kathrine switzer became the first woman to officially run the boston marathon despite being attacked by the race director who tried to physically remove her from the race because she was a woman. she recalls the famous moment, explains why it’s still relevant, and talks about women’s safety in 2021.
In the 1960s, Switzer says there was a negative view of women who exercised, such as long-distance running, that was based on myths.
“The perceptions of women when I was running, amazingly only 53 years ago, were that they would have big legs, they would grow chest hair, the uterus would fall out,” she told sky sports. news.
“and it was widely perceived that it was socially quite objectionable for women to participate in sports because they seemed arduous. it seemed like they were working hard, sweating.”
“and of course most women were very scared of that image because their whole being was about being feminine, attracting the opposite sex and being accepted. I thought they were missing this wonderful feeling of speed and strength , and really empowering.”
Switzer loved running and was coached by former marathon runner Arnie Briggs, a volunteer coach at Syracuse University, who took the 19-year-old Switzer “under his wing.” After hearing his stories about the marathon, Switzer grew impatient and told him that he wanted to run the Boston Marathon.
“He said a woman couldn’t do it and we had a big argument after he said women are too weak and too frail to run 26.2 miles. I said women in history have run marathon distances,” she said switzer. in an exclusive interview from new zealand.
“I said women in history have run marathon distances, including a woman in boston the year before who ran the marathon. It wasn’t official, but she still did it and he just wouldn’t believe it.”
In 1966, Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run and complete the Boston Marathon, but the 23-year-old hid in a bush near the marathon start line and disguised herself in a hoodie after be disqualified from officially participating in the race because of their gender.
Switzer said that Briggs eventually changed his mind, saying “if any woman can do it, you can do it, but you’ll have to prove me in practice, and if you can, I’ll be the first person to take you to Boston.” Switzer proved his endurance by running the distance plus an additional five miles.
entered with his initials k.v. switzer, who says it was not a deliberate way to hide his identity, but the way he always signed his name. Unlike Gibb and because her gender was not clear on the registration form, her official registration was approved after paying a $2 registration fee.
what really happened in the marathon?
More than 600 runners started the Boston Marathon on April 19, 1967, in cold, wet and breezy conditions.
Switzer said, “You can imagine at the start of the marathon, everyone was happy, laughing and cheering, and really supportive. All the guys were wonderful.”
but the situation changed completely a little over two miles into the race.
“Then the press truck beep-beep sounded and when it passed us, all the photographers in the back of the truck saw that I was a woman and I was wearing bib number 261 and they kept filming me and yelling at me: ‘ what are you doing in the race? what are you trying to prove?’ I thought that was really weird.
“and suddenly next to the press bus there was another bus full of officials, and on this bus was the co-director of the race, a Scottish wrestler named jock semple.
“he had a reputation for being very feisty. also, the journalists on the bus made fun of him, saying that there is a girl in his race and he lost his temper. anyway, he had a short fuse but he jumped off this bus and ran after me.
“He ran after me, and I heard his leather shoes at the last minute, you can hear the difference, and when I turned around, this fierce face was right in my face and he yelled at me and said ‘go away’. get out of my race and give me those numbers! and he’s ripping my numbers and trying to get them.
“and I [screamed] and tried to run away and he grabbed me by the shirt and started pulling me back. my trainer said, ‘leave her alone, she’s fine, I’ve trained her.’
“he grabbed the corner of my number 261 on the back of my shirt and it was like a bad dream, and I was trying to get away. and then all of a sudden my boyfriend (tom miller) running to me side and he was a former football player and weighed 235 pounds, he came and hit the officer with a blow to the shoulder and sent him flying.
“we all freaked out, but my coach said run like crazy and we all ran down the street flying past the press truck, and the press truck was speeding up and yelling at me, saying, ‘what are you trying to do? to do? when are you going to leave?’
“and i was so scared. i’m so full of confidence now, but at the time, i had just turned 20. as a kid, i wasn’t trying to prove anything. i had shown arnie that i could go the distance and reward it was to go to boston.
“I just couldn’t understand why he (semple) was so mad and then I thought maybe I did something wrong. but at that point, I got really mad too which was great because I went to my coach and said : ‘I will finish this race on my hands and knees if necessary’.
“because if I don’t finish this race, nobody is going to believe that women can do it and they are not going to believe that women deserve to be here. I have to finish this race.”
swiss finished the race becoming the first woman to register and complete the boston marathon.
remember the ending very clearly. “When we finished four hours and 20 minutes later, the journalists were very moody and very aggressive because they had been standing in the cold waiting for the girl to finish. ‘What are you trying to prove? Are you a suffragette or are you a crusader? Never again you will reapply.’
“I was only 20 years old. I said things like: ‘we will come back and we will come back again and again, and if our club is banned, we will form a new club’.
“and then i said to the guy who said i’d never run again: ‘someday you’re going to read about a little 80 year old lady who dies in central park on the run.’ and i said, ‘it’s going to be me. to run for the rest of my life!’ and he says… ‘wow…!’
“you have to understand that this was the beginning of the era of the second great feminist movement of the 60s and people were always criticizing women, saying that they broke into places where they were not welcome and that they could not do everything modes.
“and suddenly I realized that’s what they were trying to make me do, they were going to try to take me out of the race to prove that I couldn’t do it. well, I knew I could do it – I had run 31 miles in the race! practice!”
after the race, switzer said he got a lot of hate mail, but also a lot of fan mail. he decided to dismiss the negative comments and keep the positive ones as inspiration to continue campaigning for change.
what happened next with jock semple?
