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Fifty years ago, on a cold morning in 1967, Kathrine Switzer stood on the start line of the Boston Marathon. She was the only woman in the field, and the first woman to run the race with an official bib. It was the 71st Boston Marathon, and she was running with 600 other starters.
At 1.5 miles, race director Jock Semple tried to pull Switzer off the course. Her boyfriend, a former all-American football player, shoved him off. And Switzer went on to finish the race in 4 hours, 20 minutes.
Now, 50 years after that first run, Switzer is running the Boston Marathon again — this time, with more than 13,000 other women racing alongside her.
Kathrine Switzer, author of "Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports," and founder of 261 Fearless. She tweets @KVSwitzer.
My entering the Boston Marathon in 1967 was a reward from my coach, Arnie Briggs. He didn’t believe a woman could run, no matter what. But he said, if I would prove to him in practice that I could do it, he’d be the first person to take me to the Boston Marathon. I trained mightily with him and one day we ran 26 miles, and then I said, let’s run another five to make sure we can do it. We ran 31 miles, and he was so impressed — he was so impressed after he passed out — that women had inherent potential and endurance and stamina. And he helped me sign up for the event.
I thought we could just go and jump into the race. He said, "No, you have to get travel permits, you have to pay a $2 entry fee, you have to fill out the entry form, you have to follow the rules." I said, "Maybe it’s a men’s-only event." He said, "No, it’s not. There’s nothing here that says it’s for men only, and nothing on the entry form about gender."
I looked it over and I said, "Well then, how come women aren’t running?" And he said, "Because they don’t believe they can. They’re afraid to run." I said, "OK." So we filled out the entry form together, I paid my $2 entry fee. But I signed the form K.V. Switzer, with my initials. I began using my initials because my dad misspelled 'Katherine' on my birth certificate, and I spent my whole life with it being misspelled when people were trying to spell it correctly. And I had given up on trying to correct them. By signing K.V. Switzer, it was not only a good sportswriters' name, but it solved the problem of misspelling my name. When the form went in, they obviously thought it was from a man, and they issued me numbers. They thought I was trying to fool them, and I wasn’t. I was trying to follow the rules.
We woke up that morning with snow on the ground, headwinds, sleet, and freezing cold. It was about 34, 35 degrees. It was the kind of snow that saturated your clothes and was bone-chilling. So everyone in the race looked alike. We had pulled everything out of our suitcases and drawers that we had with us and put them on, so from a distance I looked like just one of the guys. The men in the race welcomed me. They thought it was great. And it was marvelous for the first mile, and then suddenly, the press truck passed me. They were taking pictures of us and going crazy seeing a woman in the race, wearing bib numbers. This had never happened before.
For awhile, we thought this was great news and were waving at them, when all of the sudden behind me I heard fast-moving footsteps. I turned to see a ferocious face, screaming, "Get the hell out my race and give me those numbers." It was the race director, furious that a woman was in his race, wearing a bib. And he grabbed me, and he threw me back, and he tried to pull off my bib numbers. My coach screamed, "Leave her alone, she’s OK, I’ve trained her!" And my boyfriend, who was an ex-all-American football player, threw a shoulder charge into the official and sent him out of the race instead.
At that moment, I was so embarrassed, and so terrified, and so upset, that I didn’t know what to do. I thought, Should I quit? And then I thought, No, I can’t quit, because if I do that, no one will ever believe that women can run. Nobody will deserve we believe to be here. And then I turned to my coach and I said, "Now I have to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to, because I have to prove that women deserve to be here and can do the distance." And he said, "OK, let’s just slow it down and get it all together."
By mile 2, my boyfriend, who had hit the official, turned to me in great anger and said I was getting him in all kinds of trouble, and he was never going to make the Olympic team because of me, and I ran too slow anyway. I remember how embarrassed I felt that we were having a boyfriend/girlfriend fight in the middle of the Boston Marathon.
Then there were three of us — my coach, myself and a guy from our cross-country team. We went into the most incredible trough, which often happens after you have an experience that shocks you and raises your adrenaline. When the adrenaline goes, then you feel so tired, you feel like you can barely move. And for the next 6 miles, we were in this trough and then slowly emerged.
The next memory is my boyfriend walking up in front of us. He didn’t know that we were coming up behind him. I caught him up and he pretended he hadn’t been walking. And he said, "Walk with me." And I said, "No, I’m sorry. As slow as I go, I have momentum."
Then the next memory is climbing through the hills. When we got up Heartbreak Hill and down the other side, I turned to my coach, and said, "When is Heartbreak coming?" And he said, "You just went over Heartbreak." And I said, "I did? I didn’t even realize it." And he said, "Only you would not realize that we just went over Heartbreak Hill."
I had massive blisters in my arches and between my toes, and I was beginning to bleed through my shoes. But I just refused to even accept this, and I put it out of my mind. We were just holding on, and we were absolutely frozen. It was just miserable.
Then, all of the sudden, we were coming along Commonwealth, and heading to Hereford Street. I was very afraid, and my coach was, that maybe a policeman was going to try to pull us from the race before the finish when nobody was looking. In fact, the official had gone ahead, and told the cops to pull us, and they wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t get involved, which is great. And we made a right on Hereford, we turned left on Boylston, and there was the finish. We weren’t exactly overjoyed, but we were tremendously relieved. We’d done it, we’d never walked, we’d completed the whole thing, and the three of us were together.
I try to forget bad things and remember good things. So I will forget the man who walked into the street and shouted at me, "Go home to your husband and make him dinner." But I will always remember the woman who fell down on her knees at the roadside and said, "Come on, honey, do it for all of us."
Jock Semple never really apologized by saying, "I’m sorry." But in 1973, he came up to me on the start line, and planted a big kiss on my cheek, and in his wonderful Scottish brogue, said, "Come on lass, let’s get a wee bit of notoriety," and turned me around to a bank of television cameras and press reporters. That was his way of saying he was sorry. We became very good friends — because how could you not love somebody who changed your life and gave you so positive out of a negative? And how could you not love somebody who gave the world one of the most galvanizing photos in women’s rights history?
The Boston Marathon, in a way, is a microcosm of society. It’s changed so completely, and for women’s running it’s been a microcosm of a social revolution. In 50 years, we’ve seen us go from a man trying to throw me out of the race to seeing almost 50-50, men and women. They’re not running to be elite. They’re not running to lose 5 pounds. They’re running because they’re empowered. They’re running because their lives have been changed so positively by the sense of accomplishment and self-esteem that they have gained from running. And this translates into all areas of their lives. Running is a force wholly for good. And it is a joyful, wonderful, almost gender-free experience. We’re out there as runners together. It is, in a way, the ideal of what the world should be.
This article was originally published on April 17, 2017.
This segment aired on April 17, 2017.
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