As a gutsy 20 year old Katherine Switzer entered the all male Boston marathon in 1967. When an official tried to remove her, the pictures generated worldwide controversy. Switzer broke barriers then and remains today an advocate for female runners.
Article by Dominique Brady
As a teenager Switzer thought about taking up cheerleading but her father told her life was for participants and not spectators. She took up field hockey instead and started running a mile a day to improve her fitness. Switzer quickly caught the running bug.
Sports journalism appealed to her, so she enrolled at Syracuse University. Switzer embraced running whilst at university, and pleaded to join the men’s cross country team as there was no women’s running team. Although she wasn’t allowed to join officially, her enthusiasm proved infectious and she was allowed to train with the team.
BATTLE AT BOSTON
She was adopted by the team manager and university postman, Arnie Briggs, who had run the Boston marathon 15 times. When she asked him if she could compete in the all-male Boston marathon (Roberta Gibb had competed unofficially in 1966) he upset Switzer telling her, women were incapable of running 26.2 miles. However, he was persuaded, if Switzer could complete the distance he would take her to Boston. Upping her training, Switzer ran 31 miles with Briggs and convinced him she was ready.
Now, there was the simple matter of registering. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) rule book had no official restrictions on women entering the marathon - it was just presumed women wouldn’t enter. Switzer did, and sent in a medical certificate using her initials: K.V. Switzer. She insists this was not to fool officials but rather the signature she always used as a nod to her heroes: T.S. Elliot, J.D. Sallinger and W.B. Yeats. With the infamous number tag of 261 she was ready to compete.
On the day itself Switzer was four miles into the race, when the media truck with Jock Semple, one of the race directors, tried to pass her. The journalists goaded Semple that Switzer didn’t look like a ‘Karl’, the name her initial suggested. Semple exploded with anger and racing towards Switzer he grabbed her sweatshirt, yelling: “Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number.” Her friends’ body blocked Semple and Briggs urged Switzer to run quickly away. Switzer finished the race in approximately 4:20, although she wasn’t officially timed.
Despite being well off a Radcliffe record, her race proved women wanted to, and could, compete in the marathon. Roberta Gibb unofficially also finished the Boston marathon for the second time in 1967 but was forced off the course just before the finish line - it is estimated she would have completed in 3:27:17. However, it was the ensuing photos of Switzer’s struggle which became a symbol of the fight women were having worldwide to be acknowledged as runners. Switzer’s comment that the rules were “archaic” came as a battle cry for women who were involved in the liberation movement. Female running became a political issue.
NOT JUST A PERSONAL BEST
Switzer continued to run competitively and made a personal best of 2:51:37 in 1975 in the Boston marathon. She won the New York City marathon in 1974 and has run 35 marathons in total. However, it was as an advocate of women’s running that Switzer has made her biggest contribution. By 1972 her campaigning meant women were officially able to enter the Boston marathon and she didn’t stop there.
As director of the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1977 she convinced Avon cosmetics to set up a marathon just for women. The first Avon International Marathon was held in 1978 and the popularity and athleticism displayed in the yearly event was crucial in convincing the Olympic committee that a women’s marathon was needed. Switzer even flew to Los Angeles to convince individual International Olympic committee members that women could safely run the marathon distance.
Her hard work paid off. In 1981 it was decided that women could finally compete in the marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. So, the next time, you’re running a 10k, half marathon, or most importantly, a marathon, have a quick look around. Half of the field you will be competing against will be female and this in no small part due to Switzer’s inspiring battle for female running equality. Switzer is living proof that life is about participating and not watching from the sidelines.
Katherine Switzer is author of Marathon Woman, Running and Walking for Women Over 40 and co-author of 26.2: Marathon Stories.