Three years ago
at the Boston Marathon, Emily Ullmann coasted up the route’s infamous incline at mile 20, better known as Heartbreak Hill, and noticed a petite older woman keeping pace in front. Her gray hair was pulled back, tucked under a Boston Red Sox cap. Within a few strides, Ullmann passed her. She glanced back, then immediately burst into tears. The incognito runner was Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first women’s Olympic marathon champion who's won Boston twice.
PRESTIGE AND PROGRESS
Racing Boston carries clout. It's the most prestigious marathon in the U.S. and the oldest annual marathon in the world, having originated in 1897. Runners have to earn their place by making a qualifying time.
And while women have been running for the past five decades, only men ran for the first 75 years of its inception. Bobbi Gibb changed that in 1966, when she snuck into the race and became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon during the pre-sanctioned era, a time when it was widely believed that women were not physically capable of going the distance. One year later, a 19-year-old Syracuse University student who inconspicuously signed her name K.V. Switzer on the race application, fought to keep her place in the race after she was nearly kicked off the course by race director Jock Semple.
The push for women’s participation in the Boston Marathon extended for six years, until 1972, when women were granted the opportunity to officially run, rather than bandit. That year, Nina Kuscsik, a nurse and mother of three, showed up in Hopkinton, MA, to start the race dressed in shorts and a polo shirt. She was one of nine females who made up the first women’s field at that Boston edition, which included 1,000 men. Kuscsik won the women’s division.
FROM NEW JERSEY TO HEARBREAK
Ullmann, a longtime member of Heartbreakers run club, the pre-eminent Boston crew, represents a generation of women that doesn’t know a world of marathons without restrictions. Her journey into distance running began as a high schooler in New Jersey.
Whether she knew it or not, her athletic pursuits groomed her for the rigors of running. She grew up swimming, which developed her lung capacity, and a brief but unfruitful bout in rowing conditioned her physical and mental toughness.
Ullmann segued to running purely for the joy of movement. As Ullmann continued to run in college, she discovered that the longer she ran, the more she enjoyed it.
In 2015, after Ullmann moved to Boston for a job in biotech, she spectated at the marathon finish line. Watching the full spectrum of human emotions as people crossed gave her full-body chills. That singular experience inspired her to sign up for her first marathon.
Ullmann found a training plan online and coached herself through months of solo running. By the time she lined up for her first marathon attempt in Lowell, MA, she’d already programmed her mind to chase a Boston Marathon-qualifying time. She did, in 3 hours and 31 minutes, and remembers feeling she had much more to give.
"YOU KNOW IT'S GOING TO HURT"
Ullmann decided to adopt training partners to get more serious, rather than “winging it” as she had previously done. In 2016, a colleague directed her to a running group known as The Heartbreakers in Boston’s South End neighborhood, close to where Ullmann lived.
Right place, right time, she says. Ullmann arrived at her first group training session feeling like an impostor who was clueless about what a running practice should consist of. She questioned whether she was qualified to be there. “I’m just someone who likes to run and wants to do better in my next marathon,” she remembers thinking.
One group session was enough to convince her to join each week, even if she was “hanging on for dear life at practice,” Ullmann says, laughing.
“Showing up to your first practice takes so much courage, and showing up for the second one even more so. You know it’s going to hurt. You know it’s intimidating. It’s tough to put yourself out there,” she says. “Just keep showing up.”
Finding a community in The Heartbreakers reshaped her running entirely. As Ullmann kept training with the group, she kept entering marathons, and her finishing times cascaded from 3:16 to 3:03 to 2:58, then to a personal best of 2:54, achieved at the 2019 New York City Marathon.
Though she has many miles on her feet, 3,500 in 2021 alone, the seasoned marathoner is still in awe of what her mind and body allow her to do. Down the road, Ullmann sees a future in ultramarathons. For now, she's focused on running her tenth marathon and fifth Boston. Her preparation has continued to be supported by The Heartbreakers community, a diverse group of runners of various ages and levels of athleticism.
“I am the luckiest person,” Ullmann says of her training partners.
Being pushed to new levels of running over the years influenced Ullmann to become a coach for The Heartbreakers in 2021, as her way to pay it forward. Better together is her mindset.
“I’m such a big believer in the power of finding teammates,” Ullmann says. She doesn’t run simply to achieve a PR. There's much more to it than that. “I’m doing it for the way it makes me feel,” she says. “Strong and confident.” Just like the women who came before her at the Boston Marathon, that feeling is what she wants to foster in others.