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The Beginning of a Movement

By: Kathrine Switzer

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to have officially run in the Boston Marathon. Little did she know, a man would attack her on the course. Read on to learn more about Kathrine's story and how she has become one of the biggest running icons of our time.

It was a chilly day in Boston on the morning of April 19, 1967. It had started to sleet, adding to the chill. Forgoing the more exposed t-shirt and shorts, most runners had decided to keep their sweatshirts and pants on. Among the runners was Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old woman, excited to run in her first marathon and prove to her coach that females could run in a long distance race without harming their “fragile” bodies. When she approached the start line, she had no idea the type of journey she was about to embark on. 

 

Due to Switzer's courage and completion of the race, women officially became welcomed into the Boston Marathon, endurance racing was inaugurated into the Olympics, and she inspired thousands of women across the world to become runners. Switzer answers some of the most frequently asked inquires about the Boston Marathon and how she's been helping women's running gain recognition and validation ever since.

Why did you start running and how old were you when you started?

I started running at age 12 when my father encouraged me to run a mile a day so I could make the field hockey team in my high school. (There were no intermediate schools in those days; I began high school at age 12).

How old were you when you ran your first marathon?

I was 20, and my first marathon distance was run in practice; my first marathon race was the 1967 Boston Marathon.

Why did you want to run the marathon, and the Boston Marathon, in particular?

I discovered early that running always made me feel powerful, free and fearless. The longer I ran, the higher I felt so the 26.2-mile distance intrigued me. The Boston Marathon, which was founded in 1896, was the most famous race in the world to me next to the Olympics. Yet unlike the Olympics, it was supposedly open to anyone who wanted to try to run. I felt thrilled by the prospect of running 26.2 miles in a race where supposedly anyone could run in the same race as the greatest runners in the world. There was no other sports event like that! (For instance, you cannot just go out and play baseball with the New York Yankees). Plus my coach, Arnie Briggs, had run the Boston Marathon 15 times and he used to tell me stories about this race and they inspired me.

 

Did you train for the race?

A lot! My coach didn’t believe that a woman could do the marathon distance but promised to take me to Boston if I showed him in practice that I could do it.  We trained hard and one day ran 31 miles, and he was amazed, exhausted, and also proud. True to his word he helped me enter the race.

Were you trying to prove anything or make a statement when you first ran the Boston Marathon in 1967?

No, I was just a kid who wanted to run, and was there as a reward from my coach who didn’t believe that a woman could run the distance. I had heard that other women had run marathon distances and that one woman in 1966, Roberta Bingay Gibb, ran the Boston Marathon but without an official bib number, so I wasn’t trying to break any barriers. It wasn’t until a race official attacked me during the run did I become determined to finish and speak out on behalf of all women.

Why did the official attack you?

The official claimed the race was a men’s only race and that I was not allowed to run. He was very angry that I had obtained an official bib number, and he lost his temper.

Why was the Boston Marathon a men’s only race?

Nowadays, that is an interesting question, as there were no real rules in 1967 stating that the Marathon was for Men Only. Nor was there anything indicating gender on the entry form. But almost all sports were for men; women rarely participated. Most people assumed that women could not run the marathon distance and if they tried they would hurt themselves. Most women themselves were not interested in running for the same reason, and many people also believed that difficult sports made women masculine. In 1967 the longest event in the Olympic Games for women was 800 meters on the track, and cross-country races for women were 1-½ miles.

How did you enter the race if it was for men only?

First, there were no rules written saying it was a men’s only race. Next, there was nothing about gender on the entry form. Third, my coach told me it was OK for me to enter and in fact I must enter the race properly for my run to count. Lastly, I sign my name with my initials, K.V. Switzer. So the officials probably thought K. stood for a man’s name.

Why do you sign your name with your initials?

Because my name Kathrine was miss-spelled on my birth certificate and around age 12 I got tired of it being miss-spelled all the time. (You see there is no ‘e’ in the middle of my name; normally it is spelled Katherine). I also wanted to be a writer and admired authors like J.D. Salinger and E.E. Cummings, so I thought using my initials was a cool, writer-ly kind of thing to do.

In 1967 you had to take a pre-race physical attesting to your fitness to run Boston. How did you pass this unnoticed as a woman?

The race application recommended that runners submit a letter in advance from a physician certifying we were fit to run the marathon. My doctor examined me and wrote the note saying I was fit, and I mailed it with my entry.

Did you disguise yourself as a man?

Absolutely not! I was very proud of being a woman. I had long hair, wore lipstick and eyeliner to the start line. I was wearing a very nice shorts and top outfit so I’d look good, but because weather conditions were miserable, 34 degrees, snowing and sleeting, I had to leave my baggy grey sweat suit on. I’d planned on only wearing that to warm up in, and then discard it, as most athletes do before a race. It was my worst looking warm-up suit, too!  All the men around me knew that I was a woman. The morning of the race, it was not only snowing /sleeting but also very windy and very cold, and everyone looked alike in their baggy grey sweat suits—including me. So perhaps officials didn’t notice me then.  If it had been a hot day, and I was only wearing the shorts and top, history might have been changed.

At what point in the race did the official attack you?

At about the 2-mile mark, so I still had 24 miles to run.

What were you thinking when the official attacked you?

I was very frightened and was just trying to get away from him.

Why didn’t you drop out?

Because I knew if I did that no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon; they would just think that I was a clown, and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me.

What did the men around you do in the race?

They were shouting at the official to leave me alone and tried to push him away but he was very determined. Then my boyfriend, who was an ex-All American football player, gave the official a massive shoulder charge and sent him flying out of the race.

