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Modern Day Kathrine: An Exclusive Interview

By: Ashley Baker 

Although women’s running has made great strides since Kathrine Switzer first ran in the Boston Marathon in 1967, there are still some huge hurdles that women must face on a daily basis. Many women still feel unwelcome in competitive sports. A National Study performed by Stop Street Harassment found that 23% of women exercise indoors, whether at a gym or at home, because of their fear of harassment or assault. In a recent interview, Kathrine Switzer discusses how her nonprofit organization 261 Fearless is inspiring women to run across the entire world!

I asked Kathrine about 261 Fearless, a nonprofit that encourages women around the world to run.

“One of the things that is amazing about the 261 Fearless foundation is that it actually started itself,” she told me. Originally, she didn’t want to be involved. She didn’t want to start another business, or do another project. She thought she was too old to start building something again. But women from around the world had taken her bib number from the infamous Boston Marathon and transformed it into a rallying call. They would send emails, photos, or Facebook posts to Switzer showing the bib and telling her their stories. 261 was synonymous with living fearlessly for these people. They would run in races with their assigned bib number, and then place another one on their back, stating 261. It was an unofficial form of solidarity, spanning across the globe as women took inspiration from her.

“I suddenly realized what was happening... that these people, like everybody, were told at one time they couldn’t do something, they weren’t good enough, or they weren’t really athletic. They started running, and like all of us who run, they started to feel really full of self esteem, and purpose. They felt fearless, like they could do anything. It was changing their lives and they were attributing it to the 261 incident in the Boston Marathon, where the official had tried to pull the number off of me." And we said “My God, this is such a powerful thing, we have to do something." So, instead of adjusting a movement of fearlessness, we decided to really focus our attention on helping women around the world who have no opportunities, or who are too fearful for the first step; we wanted to help them take that first step.” 261 Fearless accomplished this through community clubs. Women can gather for community support in a noncompetitive atmosphere. They can lean on one another while running through their towns or neighborhoods; talking, listening, or even just enjoying the feeling of being outside. There is safety in numbers, and many women, if they don’t have access to local clubs, do not have the confidence to run alone; especially more mature women, who might have missed out on the sports experience in their younger years. Switzer likened it to "Girls Who Run," a running club for girls between third and eighth grade that brings girls of different ethnicities, economic and social backgrounds together, to bond over and foster a love for running outdoors, no matter their athletic ability.

"Getting a woman to believe in herself, to take the first step, especially in something like sports, that's our goal… we have been socialized for thousands of years to believe the old myth that we are too weak, too fragile, we can’t do it, we’re inept, it’s inappropriate, etc., and somehow we are made to feel stupid or silly doing it. This takes away all of that, we are having such success with that and it's really great.” 

Exercise of any kind has proven to increase self esteem and confidence. Running is especially enticing because it is so low cost, most people need only a pair of running shoes and a path to run on. The added social component of running with other women gives another layer of safety and encouragement to be their best selves. No one's story encapsulates this better than Olivia, whose name has been changed due to privacy reasons. Olivia joined a club in Austria. She was painfully shy, in her mid-thirties and in a bit of a life crisis. She was not sure where she was going in her career, marriage, or life in general. Olivia was worried about being the slowest in the group and was painfully self conscious to the point where she had difficulty making eye contact with people. She was paired with a younger girl and her mother. With the younger girl, Olivia was able to reconnect with her lost youth, while the older woman gave her guidance and wisdom. After a while, Olivia came out of her shell and wanted to do more for the organization. Using her connection as a travel agent, she arranged for her club to participate in a 5K race happening in a nearby town. Olivia had found her passion, and is now a successful travel agent that helps book people on major running experiences. She has lost 25 pounds, gained the confidence to lead her own running club, strengthened her marriage, and is now pregnant with her first child.

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“Running changed my life, it saved my life,” Olivia told Switzer, “It gave me direction.”

Olivia is not alone in this view. Countless other women have joined 261 Fearless to help realize their inner strength and courage; whether that means leaving a relationship, asking for a raise, or pursuing a career change. 261 Fearless now has clubs in 11 countries, but the nonprofit is hoping to add 200 more clubs in the next five years, with a focus on penetrating the Middle East, whose cultural norms discourage or even punish women for participating in exercise of any form.

So many women are asking for clubs in their cities, that they are having difficulty meeting demand. Switzer commented that they need more club leaders so that they can reach people in their communities. Club Leaders take a two to three day course called “Train a Trainer” before they are allowed to form their club, with ongoing sessions throughout the year, so that the coaches can stay up to date on the latest research and trends. After completing the initial course, the women learn basic stretching exercises, proper running techniques, manage the running schedule, and ensure that the environment is nonjudgmental, so that the women in the group feel supported and are able to grow.

Beyond helping women gain strength, 261 Fearless also partners with other foundations. Recently, with their partner Adidas(r), they launched a campaign for Ocean Clean Run. Adidas(r) donated 1 dollar per kilometer to the Parley Ocean School to help clean up our oceans. 261 Fearless club members teamed up to help. At the end of the campaign, the total participation was over 1.5 million people, with a total of 8,888,954 kilometers ran. 
 

As impressive as that is, Switzer really wanted to bring attention to Hello Cup, an eco-friendly and cheaper alternative to tampons and pads based out of New Zealand. It’s a menstrual cup made out of medical grade thermoplastic elastomer that is good for up to ten years. She told me, “I sat down and calculated how many women would be having their menstrual period [during the New York City Marathon]...It came out to be a modest estimate of 2,500 women.” Taking into account logistic issues like carrying sanitary products and stopping at toilets along the way, it can slow a woman down significantly and affect their confidence level if they are worrying about their period instead of their time. In a broader view, Switzer would like to see Hello Cup being used in poorer communities where girls there are missing out on school, either because they can’t afford the traditional sanitary items, or because of a social taboo surrounding menstruation. 

60 years ago, Kathrine Switzer experienced a cataclysmic event that sent her down a path to push women's endurance sports to the mainstream. She is still going strong helping to build women up to their fullest potential. She continues to set an example by pushing herself and never compromising on her goals.

In 2017, she competed in the Boston Marathon, on the 50th anniversary of her original run. She confided in me that this was one of the things she is most proud of, more so than any books she’s written or anything else. She wants other women who are in their later years, to know that they can still accomplish amazing things. Whether it is running in a marathon or a simple 100-yard dash, she wants to encourage women to stay active and live a healthy life to the fullest.

Interested in running the Boston Marathon? Learn more about the requirements here.

If you want to learn more about 261 Fearless, how to join a club, or become a coach, visit their website here.