her to one of her favorite non-running activities: drinking wine.)

Dr. Ullyot was a fixture in the starting blocks of the Boston Marathon, running nine of the races and winning the Masters division for runners over the age of 40 in 1984.