Ella Willis - Detroit's Queen of the Marathon

Ella Willis - Detroit's Queen of the Marathon

Ella Willis - Detroit's Queen of the Marathon

Ella Willis, a native Detroiter, won the Free Press Marathon three times. She just turned 50 but she still looks in great shape and almost ready to win another one.

She has run fourteen marathons, including Boston, Grandma’s and the Olympic Trials, where she finished in the top 25. Willis as always been self coached except when she competed for Pershing High School.
Few black American women have excelled in the marathon. Willis has expressed an interest in coaching young children and would be a wonderful role model as someone that continues to be dedicated to her sport. At her peak she trained 80 miles a week, nowhere close to what some of the professional women run today, yet still reeled in national class times.

Her mother was the first person to suggest running 26.2 miles just after Ella graduated from High School. In Ella’s first attempt, she won the 1975 Motor City Marathon on Belle Isle in 3:13:51.

Her mother was always there to watch her run a marathon. Willis won many other races in the area, such as the Turkey Trot, New Years Eve and Corktown races. She was someone who liked to race every week, sometimes twice in a weekend. For a number of reasons, she took an eleven year break but recently won a race on Belle Isle.
Willis won the Free Press Marathon in 1988, ‘89 and ’91, recording a best time of 2:38:22.

She enjoyed competing at home against some great talent. She raced against former Free Press winners Ann Boyd (’95) and Cindy Barber Keeler (’83, ’96). “You always want to win but for me the most important thing was to go out and have fun.”

Four time winner, Karen Blackford had this to say about Willis, “She's the undisputed queen of the Free Press marathon, in my book. She had her share of good races and bad, but seemed to always be there, giving it a shot. I'm sure she's participated in more Free Press marathons than any of the other former winners.”
Her competitors also remember her for wearing bells on her shoes. Willis said, “I started wearing them in high school because I ran alone most of the time and wanted to hear some noise.”

Willis ran for the Motor City Striders. She often did her long runs in Palmer Park and gave up the bells for head phones. Heading home from a run one day she got hit by a car once at seven mile and Woodward Avenue. Unseen by the motorist, she was knocked unconscious and hurt her shoulder. Still she managed to come back and win the Free Press Marathon.

At her afternoon job as a security guard at Strategic Software Technologies, employees would ask her why she always seemed to have so much energy. Her husband and son have been witnessing it for years.

Willis continues to run all year round. She tells kids “that you need a good mind and must be prepared to run with discipline. Find something you love and don’t be afraid to be passionate about it.” Experiencing bit of success was enough to encourage Willis, who liked to train hard and relished in the opportunity to compete.