In honor of Black History Month, we celebrate the historic life and inspiring story of Ted Corbitt, PT, MPT.
Beyond his career as a physical therapist, Ted was a World War II veteran, Olympic athlete, college professor, and marathon running pioneer.
Theodore “Ted” Corbitt, PT, MPT was born on January 31, 1919, in Dunbarton, South Carolina. Grandson of slaves, Ted developed his love for running at a young age while on his family’s farm. “I ran to the store, to the mailbox, and school,” he told Trishul Cherns in a 1988 interview. The school he referenced was two miles each way. Wow! In the late 1920s, the family moved to Cincinnati as part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans to the North from the Deep South for better economic opportunity. After moving, Ted competed in his first running event at Bloom Junior High School in the 60-yard dash. He won that race barefoot while wearing corduroy pants.
At a time when many black children stopped attending school after junior high, Ted continued his education and joined the track team at Woodward High School where he competed in various races and finished fourth in the city’s half-mile championship. With his mother’s encouragement, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati where he graduated with honors in 1942 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical and Health Education. Ted was a great runner, but racial barriers often held him back from his full potential on the university’s track team. “The color line was drawn even in some of the meets in Cincinnati, so I could not participate in them,” he said in the 1988 interview. “In the Midwest, in places like Illinois and Indiana, there were track meets, but I was a little reluctant to take part in them because I did not know what type of reception I would get and what problems I would have getting a place to stay and getting something to eat.” Despite the institutionalized racism of the times and a lack of resources, Ted’s love for running kept growing.
In 1944, Ted was inducted into the Army during World War II and served nearly two years in the South Pacific. When he returned home, he moved to Brooklyn to live with his fiancée, Ruth Butler. They married shortly after and Ted attended New York University as a night student, graduating in 1950 with a Master’s in Physical Therapy. The next year he ran in the Boston Marathon and became the first African American marathon runner to represent the United States in the 1952 Olympics. 2 years later, he won the National Marathon Championship at the Yonkers Marathon with a time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, and 13 seconds.
Ted was the founding president of the New York Road Runners, whose mission is to help and inspire people through running while serving runners of all ages and abilities. Corbitt essentially invented several aspects of marathon running that we now take for granted, including accurate course measurement techniques and competition based on age groups. Corbitt was among the first five runners to be inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. In 2021, New York City named the 6-mile loop of Central Park the “Corbitt Loop” in his honor.
Ted was the chief physical therapist at the International Center for the Disabled in New York City where he worked for 44 years. He ran to work every day until 1973. Corbitt was also a Columbia University and NYU professor, being one of the first physical therapists to teach connective tissue massage, progressive resistance exercise, and applied kinesiology. His wife, Ruth passed in 1989 after 42 years together and he retired from his running career in 1993 but remained a full-time physical therapist.
Corbitt broke barriers as an athlete and therapist, working throughout his life for diversity, equity, and inclusion in running. Ted Corbitt passed away in 2007 at the age of 87, but his legacy lives on in the countless runners he inspired and mentored. The founder of the New York City Marathon, Fred Lebow, called Corbitt “the father of American distance running.” Yesterday, January 31, would have been Ted’s 104th birthday.
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