PROFILE--Ella Willis has been running for 52 years

Ella Willis, current
(6-2019) Ella Willis grew up in Detroit where she won her first ever marathon--the 1975 Motor City Marathon (now the Detroit Free Press Marathon). She was just 17 at the time and recently graduated from high school. She set the women’s course record for that event in 1989 with a time of 2:38:22, and went on to win it three more times.  She also won the Ultimate Runner Competition in Jackson, MI, in back to back years in the 1980’s. That event consisted of a 10K, a 400m, a 100m, a 1 mile race, and a marathon…all in one day. Willis has finished 22 marathons, with 11 sub-three-hour marathons. In 2017 she was inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. Now 61, she still lives in Detroit and competes in races almost every weekend.

Profession/career? I have worked various jobs in my life, including being a Nurse’s Aide, light industrial work, and most recently working in security. I am currently taking a break from working.  

When did you start running and why?  I can’t remember the exact month and year I started running. I just remember always enjoying running back and forth from elementary school.  I still did that practice all the way through high school.  Before high school, I joined the Lipke Road Runners, a track and long distance team coached by Joe Smetanka. When I started Pershing High School in 1972, Allen Tellis coached me on both the track and cross-country teams. I was the only girl on the latter, and had to compete against the boys. At the time, there was no girls’ cross country team. 

It was ultimately my mother, Mary Cash, who suggested that I get into marathon running. I had never heard of a marathon and when she suggested I run one I said, “What’s that?”

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Ultimate Runner, 1988

How much did you run during your peak years? At my peak, again estimating the distance, I ran approximately 80 miles a week, Now I run between 45-50 miles a week. Now I run four days a week and usually race on the weekends. I love to compete.

Top races or running achievements? My most memorable races were winning the Detroit Free Press Marathon four times and setting the record for that event of 2:38:22 in 1989. Also winning the Ultimate Runner event in back to back years in the 1980’s.

Current running, cross-training, stretching, strength work, etc.? When I was younger, I used to train and compete a lot more. I used to compete in a race a week from the spring until the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October. Now, I still train but run a lot less races. I don’t really cross train but I go to a gym and do strength training and ride a bike. I like to keep busy. 

Guesstimate of your total lifetime miles? This is a rough guesstimate, but over 50,000 miles when you add up all my competitive running and training.

Dietary and weight changes? Supplements? I pretty much eat what I want. When I was younger and especially when getting close to running the Free Press, I changed my diet by eating lighter meals, giving up red meat, and drinking my honey and tea mix, and avoiding soda. When I race I drink my own home-brewed tea with honey. I find that works best for me.

Race photo, 2016
Do you prefer social running or solo running? I have done a little social running, and adapting to slower times as I age is no problem. I tend to be a loner.

Injuries and/or health issues?  I had a problem with shin splints early in my career but got it resolved. In April of 1989 I got hit by a car while running, and was knocked unconscious. I injured my shoulder and back, which caused me to be hospitalized, but six months later I won the Free Press Marathon. In my heyday I liked to race every week, sometimes twice a week, so I am lucky not to have had more injuries. I took an 11-year hiatus from racing in the 1990s. I was burnt out and lost my drive. I continued running and did a lot of walking, as I wanted to heal my body.

Favorite Quote? “Find something you love and don’t be afraid to be passionate about it.” I said that!

How does running & fitness improve your life? I believe that running has kept me healthy and feeling younger.  I never feel old or slow. I tell my husband I feel 36, not 61 and he agrees with me. That’s one reason we’ve been married 30 years! Plus, running makes me happy. I want to run forever, because it improves my life so much.

Three tips for young runners inspiring to be a lifetime runner?
1--You can do whatever you put your mind and heart to.
2--Practice is the key to success.
3--Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do. 

What's your philosophy of life, aging, and running? In running, like life, you will experience setbacks but I find that you have to endure the pain and don’t quit the race. Just keep running. When I coach and talk to kids, I tell them you need a good mind and must be prepared to run with discipline. Plus you need to embrace and love what you do. For me, running is in my heart. It’s a part of me.