Please enable javascript in your browser to view this site!

Bev's Talks - Episode 11: 50 Years of Fearless with Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman 

Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman 

I don't usually write a lot for Bev's Talks but I am copying here the chapter I wrote on Kathrine for my (as yet unpublished) book All Woman - A Modern Portrait of New Zealand Women.  

You can see all the photographs from the exhibition at the Facebook link below.  This is the only place they are available to view - unless you visit my home!!

The piece below was written 6 years ago but I think it's a great accompaniment to the recent interview.  I hope you enjoy it.

KATHRINE SWITZER (Born: 1947, Amberg, Germany)                   

  • Author: Marathon Woman; Running and Walking for Women Over 40
  • Co-author: 26.2 Marathon Stories
  • Business Woman
  • Emmy award winning television commentator
  • Professional speaker
  • Inductee into the National (USA) Women’s Hall of Fame 2011

Kathrine Switzer will always be best known as the first woman to officially run the famous Boston Marathon in 1967.  Her entry created an uproar and worldwide notoriety when a race official attempted to forcibly remove her from the competition.  (The resulting photographs became so famous around the globe that they are now featured in Time Life’s book: 100 Photos That Changed the World.)  This became the catalyst for Kathrine who has since dedicated her career to creating opportunities on all fronts for women.  She has run 38 marathons, won the 1974 New York City Marathon and led the drive to successfully make the women’s marathon an official Olympic event.  After a successful athletic career she turned her attention to the creation of women’s opportunities in running, especially though the founding and organisation of the Avon International Running Circuit, with 400 events in 27 countries for over a million women. She continued with a career in communications and motivating others in both fitness and business.  She has received numerous awards and citations – including being inducted into the National (U.S.A.) Women’s Hall of Fame – for her efforts in advancing sports opportunities and creating positive social change, and continues as a leader in the equality of women in sports globally. Now also an author and television commentator, she is married to noted runner and author Dr. Roger Robinson, and the couple divide their time living in the Hudson Valley of New York and Wellington, New Zealand.  Kathrine still runs in marathon events as an age-group competitor and continues to run six miles a day.

"The marathon event has always been regarded as a kind of death-defying activity – a little bit like mountain climbing.  It is indeed extreme but nowadays we know if you do the training, just about anyone can run it.  But in the early days of the sport the marathon event was considered the ultimate challenge – the toughest Olympic event where grown men were seen to suffer and collapse doing it.  The early part of the twentieth century was an era of protecting women (as much as denying them opportunities) and it was widely believed that a woman doing anything arduous was going to impair her femininity – her uterus would fall out or be displaced; she’d never have children; and a woman exerting herself and sweating was a social pariah.  Women themselves believed the myth and the Olympics reinforced it by only allowing women to run up to only 800 metres until 1972. 

It wasn’t until a few of us began running marathons that male runners in particular began to realise women had inherent capability in endurance and stamina.  (No kidding!  There’s a reason why we have the babies.)  Up to that point, most sports had been about speed and strength, which we are not good at relative to men.  But the marathon is another sport altogether and this opened many eyes to women’s potential in other areas.  You don’t have to be ‘talented’ to be a marathon runner – you just have to be persistent.

Several women had run a marathon since 1896 but none officially, ie. wearing a bib number.  In 1967 the Boston marathon was the most famous marathon in the world after the Olympics. My coach didn’t believe any woman could do the distance so we ran 50km together (which he passed out after!) and, as a reward, he allowed me to enter the race.  I was a registered athlete in our Federation and following the rules was very important.  There was nothing in the Boston Marathon rules about women not being allowed in the race and nothing about gender on the race entry form so I signed up as K V Switzer – the way I always sign my name.

I was attacked by the race co-director around the 4km mark, who tried to rip off my numbers.  But my boyfriend threw a shoulder charge into this official and sent him out of the race instead, and I went on to finish.  I was quite terrified and humiliated but kept running because I knew if I didn’t finish the race nobody would take me or women runners seriously.  I grew up pretty fast that day: I say I entered the race as a girl and emerged as a grown woman.  It was a very controversial time.  They expelled me from the Athletic Federation, made up all kinds of restrictive rules and made Boston a men only event for the next five years.  I was either held up like a Joan of Arc heroine or despised for upsetting the status quo.

