Kathrine Switzer’s big personality fills the room of a Northern Virginia home. She’s surrounded by parents at a Girls On the Run fundraiser held last week. She’s enthusiastic, assertive, and a fireball. Not everyone is familiar with her story so as she shares her tale of how she became the first official female marathon runner, the room grows silent and all eyes are on Switzer. She’s got their attention and for good reason.
Switzer made headlines back in 1967 when she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official bib at a time when the marathon was a male-only event.
“Running long distance was always considered very questionable for women. An arduous activity would mean you’d get big legs, grow a mustache, get hair on your chest, your uterus was going to fall out,” Switzer said. “Most people assumed that women couldn’t run the marathon distance and if they tried, they’d hurt themselves. Most women themselves weren’t interested in running for the same reason.”
Switzer finished the Boston Marathon in snowy and sleeting weather and would go on to run it seven more times. But it was that first marathon and the damning media photographs that captured the angry race official, Jock Semple, as he attempted to throw her off course for being a girl that got people talking around the world. The incident also gave Switzer an opportunity to make a groundbreaking change.
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“I had to show [Jock Semple] that I was for real and that women deserve to be here,” she said. “I needed to convince women that they wanted to run. I knew they’d want to, if they only tried. And the only way they were going to try is if they got opportunities.”
Fifty years later, now 70, Switzer is celebrating the defining moment she calls “magical” and training to run the Boston Marathon on April 17. The last time she ran a marathon was five years ago in Berlin.
“I’m training my brains out,” she said. “I’m in great shape. I’m not going to be worried about time… The purpose is to celebrate but I do want to finish uninjured and with a smile on my face.”
Women now outnumber men at the finish lines of organized races, according to industry-backed tracker Running USA. And Switzer can take much credit for not just for ushering in a new era of female runners, but also leading the way toward the inclusion of a woman’s marathon in the Olympics in 1984. Becoming the poster child for the women’s distance running movement was never Switzer’s plan. Being a sports journalist was.
Born in Germany and the daughter of a U.S. Army major, Switzer and her family moved around a lot. After resettling in the U.S., Switzer said she was a tall, thin, bespeckled twelve year old with frizzy hair still playing with dolls when her father encouraged her to run a mile a day to try out for the field hockey team.
“What happened was yes, I made the team and yes, I became a good athlete. But what was amazing to me was my sense of empowerment. My fearlessness. I could do anything,” she said. “It was totally because my dad encouraged me.”
She attended Syracuse University, where she pursued her bachelor in journalism. She wanted to join the Syracuse Harriers athletic club, but the best she could do was work out with them.
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“Boys played sports and women,” she said, “they had playdates.”
During workouts, her coach Arnie would share stories about the Boston Marathon. She recalls turning to him and saying, “Let’s stop talking about it and run it.” Arnie eventually accepted to train her for the marathon. With a $2 entry fee and signing up as K. V. Switzer–a habit she had formed while writing articles for the university paper–Switzer was off to the race with her then-boyfriend and first husband, Tom Miller. Two miles into the marathon, Semple spotted Switzer and jumped off a media truck, viciously trying to rip off Switzer’s bib, numebered 261.
“I was terrified. Because it was out of the blue,” she recalls. “I was so thrilled to be at one of the most prestigious races but when he did that, I felt humiliated and somehow that I screwed up a really important event.” Miller, a former football player, knocked him out of the race.
“[Semple] was trying to throw me out of the race because he felt that as a woman, I shouldn’t be there. But he was also defending his race,” she said of the race official whom she later befriended, even visiting him on his deathbed. “He assumed I got the number through chicanery, which is not true… This was his race, his baby, it was a serious event, don’t mess with it… I was very serious. I followed all the rules. I did everything right. So when he tried to pull me out, I realized, he thinks I’m one of [the troublemakers].”
Switzer recalled wondering how she was going to finish the rest of her 24 miles after the attack, which left her disturbed and confused. But three miles later at Heartbreak Hill, her anger had dissipated and she was determined to finish.
“Life is too short to stay angry. You cant run a marathon and stay angry,” she said. “And at that point, I forgave him.”
Instead, she wondered where all the women were.
“And then, the inspiration came that women would be there if they had the opportunity to run and I was going to create those opportunities. I never knew how at that moment,” she said.
By the end of the race, people asked Switzer if she was going to sue Semple. “I said no, that was the worst thing I could do. I don’t want to make people angry. I just want women to be accepted. I wanted him to understand we deserved to be here.” But Semple wouldn’t accept it for years and it took another five years before women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon. Only then, did Semple accept her.
“Suddenly, he saw all of us running and running well, and he said they really do deserve to be here,” she said. Semple approached Switzer one day on the starting line, turned her around towards the TV camera and planted a big kiss on her cheek. “And he said in his wonderful Scottish rogue, ‘C’mon lass, let’s get a wee bit of notoriety.’ It was the end of an era.
“Here’s a guy in spite of himself, who probably did more for women in long distance running by producing one of the most galvanizing photos in the women’s rights movement. That has done more for women’s running than just about anything else,” Switzer said.
Switzer became a sports journalist after graduating from Syracuse University but her career was cut short after a horrific experience covering the 1972 Munich Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered. For the cub journalist, the experience ended up being too traumatic.
Switzer focused on running instead and went on to become a world ranked athlete, coming in third at the Boston Marathon in 1975.
“It shouted down all those people at the Boston Marathon who just said I was a jogger,” she said. “If I could do it, I knew that many, many, many other women could do it.” On the heels of that thought, she wrote a 75-page business proposal and got a major sponsorship, Avon Cosmetics, to create a global women’s running program. She spearheaded the global running program and got 27 countries participating in over 400 races and reaching over 1 million women.
“They came out by the thousands. The cultural shifts are changing,” she said, adding that appropriate running clothing for Muslim women now is available.
The data and statistics derived from this program helped justify the woman’s marathon entry into the Olympics. “We had to overcome tremendous amount of social and cultural repression,” she said. But the Olympics “was a game changer because people saw it globally on television.”
After a career in racing, event directing and television commentary, Switzer has recently launched 261 Fearless, Inc., a global non-profit to empower and connect women through running and the bib number she fiercely defended at the Boston Marathon 50 years ago. The idea was borne out of the countless comments Switzer got from women around the world who said her story made them feel fearless.
“Clubs are about the community of women. It’s about creating an empowering, strong community where women, who are fearless, are reaching out to women who are timid, who are living in a fearful situation,”she said.
“Women aren’t running to be an Olympic athlete. They’re not running to lose weight anymore,” she said. “They’re running because it empowers them and it’s fun.”
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The Boston Athletic Association has granted 261 Fearless a limited number of invitational bibs for the 121st Boston Marathon to be used exclusively for fundraising purposes to further the mission and programs until December.
Switzer splits her time between her Hudson Valley country house in New York and New Zealand, where her husband, runner and author Roger Robinson, is from. The new edition of her memoir, “Marathon Woman” is out in March 2017 and a new book is in the works, out as early as 2018.
“The hardest thing is putting on your shoes and going out the door,” she said. “So put on your shoes and go out the door.”