Kathrine Switzer was told that running a marathon was impossible. She was mocked, derided, and even her own coach didn’t initially believe it was possible for a woman to run a 26-mile course. She refused to share his contempt, and 50 years ago became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Now, at the age of 70, she’s completed the race again in honor of her groundbreaking run.
"I'm so excited about Monday. It's going to be great," Switzer told NESN in an interview ahead of the 2017 Boston Marathon. She explained that over 58 percent of runners in the United States are women, a staunch contrast from her beginnings in the sport when nobody believed women could run distances, and officials tried to use violence to stop her from completing the 1967 Boston Marathon.
Switzer finished the 2017 race with at time of 4:44:31. Fifty years ago, she did it in four hours and 20 minutes — a difference of just 24 minutes.
Switzer is one of the most influential women in distance running, but is often left out of the pantheon of world-changing sporting achievements. Now, on the anniversary of her run, Kathrine’s story deserves to be told again.
Speaking to ESPN, Switzer’s story begins in her childhood home shortly before attending high school. She told her parents she wanted to be a cheerleader, to which her father responded:
“You don’t want to be a cheerleader. Cheerleaders cheer for other people. You want other people to cheer for you. The game is on the field, life is to participate — not to spectate.”
This message resonated with Kathrine and she quickly developed a passion for running. While attending Syracuse University she practiced with the men’s cross country team, where she met coach Arnie Briggs, who completed the Boston Marathon himself.
Tales of Arnie running the race motivated Kathrine to make that her goal. She wanted to run the Boston Marathon herself, but when she told her coach the idea was immediately shot down — unless she could prove herself. Switzer explains in her memoir Marathon Woman.
“No dame ever ran the Boston Marathon!” he shouted, as skidding motorists nearly killed us. Then he added, “If any woman could do it, you could, but you would have to prove it to me. If you ran the distance in practice, I’d be the first to take you to Boston.” I grinned through the gloom and flakes. Hot damn, I thought, I have a coach, a training partner, a plan, and a goal: the biggest race in the world—Boston.
The pair practiced together and when Switzer sailed past the finish line of a 26-mile run with ease and decided to tack on an extra five miles for good measure, she proved to her coach she was ready.
Switzer was ready to run the Boston Marathon, coach Briggs was ready to support her — but the world wasn’t. Kathrine knew she needed to register for the race officially, but didn’t dare use her full name for fear of the attention. Instead she registered as “K.V. Switzer,” and traveled with Arnie to Boston.
When the race began, Kathrine felt welcome. Several fellow runners said it was great to see a woman running along with them, but this experience was quickly sobered into the race. Switzer was chased by a race official who tried to stop her competing.
“A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him.”
The run in made Kathrine think for a split second about quitting the race, but she decided to press on. If she dropped out it would validate every doubter who said women couldn’t run the marathon — so she kept running, refused to quit, and told Arnie that she’d finish the race “on [her] hands and knees, if she had to.”
Switzer crossed the finish line in four hours, 20 minutes — still wearing an official number and being a registered entrant. It sent a message to the world that women were just as capable of running long distances as men. The media attention from running the Boston Marathon gave Switzer the power to help affect change, starting with women being accepted into major marathons as competitors, and continuing into her career as a journalist where she helped broadcast races and cover women’s running. Switzer is also credited with being a major factor in the Olympic Games including the women’s marathon as an event starting in 1984.
Now Switzer works with her own charity, “261 Fearless” — a non-profit with the goal of empowering women through running. Her bib number has become an iconic and vital symbol of equality, and on April 17 members of 261 Fearless will honor the 50th anniversary of Switzer’s run. Her courage proved that nothing is impossible and that all barriers are worth breaking down.