For the next five years I, and other women runners, always had to run on behalf of the female sex first and as athletes second.  It was frustrating as you couldn’t allow yourself to look bedraggled or tired as that was what the media hoped for and would cover.  I went overboard with hair ribbons and makeup to refute that image.  We had to prove we were as good as a man yet look and act like a lady.  We had huge support from both the male and female running communities; it was only the old judges and officials who could not stand change.  Eventually, the lobbying, cajoling and media pressure won them over both legally and emotionally with the biggest determiner being when we ran as fast as most of the men.

It is still interesting to me that people who have the most to gain from change are often the most resistant to it.  Women, in particular, were fearful and resistant to my participation in running in those early years.  There were more women than men who tried to run me off the road with their cars when I was training and were the most scathing of what I was doing. Then, on the opposite side, many of the early women’s liberationists were negative to me because I looked feminine and liked men, saying I was ‘pandering to the male establishment’.  I resented many of them trying to take over what I did at Boston and turning it into another ‘reason to hate men’ when actually it was the men who ran who were most supportive of women runners. I came to understand these women’s fear and anger but it was frustrating at the time.

After my experiences at Boston, I realised that other women would run if they were given encouragement and a welcoming opportunity to try.  I enlisted the support of Avon Cosmetics and I put on a series of races around the world for women with this objective and a further aim to get enough publicity, participation and performance statistics to show the International Olympic Committee that there was enough support to include the longer running events in the Olympic Games for women.

The more races we organised, the more profound the social change.  In 27 countries women not only came out to run but their lives were changed by their own sense of empowerment – especially among poorer societies such as Brazil where some women didn’t even have shoes.  You know, when you run five or 10k and someone gives you a medal and a shirt and tells you you’re somebody, you suddenly are somebody.  I’ve seen Kenyan women (third class citizens if there ever were ones) that run and win money, building schools in their villages, sanitising water and becoming women of great esteem in their societies.  They are role models and some are now even going into government.  The women’s social status in Kenya is being changed for the better by their women runners.  There’s a race in Casablanca, with 5,000 women, where they run in their Burkas and head scarves… but they can’t do that in Saudi, or drive a car.  In the Middle East there is still a long way to go.  Still, running has changed the world for the better.

1984 was the first year women were allowed to run the Olympic marathon.  When Joan Benoit from the USA ran into the Olympic stadium as the first ever women’s Olympic marathon winner, it was an iconic moment.  But the bigger moment was when it was witnessed by millions and millions of people on TV – many in tradition-bound societies from Indiana to Afghanistan – who saw women running 26.2 miles (or 42.2kms) in the most elite forum in the world and they knew then that women could do anything.  My good friend, New Zealand’s Lorraine Moller (Avon Marathon champion – London 1980, San Francisco 1982, and Paris 1984), came fifth and was very much a part of getting the marathon into the games for women.

‘Not being good enough’ has often stood in the way of equality, when the issue shouldn’t be about performance but about being given the opportunity to try.  We know men are faster and more powerful but women have more endurance and flexibility.  It doesn’t make one a better athlete than the other; we just don’t yet have the sports that showcase women’s superior capabilities.  But that will come.

Despite its initial negativity, I would say that the 1967 Boston Marathon was the most inspiring incident of my life.  You can’t run and stay angry; I figured if I just tried to change everything bad that had happened to me that day into creating opportunities for good we could change women’s running.  In fact, we not only changed running - we changed the world.  Now there are more women running in North America then men – and that has happened in my lifetime.  Now we know that running is a transformational experience for women that gives a huge sense of accomplishment, confidence and empowerment – regardless of their age, size or speed.

It is a wonderful thing to see girls and women today with no sense of limitation and to see them take on the toughest of challenges with glee. It’s especially wonderful to see the critical negativity gone!  One of the most exciting things for me, at 64, is to see women my age – even 70 or 75 – start to run for the very first time.  It’s as if they are saying ‘It’s not too late for me to do something I’ve always wanted to do’.  These women are tough-ass ladies, too, let me tell you!  Some run races up and down Pikes Peak or the Western States 100 Miler (160km)!  I’ve always said it is never too late to be an athlete and these older women are proving it.  They and the new exciting events that exist now that didn’t exist when I was a good runner, have propelled and inspired me back into the marathon distance events, eg. the Motatapu off-road marathon through the Southern Alps.

I’ve also discovered, even after running for over 50 years that it’s not too late to get back the ability to run great distances again – and also to find new joy in the experience.  The human body is just amazing!"