Trends & Features

Kathrine Switzer – Breaking barriers and empowering womens sport

Iconic athlete, sports and social advocate, author, and Emmy award-winning television commentator, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon, and attacked by an official while doing so.

She has been honoured widely for her achievements, most recently being inducted into the USA National Women’s Hall of Fame for creating positive social change. The ramifications of this work is both joyful and profound, changing forever the face of sports, health, and opportunities for women around the world and fearlessly empowering millions beyond the finish line, especially through the non-profit “261 Fearless, Inc.”

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 stronger 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. 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.

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 1-1/2 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.

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

At about the two-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.

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.

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.

Did you ever have any doubt that you would finish?

No, I was determined to finish no matter what.

There are famous photos of the official attacking you. how did they take those photos?

The photo truck was right in front of us and the press and officials’ bus was alongside of us, working their way from the back of the race pack to the front. The official jumped off the bus and attacked me…right in full view of the photographers taking pictures from the back of the truck. It was very bad timing for the official, but it was very good timing for women’s rights. The photo of the incident was flashed around the world and is now in Time-Life’s book, “100 Photos that Changed the World.”

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.

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?

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 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.

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 second; 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.

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.

Do you feel there are still barriers for women in sport and sports reporting or is it now a level playing field?

There are huge barriers for women in sports and especially in women’s sports reporting! The barriers in sports in industrialized nations are barriers of easy participation and barriers of professional inequality. There are disparities in prize money and attention, sponsorship and advertising.

Having said that, the situation in industrialized nations is really improving every day. In many countries of the world however, women are not even allowed to go out of their homes, drive a car, get an education, or carry their own passport. So getting into sports is very important for them because it empowers them but it is almost impossible sometimes because of social and cultural restriction to do so.

It is almost impossible sometimes because of social and cultural restriction to do so. This is why I hope 261 Fearless will make a big dent, this is my nonprofit which is a series of clubs around the world which encourage women to come out with other women and simply jog or walk together and they get a sense of confidence and accomplishment from this.

Women themselves should take a leadership role about communicating sports and reporting it to Media because Media itself has not been very great about reporting on women, so women should take a strong initiative, there’s a big role for women to play here, a Big opportunity.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to take up running but is daunted by the prospect?

There are three pieces of simple advice. First put on your sneakers and start walking and then begin jogging. Do this every day for 10 minutes very slowly and easily and get used to the consistency of it. Stretch it out longer a little bit every day from there on. Second find a buddy who is willing to undertake a fitness or walking running program with you. Three become a friend of 261 and find out more information about how to get started with other women. It’s important for you to know you’re not alone out there!

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