Kathrine Switzer helped pave the way for women in sports, and 50 years after she made history, she remains an inspiration
By Peter Feniak
‘‘I don’t rate myself a great athlete—not at all,” Kathrine Switzer tells me, “but running saves my life. Every day. It’s my stress-buster. It’s my creative fount. It’s my inspiration. No matter how crappy the day is, the run makes it right.”
Switzer, now 71, has long been an inspiration to those who run and to women in sports. She’ll be a special guest at the Toronto Marathon on May 6, representing her 261 Fearless network for female runners. She is today a noted author, journalist, and broadcaster. But in the beginning was the “Incident.”
It was 1967 and Switzer was a 21-year-old student running the famous Boston Marathon in a group with a coach and some members of the Syracuse University track team. Suddenly, she was set upon by a furious Scottish-American named Jock Semple. “Get the hell out of my race!” he roared, tearing at the number 261 bib on her back.
Semple was one of the race directors. Kathy Switzer, the frightened runner, had sent the $3 entry fee to register for the taxing 26.2 mile (42.2 km) race as “K.V. Switzer” and been accepted. She wanted to prove she could finish the “ultimate challenge” road race to Arnie Briggs, her mentor and track coach, and her registration made her the first woman officially entered in the Boston Marathon’s then-70-year history—except that race organizers didn’t know that K.V. Switzer was a woman.
As press photographers captured the startling episode and Semple grabbed at Switzer, Switzer’s boyfriend, 235-pound Syracuse athlete Tom Miller, bodychecked Semple to the curb and Semple rose up, fuming. Switzer and her group ran on and finished the gruelling race. Then they drove back to upstate New York in the dark.
Switzer’s run had made history. And it became a signal that change was on the way. Photographs of the angry race official and the beleaguered young woman wearing Bib 261 appeared on newspaper front pages overnight. Emotions ran high. Switzer and her group were expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States. Race co-director Will Cloney wrote, “If that girl were my daughter, I’d spank her.”
But something else was under way—a new look at long-standing myths about women’s stamina, their place in sports, and their right to compete. Switzer had entered the marathon to prove something. The shock of an attack by a race official might have stopped her—but it didn’t. Decades later, Switzer looked back in her memoir, Marathon Woman (Da Capo Press, 2007):
“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”
Her time in the race wasn’t special, and she wasn’t the first woman to have run: Roberta Gibb had run well as an unofficial entrant the year before. But the “conflict on the course” got people talking. Switzer was even invited onto The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where the host, a former track-and-fielder, treated her with respect. She returned to school, kept running, and eventually penned a letter of conciliation to Semple. Five years later, in 1972, women were granted the right to run officially in the Boston Marathon.
From her winter home in New Zealand, Switzer told me about those days and her relationship with Semple:
“One thing you do need to know: Jock Semple and I became very, very good friends. Jock always fussed and fumed, ‘Oh, I was never against women running. I just thought they should follow the rules.’
“But then he saw us run in ’72, because he had to admit us into the race. Honestly, he was fuming about letting us into the race. After that, he said, ‘Oh, they ran really well.’ It’s as though he hadn’t even noticed [female runners] up to that point. After that, we became friends. We would do interviews together. I helped him launch his book, and I visited him a few hours before he died.
“People say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of forgiveness,’ but life’s too short not to forgive, and how could you not love somebody who so completely changed your life and helped create a social revolution?”
As the 1970s unfolded, that revolution gained momentum. Interest in women’s sports surged with Billie Jean King’s launch of a women’s professional tennis tour and her famous victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” over brash 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs.
Switzer did her part. After earning a master’s degree in communication from Syracuse, she promoted women’s running brilliantly. Most notably, in 1978, she launched the Avon International Running Circuit, a program for female runners that extended to about 200 races in 27 countries. That success helped persuade the International Olympic Committee to add the Women’s Marathon to the Games. Switzer was a commentator with the ABC TV broadcast team when Joan Benoit won gold for the USA in the first Women’s Marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Switzer also provided TV commentary on the Boston Marathon for 37 years.
Switzer’s energy and enthusiasm shine through in conversation. Her determination is clear in her memoir. From New Zealand, she told me of her mindset after she earned fame as “the lady who crashed the marathon.”
“If truth be known, I had a very big chip on my shoulder. People were telling me all the time that I was a no-talent and that 4:20, my first Boston time, ‘Doesn’t count; that’s a jogging time…la-la-la-la-la.’
“I mean, I always thought it was pretty good—given that a gorilla jumped on my back. I was only 21 and in my first race. I never did believe I wasn’t a talented runner. I loved to run. And I was physiologically curious. So I decided I would train my brains out and see how good I really could get.”
Her goal was to run a marathon in under three hours. (The record for a woman, set in 2014, is 2:19:59.) With a twice-a-day training regimen, results came. She beat the other female runners in the 1974 New York City Marathon with a time of 3:07.29. Then, the following April, at the Boston Marathon, she placed second among women with a time of 2:51:27. “That time was world-class then,” she remembers. “I realized that if I could do that, then there were millions of women out there who could do it. I love to run. I really didn’t like to compete, but when I ran that 2:51, I said, ‘All right, that was fabulous!’”
