Katherine Switzer: Paving The Way For Women Since 1967

Katherine Switzer holds up a replica of the race bib she wore in the 1967 Boston Marathon. The women's running pioneer is launching a new 261 Fearless Collection of running apparel with Skirt Sports. Photo: Brian Metzler | Competitor.com

The women’s running pioneer is launching a new clothing collection with Skirt Sports this summer.

Many a great idea is born from frustration. And so it was when Kathrine Switzer decided to run the 1967 Boston Marathon. She was running with her coach Arnie Briggs one night in the snow and grew weary of hearing him tell his Boston stories. It was one of those runs. Switzer, admittedly ambitious and willing to work hard, liked running long and decided it was time to write her own Boston Marathon story. She knew Roberta Bingay ran it unofficially in 1966, proving that, even if it wasn’t “acceptable,” it was possible. Little did Switzer know she would still be leading the race for women in running almost 50 years later.

Encouraged by her father, Switzer began running at the age of 12 to get in shape for the high school field hockey team. Her goal was seven laps around her yard. She instantly lost track of the laps and got lost in running, “I knew it was magic,” she recalled.

She worked her way up to a mile a day, then 3 miles a day before leaving home to play field hockey at Lynchburg College. In college, she took her first steps in competitive running, when she ran the mile for the Lynchburg (men’s) track team in 1966. That race turned into a media sensation, landing her on the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Switzer transferred to Syracuse in 1966 only to discover she wasn’t allowed to run on the men’s cross country team — and there was no women’s team — but she could train with them, and Briggs was her coach. Her miles crept up to between 6 and 10 a day. It was during one of her 6-mile runs that she made her Boston Marathon announcement to her coach. Briggs said that if Switzer proved herself in training, she could run Boston as a reward for her hard work.

And she worked hard, even logging a 31-mile training run in the weeks leading up the marathon. There were no women’s running clothes in those days, so Switzer dyed some men’s shorts maroon (“It was a popular color that year,” she says.) and had a coordinating singlet. Cold weather forced her to don gray sweats for the beginning of the race, and Switzer admits they probably kept her from being noticed any earlier. (She also went unnoticed during the registration process by famously writing the name “K.V. Switzer” on the race application she mailed in to the B.A.A.)

“I was there to run,” Switzer, now 67, recalled recently. “My intent was never to make a political statement.”

The infamous moment when Jock Semple tried to force Switzer off the course was also a defining moment in Switzer’s life. And it went a long way in helping the doors to women, even though the Boston Marathon and many other races didn’t allow women to officially enter until 1972.

“Running the Boston Marathon was a radicalizing experience for me,” Switzer says. “I started as a girl and finished as a grown woman. I had a life plan.”

Switzer’s plan included becoming a better runner, establishing opportunities for women to run and getting the women’s marathon included in the Olympics. (She finished her first Boston Marathon in 4:20, but she eventually lowered her marathon PR to 2:51:37 on the same course in 1975.)

When women were officially allowed to enter Boston in 1972, they had to surpass the men’s qualifying time of 3:30 to get in. Switzer was one of seven women at the start that April and finished in third place. Two months later, in June, Title IX was signed into law officially opening the gate to women in athletics.

But the battle was far from over. Switzer had to fight against the ideas that female athletes were unfeminine, female athletics inappropriate and running long distances was bad for women’s reproductive health. But her determination and pure love of running were contagious. She became in demand as a spokesperson, commentated races, was a sports journalist, connected with other athletes, lobbied athletic federations and helped get businesses interested in women’s sports.

A break came when Switzer was invited to attend the fledgling Women’s Sports Foundation conference in 1977, where she met the executive vice president of Avon Cosmetics. She landed a job and created the first racing series just for women, including the first truly international women’s marathon (meaning elite athletes were flown in from around the world), the Avon International Marathon in Atlanta in 1978.

Switzer continued lobbying for a women’s marathon to be included in the Olympics, both domestically through the United States Olympic Committee and through the International Olympic Committee. She helped create valuable momentum with the Avon Marathon series, eventually hosting races in 27 countries. She even arranged to have athletes tested by doctors to prove women could handle the rigors of running 26.2 miles. When the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, media coverage turned to the Avon London Marathon, where Switzer and her team put on a sophisticated display of professionalism and athletics, as well as the metrics needed, to take women’s running to the next level.

While adding the 5,000-meter run and 10,000-meter run were high on her agenda for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the marathon was Switzer’s goal. She helped make it happen when the Los Angeles organizing committee asked her to pick one. “There was no reason the other two track events shouldn’t be available to women, too, but if it had to be one, it had to be the marathon,” she says.

The women’s marathon was voted into the Los Angeles Olympics with a vote of 8 to 1, replacing rhythmic gymnastics.

Now the author of four books and a public speaker, Switzer’s love for the marathon remains, she even toed the starting line again at the age of 62, after a 32-year marathon hiatus, to run the grueling Motatapu Icebreaker off-road marathon in New Zealand (twice) and the Athens and Berlin marathons. She continues to focus on breaking down barriers, opening doors and exposing women worldwide to the joy of sports.

Long a proponent of empowerment at any age, even Switzer never saw herself starting a signature line with a clothing company at the age of 67. Which is exactly what she is doing with Skirt Sports and the 261 Fearless Collection, available this summer. 261 was Switzer’s bib number when she ran Boston in 1967. As for fearlessness, Switzer says running has always made her feel fearless, and “be fearless” is her mantra in life — even if she needs to remind herself on occasion.

Switzer is also launching a new 261 Women’s Marathon and 10K in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, on March 30, with the hopes of using it as a springboard to developing an international race series. Next for Switzer is once again commentating at the 118th Boston Marathon, which she says will be “the race of the century.”

“Running had nothing to do with the Boston marathon bombings, it was a photo opportunity,” Switzer says. “But runners will be together in Boston to make a statement of strength and solidarity.”

Quotes From Kathrine Switzer

Her thoughts when Jock Semple tried to remove her from the 1967 Boston Marathon:

“I had that moment where I was so embarrassed and humiliated, I wanted to step off the course. But I knew if I did, no one would believe women could do it.”

Reflections on Jock Semple, Boston Marathon co-race director:

“Jock was an overworked race director and a product of his time. I forgave him by the end, but skipped Boston in ’68 and ‘69 because I was scared of him.”

About her running:

“I have an enormous capacity to work, but no natural talent.”

Mentioning her unmentionables:

“When you are 67, you can tell the truth! Running a marathon is gritty and dirty. For all of my big races, I wear really, really sexy French lingerie. It makes me feel at the core level that I’m hot.”

Race-day wardrobe malfunction:

“For my first ‘official’ Boston Marathon in 1972, I knew there was going to be a lot of press. I wanted to look nice and have an outfit that performed well. I decided on a black leotard and tights and a small wrap skirt. Unfortunately the day turned much warmer than expected and I was steaming. I stopped in a gas station, completely undressed in the filthy bathroom and used a serrated knife to cut off my tights. It cost me second place, but I was happy with third.”

Foreshadowing of the 8 to 1 vote to include the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics:

“Russia was the one dissenting vote and I knew then that they were going to boycott the 1984 Games. They didn’t think they had any female marathoners. They did, but they didn’t know it yet.”

Reaction to the terrorist bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon:

“I was shocked by the bombings, but not surprised. My first thought was, ‘They’ve finally done it, bastards.’”

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