Five years passed before women were officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon in 1972.
“it took jock (semple) five years to watch women run, and finally, when they were officers, he had to realize that they were serious and that they loved running too and that they were good,” he said switzer.
the following year, switzer came face to face with semple. but this time, the photo was in the newspapers for different reasons.
She said, “He came up to me at the start line of the next year’s race, and he didn’t say he was sorry, but he put his arm around me and gave me a big kiss and spun me around for the TV cameras. .
“and I can’t do a Scottish accent, but I’ll try. He said, ‘Come on, girl, let’s get some notoriety!’
“and the photo of him kissing me was in the new york times the next day with the headline saying ‘the end of an era’.
“which means if jock semple is going to welcome kathrine switzer into his career, times have really changed. so we became really good friends. he didn’t say, ‘look, i’m so sorry i did that’ “. it’s okay. that was enough for me.”
The couple did interviews together and remained good friends until his death in 1988.
“I went to see him right before he died. And people are like, wow, that’s a lot of forgiveness.”
“but you know what? how can you not love someone who not only changed your life in such a positive way, even though it started negatively, but changed the lives of millions of women?
“That photograph is one of the best photographs of the women’s rights movement, and certainly even the civil rights movement.”
switzer said she saw “a great opportunity” to grow women’s careers around the world.
She said, “If I could create the opportunity for them, I know they would come, but they were scared: they needed a welcoming, non-intimidating environment to participate.”
“and i started the push with other women to get women officially into the boston marathon. we did it. and also to get them into the olympics. and i would say that was really the highlight of my career.
“It took me 10 years, but we were very successful.”
Switzerland has organized a world series of 400 women’s races in 27 countries and was instrumental in getting the women’s marathon added to the program for the 1984 Olympics.
He has fond memories of organizing a London marathon 41 years ago, leading to the official London Marathon which is still held every year.
“We had a big London marathon in 1980, a year before the London Marathon [officially started],” he added. “the international olympic committee required that 23 countries and four continents participate in the olympic games, and we had 27 countries and five continents.
“and so we passed the Olympic requirement and were voted into the women’s Olympic marathon in 1984.
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“but one of my proudest moments, of course, was shutting down the streets of central london for the first time in history for a sporting event and seeing the race turn into what is now the great london marathon london.
“so it was an amazing achievement in every way. and I’m particularly excited because it was the women who did it.”
running the boston marathon 50 years later
Swiss followed her love of running and won the New York City Marathon in 1974, although she admits she was never fast enough to be an elite runner.
In 2017, 50 years after his memorable first experience, he ran the Boston Marathon again at the age of 70.
Running in his original number 261, he finished in four hours and 44 minutes, just 24 minutes slower than his time half a century earlier.
the following year, in 2018, he ran the london marathon. She described it as an honor to be the official participant in the elite women’s race and the Paraathletics World Marathon World Cup, before joining the thousands who run for charity on London’s famous streets.
Also known for being an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster and author, Switzer was inducted into the US National Women’s Hall of Fame. USA, which recognized her role in creating positive social change around the world.
helping women run in afghanistan
The 2017 Boston Race launched Switzerland’s global non-profit movement called 261 Fearless (named for its original bib number) uniting women through racing.
includes local non-competitive running clubs, educational programs and running socials. the theme is to allow female runners to empower themselves and show courage.
“now in every country women are finding a way to run. even in afghanistan and saudi arabia, women are running under their burkas and going out and gathering,” says co-founder switzer, who spoke before the Taliban returned to power.
“there’s a group called the midnight runners in afghanistan, and they come out at four in the morning and run together. and there are several guys who run with them to help them out in case they get into a bad situation.
“there’s a situation where you find yourself in a very dangerous situation, not only being interrupted, but even being killed.”
“So, that’s how powerful running is for these women, how much they really want to do it. Because it gives them perhaps the only sense of freedom they have in their lives.”
The organization is based on the iconic moment that Switzer was a part of in 1967 and which she feels is still relevant.
“the image itself became a thought-provoking photo that’s actually more relevant even today than ever before. it’s ubiquitous and people use it as a moment that changed history and changed time. how things were and how could be things.
“Because here was a woman being attacked in a marathon and 53 years later, 58 percent of all participating runners in the United States are women, so that’s a sea change.”
“And these women don’t run because they want to be Olympians. They run because it gives them a sense of empowerment, destiny, self-esteem.”
women’s safety in the uk
switzerland learned of the case of sarah everard, who was abducted from the street while walking home in south london. The 33-year-old man was kidnapped and killed by police officer Wayne Couzens.
Switzerland also saw the solidarity of women who used their platform to speak out about their experiences of discrimination and violence in the UK, calling for greater security and equality.
“I think that all of us as human beings, and especially women, since we are in more danger in this situation, we should have a safe place to walk, live, run and be.”
“And I’d like us to achieve that sooner rather than later,” the 74-year-old said.
“to bring about change at all costs, whether it’s forming our groups, working with the police, raising public awareness, demanding more CCTV cameras and better lighting.”
“but we deserve it, everyone deserves it. It’s not just women, it’s also men. But in this case, women are much more vulnerable. So yes, we deserve it. Let’s work for it” .
“women have already shown that they can and have organized, so let’s keep organizing. Let’s take responsibility for making it happen.”
Click the video at the top of this page to view the full exclusive interview with Kathrine Switzer.