Stepping away from marathons, she redoubled her resolve to promote women’s running.
Big Legs and Moustaches?
Kathrine Virginia Switzer (a misspelling on her birth certificate dropped the standard e from Katherine) was born in Amberg, Germany, on January 5, 1947. Her father, US Army Major W. Homer Switzer, was stationed in Europe as part of the Allied reconstruction efforts. Her mother, Virginia, was “a career woman, a great role model, a ‘supermom,’” Switzer says. “I got motivation from both of them.”
With the family back in America, Kathy Switzer, age 12, was facing a new school, worried about how to fit in, anxious about tryouts for the junior varsity field hockey team.
“My dad was very conservative in many, many ways, but I think he realized that kids need exercise. And he realized that I was a pretty insecure skinny little kid. He said, ‘You’ll make the field hockey team if you run a mile a day. You can do this. I know you can.’ My father hardly remembered that, but that was probably the moment that changed my life in the biggest way.”
Soon, Switzer could run a mile a day and more, and she made the girls’ field hockey team. After high school, she registered at small, independent Lynchburg College in Virginia, where the eager runner, with a girlfriend, successfully tried out for and made the men’s cross-country team. (There was no women’s track team.) Switzer, also a finalist in the Miss Lynchburg beauty contest, got noticed as a “Face in the Crowd” in Sports Illustrated magazine. Next, transferring to Syracuse, she was allowed to train with the men’s track team and gained the mentorship of coach Arnie Briggs. Popular myth had long claimed too much exercise “for girls” would earn them “big legs and moustaches.”
Switzer laughs today:
“Girls and their parents would tease me and warn me about these things. I remember thinking, What a bunch of baloney. My ancestors were early settlers, homesteaders. And these women were very, very tough. And they were also feminine—having babies along the way and toughing it out in a North Dakota winter.”
The marathon—the most demanding of road races—is now a popular event in cities and towns across Canada. Canadians run well and have succeeded in the Boston Marathon. Ronald J. MacDonald of Antigonish, NS, won the second Boston Marathon, in 1898. Legendary Onondaga distance runner Tom Longboat of the Six Nations reserve, near Brantford, ON, set a course record time in 1907. Quebec’s Gérard Côté won four times in the 1940s. Toronto’s Jerome Drayton set a course record of 2:10:09 in 1977, and Quebec’s Jacqueline Gareau won the race in 1980, the year that the apparent winner, Cuban-American Rosie Ruiz, was discovered to have entered the race near its end and not run the full course.
In the 1980s, Switzer, twice-divorced, found a happy marriage with Roger Robinson, a Londoner who had immigrated to New Zealand and headed the English department at Victoria University in Wellington. An author and scholar, Robinson is also a champion masters runner. (Masters competitions are divided into age groups of five years, beginning with age 35.)
“Roger is making medical history, proving you can run after a knee replacement,” Switzer says with a smile in her voice. The couple divide their year between New Zealand and New York State’s Hudson Valley. “Our major household expense,” she jokes, “is airfare.”
In recent years, intrigued by the growing participation in marathons by women “of a certain age,” Switzer took another look at the long-distance race:
“I’d stayed in shape and I was seeing all these older women who at 65 and 70 were discovering running for the first time and running well. [Toronto physician Dr. Jean Marmoreo twice set records at the Boston Marathon for female runners 70-plus.] So what about me? Could I, with ‘old legs and an old body,’ start marathon running again? The answer was ‘yes.’ If you take your time and build back, you can! I took great joy in the fact that I didn’t have to run fast, I could just go out there and run for fun.
“It’s interesting about health and longevity,” she adds. “People ask, ‘Aren’t you worried about your knees? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to have a heart attack? That you’re pushing it too hard?’ And I tell them, ‘That’s exactly what you said about women 50 years ago—that women are too frail, too fragile…they can’t do it. Now you’re saying that about older people.’ Well, clearly that’s not the case. We need to realize we’re on the edge of another frontier. When you’re 60, you don’t go home and sit on the sofa. Move, socialize, be active. Exercise is so much fun! People say, ‘It’s torture,’ but it doesn’t have to be. Just go out and walk. Get together with your friends. Play!”
Switzer resumed running marathons in her mid-60s. The year she turned 70 proved special. Fifty years after “crashing the race” in 1967, Switzer ran the Boston Marathon again, with a team of women from 261 Fearless, and was received with honour. The famous road race officially retired Bib 261, her original number. It was only the second bib to be retired by the Boston Marathon (the other was Bib 61, to mark the 61 marathons run by the American distance runner Johnny Kelley—he ran his 61st at the age of 84).
Today, still promoting running for women and fitness for all, Switzer is a proud and happy example of vibrant long-term health. Her 50th anniversary Boston Marathon in 2017 gave her a sense of “huge gratitude,” she told me, “for being well enough to do it and for all the women who embraced running and allowed it to empower them.”
It was, she added with a smile I could hear across time zones, “absolutely wonderful.”
For more about Kathrine Switzer’s 261 Fearless women’s running groups, visit 261fearless.org.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins.