Dr. Joan Ullyot was both a marathoner and trailblazer, a woman who challenged societal norms and showed that women can indeed run long distances.

As we celebrate women’s contributions to history, culture, sports, and society every March during Women’s History Month, Ullyot is a worthy candidate for her contributions. A Harvard-trained doctor, Ullyot began running at the age of 30 in 1971 to help lose weight.

At the time, it was believed women shouldn’t run long distances because of physiological limitations. Ullyot didn’t even consider herself an athlete or runner because, as she said in a 2017 interview with running blogger Gary Cohen, “Girls didn’t run. I don’t know why, but they just didn’t.”

By the time she was a doctor, Ullyot was aware that women weren’t supposed to run long distances because of their different physique, such as higher body fat, less bulky muscles, and a lighter bone structure. Many doctors also warned that the pounding of running might damage a woman’s reproductive organs.

Women Can Run Long Distances

Ullyot had other ideas and set out to prove them. In her landmark 1976 book titled “Women’s Running,” Ullyot debunked the myths around women’s running. She had already raced competitively as a runner, beginning in the famed Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, California, in 1971, the first year the race was open to women.

Later she competed in the Boston Marathon and won 10 marathons outright, competing in more than 75 marathons and other races. In the 1984 Boston Marathon at the age of 43, she won the Masters Division with a time of 2 hours, 47 minutes.

She challenged the ideas around running’s effect on women’s fertility and physiology, opening the door for millions of women to take up running without associated stigmas. 

The First Women’s Olympic Marathon Champion

In 1979, Ullyot became a member of the International Runners’ Committee. The group formed as advocates to include women’s long-distance races in international competitions.

She presented her research to the International Olympic Committee, leading to the women’s marathon being included in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. At those 1984 Summer Olympics, Joan Benoit of the United States became the first women’s marathon gold medalist in history with her first-place finish. 

In 1980, Ullyot wrote a book titled “Running Free: A Book for Women Runners and their Friends.” She was also a columnist for Runner’s World Magazine.

Ullyot died in 2021 at the age of 80, but her legacy lives on. 


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