Did you bring your boyfriend along to Boston to protect you?

No, my boyfriend originally came to Boston because he thought if a girl could run the race, he could run it, too.

Did you finish the race?

Yes. 

Was it difficult?

For a while, it was difficult because I was very worried and nervous, and had lost a lot of energy. The adrenaline rush that comes from a shock flows out of you afterward and leaves you drained. But energy slowly returned and by the end, I was feeling pretty good.

What else happened in the race?

Just about everything, because a marathon teaches you so much.  Most of all for me, I got my energy back, and became both radicalized and inspired by the incident with the official to create opportunities for other women in running. When I finished, I felt like I had a Life Plan, and in fact, I did!

Did you get in trouble for running the Boston Marathon?

Yes, the official who attacked me had me disqualified (DQ’d) from the race and then expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union, the sport’s governing body, for a whole list of reasons, one of which was running with men. Plus there was a lot of negative press reports and plenty of hate mail.

Was there any good news?

Sure! Almost everyone was on my side and thought the sports officials were old fogeys. Most journalists loved the story and became positive about me, and other women runners were also, after talking to me. I got invited to a lot of races. I got more fan mail than hate mail. And I learned a lot about people.

Did the official get in trouble for attacking you?

Not serious trouble, although what he did was very serious. But he received a great deal of bad publicity also.

Did the official ever apologize?

Not really, but he did give me a kiss six years later on the starting line of the 1973 Boston Marathon and we eventually became good friends.

What was your time in that first marathon?

4 hours and 20 minutes.

How long did the Boston Marathon remain a men’s only race?

For 76 years, until 1972, and in that year women who could run the marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes or faster were admitted to the race officially. But for some of those intervening years, several of us women ran Boston anyway without numbers and worked to convince the governing bodies of the sport to allow us into the race as official athletes.

How did the male runners feel about women in the marathon?

Most of them loved having women in all running events. They admired us for being serious about our running, running such a difficult race and really supported our efforts for inclusion. I have never received a negative comment from a male runner. I believe that one reason women are so advanced in running as compared to other sports is because male runners have been so supportive and positive.

How has the Boston Marathon experience changed your life?

In just about every way because by the time I finished the race, I was inspired to both become a better athlete myself and create opportunities for other women in running.  All this led to several interesting careers, almost all of which I designed for myself and are connected to running and social change. The 1967 Boston Marathon also told me I could persevere over anything. And it has helped me to be pretty fearless in other ways, too. (Mostly, anyway!!) 

What was your best marathon time ever and when and where did you run it?

My best time was 2 hours 51 minutes 37 seconds, in the 1975 Boston Marathon. I placed 2nd; it was my seventh Boston Marathon.

What is your biggest victory?

My biggest running victory was winning the 1974 New York City Marathon, my biggest personal athletic victory was running a personal best of 2 hours 51 minutes—that improvement from my first marathon of 4 hours 20 minutes told me that women had more ability than we could imagine. I thought my biggest Life Victory was being a major part of getting the women’s marathon accepted officially into the Olympic Games in 1984. I created a global series of running events for women that changed their lives and provided important convincing data for change. However, I now see that another big accomplishment may lie yet ahead of me: the founding of  ‘261 Fearless', a global movement that is empowering women well beyond the Olympics...

What was your biggest contribution to getting the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games?

For many years, I created and organized a global series of races, called the Avon International Running Circuit—400 races in 27 countries for over a million women—that demonstrated women’s capability and also had enough international representation to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the women’s marathon should be included in the Olympics. In some countries, these races were often the first sports events of any kind for women. We also supported medical data showing that distance running was not harmful to women.  I also worked directly with IAAF, IOC and LAOOC officials both in terms of lobbying and in compiling data and presenting a big report to them.

Why was it so important to get the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games?

Because I knew when the world saw women in the most difficult of all running events, competing in the most important and prestigious sports event—the Olympics —it would change world attitudes about women’s capability. Everyone everywhere understands that 26.2 miles (or 42.2 km,) is a long way to run, and when they see women doing it they know that women can do anything and should be allowed to participate.

Has having the women’s marathon in the Olympics changed the world?

Absolutely! The Olympic Women’s Marathon opened the door for many other women’s events and helped increase the number of women participants in all sports. Additionally, the women’s marathon opened doors for new Olympic events for both men and women. Maybe most importantly, people around the world have been inspired by the women’s Olympic marathon and now embrace a healthy and productive running lifestyle.

Is it true that there are now more women runners in the USA than men? Why has this happened?

Yes, 58% of race participants are now women in the USA and this is also probably true in Canada. Running gives women fitness, self-esteem and empowerment they may never have had before.  Also, running is time-efficient and inexpensive, and women can fit it into a busy day which may also include organizing a job, children and home. Interestingly, I see this trend happening now in Europe, and predict that it will have a global impact.

What more can be achieved for women’s running?

So much! We’ve only just started!  Men have been running seriously for 3,000 years; women only seriously for 40 years. Women have natural strength in stamina and endurance and they will be increasingly competitive in ultra marathons. As the sport changes and embraces very long distance and combines with other women’s strengths such as flexibility, balance, ability to withstand the cold, then we will open a new era. But the critical thing is that right now we need to work on opportunities for many oppressed women in Africa, South America and the Middle East. Talent is everywhere. It only needs an opportunity. I am hoping to accomplish the task of reaching at least some of these women through the 261 Fearless non-profit organization.

This article has been edited for brevity. If you would like to read the full FAQ article, click here