Dr. Joan Ullyot

June 25, 2021 — I was once again getting my “other” blog ready when yet another sad news came in— we have lost an icon; a true path-finder for women’s running. Dr. Joan Ullyot passed away last Friday (6/18/2021) at the age of 80. When I organized Arthur Lydiard’s 1999 USA Lecture Tour, he gave me the names of several people in the US whom he would like to see. Dr. Ullyot was one of them. I called her (he gave me her contact) and talked to her several times. That was pretty much my in-person contact with Dr. Ullyot. But her name was recognizable. When I first came to the US in 1980, the popular names in the running circuit were Frank Shorter, Joe Henderson, Arthur Lydiard, Dr. George Sheehan…. And when it comes to women’s running, it was Dr. Joan Ullyot. Back in those days, there were quite a few “serious” running books. I used to stop by at book stores and looked for books on running. There were many serious running books from “Runner’s World” believe it or not!! I’ve seen many books on women’s running; seen many articles in various running magazines on women’s running all written by Dr. Ullyot.

One of the very first articles on Arthur Lydiard that I had read was written by Dr. Ullyot (I believe) in “Running” magazine titled “Hanging with Lydiard”. She visited Lydiard in New Zealand and she wrote this story in such way that the readers would feel as if they were right there with Arthur Lydiard. As for me, I certainly remembered her stories when I went to New Zealand and got together with Arthur in 1984. I have read many of her articles in the magazines. One of my favorite stories is when Dr. Ullyot asked Arthur Lydiard to help her improve her marathon. Lydiard suggested her follow his “Beginner’s Marathon” plan in his book (Running with Lydiard). “But I’m not a beginner; I’ve run several marathons already…,” said Dr. Ullyot. “If you hadn’t run sub-3 marathon, you are a beginner,” replied Lydiard!! ;o) Interestingly, this story stuck to me and, when I created “Race to Base” marathon and half marathon plan for Lydiard Running Wizard, I actually based the training structure on Lydiard’s Beginner’s Marathon plan.

Women running pioneers: Kathrine Switzer (W1), Joan Ullyot (W2) and Miki Gorman (W3)

When you think of pioneers of women’s running, there are Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Jacqueline Hansen, Nina Kuscsik Miki Gorman….and when prize money was introduced to the “amateur” running circuit, people like Anne Audain were the pathfinders. Dr. Ullyot was perhaps not the fastest runner (though she had 2:47 at the age of 48 under her belt!!) but, with her passion and love for running, she had led the path, along with others mentioned above. Everybody remembers the image of Joan Benoit-Samuelson winning the first ever women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angels in 1984. But naturally, it didn’t happen overnight. It took series of events that eventually created the Perfect Storm. And before the sun comes out, there was a period of time that is actually even more beautiful than the sunrise itself — dawn. And for women’s marathoning, 1960s-1970s was the “dawn”. One of these “series of events” was Women’s International Marathon Championships in Waldniel, West Germany.

The US women marathon runners at International Women’s Marathon Championships in Waldniel: Dr. Joan Ullyot far left. It looks like everybody is listening to her speak and also everybody is wearing Lydiard’s EB shoes!!

When I was in high school and started getting interested in this training method called “Lydiard”, there was also a very interesting training method promoted by a German doctor by the name of Ernst van Aaken. He was known as “the Magician in Waldniel”. His training method, as with the Lydiard method, emphasizes development of aerobic foundation by doing many kilometers of easy running. And Dr. van Aaken was particularly interested in development of female marathon runners. He coached, among others, Christa Vahlenzieck who set the women’s marathon best time of 2:40.16 in 1975. Perhaps even more so with her friendship with Arthur Lydiard, Dr. Ullyot was better-known with her relationship with Dr. van Aaken. She led a group of American female marathon runners to then West Germany to participate this historic women-only marathon in 1974. There is a rare footage of this marathon on YouTube that Jacqueline Hansen had share HERE. Dr. Ullyot acted as an interpreter as well as a group leader and a competitor. Later she toured with Dr. van Aaken for series of lectures in the US and introduced many articles to explain his aerobic-base training method.

It was particularly sad to hear her passing since I was just thinking about reconnecting with her and perhaps re-introduce some of her work on Lydiard as well as van Aaken. 80 is far too young to leave us for a pioneer like Dr. Ullyot. She seems to have been a lesser-known as a women running pioneer but her footprints are in fact all over the place if you look carefully. She still had so much more to offer and we had so much more to learn from someone like her. Rest In Peace, Dr. Joan Ullyot. — Nobby Hashizume

(*Here’s an excellent tribute on Dr. Ullyot by Jacqueline Hansen HERE. Also a good interview with Dr. Ullyot by Gary Cohen HERE)