What started out as an innocuous enough desire — to run a marathon, specifically the Boston Marathon — catapulted then-20-year-old Syracuse University undergraduate Kathrine Switzer into an iconic female sports figure when she decided to run in, and then completed, the “men’s-only” 26.2-mile race in 1967, despite being tackled by the race director. In fact, a recently aired PBS documentary titled Makers: Women Who Make America (www.makers.com/documentary) — which gives a visual and oral history of the women’s movement, includes everyone from Gloria Steinem to Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor and is narrated by multi-Oscar-winner Meryl Streep — actually opens with footage of Switzer running in the 1967 Boston Marathon and being attacked. Her boyfriend, an All-American football player, crosschecked the race director, allowing Switzer to continue to run and become the first woman ever to complete the race.
Unbeknownst to Switzer, the attack happened right in front of the press truck, and the next day she was front-page news across the country. “I always say that I entered the Boston Marathon (under the name K. Switzer) as a girl, and crossed the finish line as an adult woman,” she said at her home in New Paltz, where she and her husband Roger Robinson split their time between there and his native country of New Zealand. “When I entered the race, I knew nothing about the feminist movement. I just wanted to run. After I finished it, I wanted to train to become a better athlete, and I wanted to create opportunities for women to be able to run distance events.”
When she was 12 years old, Switzer’s father encouraged her to start running a mile a day so that she might make the high school field hockey team, which he thought would give his daughter some self-confidence. She did make the hockey team, but said that what really empowered her and built her confidence was “logging in that one-mile run every day — the sense of accomplishment and freedom” that it gave her.
While enrolled at Syracuse University, Switzer wanted to continue running. But despite the university being an athletic powerhouse in multiple sports, it had no female athletic teams — only “girls’ play days,” which were not enough to satisfy the eager young runner. She boldly asked the men’s cross-country running team coach if she could join the squad. He said that she could not officially race with them, but could train with them if she really wanted to. “I think he only said that because he never believed I would actually show up — which I did, the very next day.”
While training with the team, she became running partners with then-50-year-old Arnie Briggs, a seasoned marathon runner who helped coach the team — and soon Switzer. “He had run the Boston Marathon 15 times, and was always telling me stories about it. Finally I said, ‘Arnie, stop talking and let’s run it!’”
Even her coach didn’t believe that a woman could do it. “I think he bought into all the prevailing myths at the time: that if a woman ran too far her uterus would fall out, or she’d grow hair on her chest!” said Switzer with a laugh. “But he said if I could prove to him in training that I could do it, that he’d run it with me.”
One day they ran 31 miles at practice, until Briggs passed out. When he came to, he said, “I think women have a lot more distance-running potential than people know!”
Off they went, not realizing what a spectacle it would become. For 72 years, the Boston Marathon had been a men’s-only race. Although she signed in with her initials, she did not try to dress as a man or hide her femininity. “I had long hair and wore lipstick and eyeliner!” she said.
When the race director approached her and said, “Give me those numbers back and get the hell out of my race,” she knew then that “I had to finish. Even if I had to do so on my hands and knees, I would finish” — which she did, in four hours and 20 minutes.
Studying journalism and public relations at Syracuse, Switzer worked with Briggs to build the second-largest running club in New York State outside of the New York Road Runners, and began organizing all kinds of events that lent equal opportunity to men and women. After getting her graduate degree, she was determined to fly to Munich, Germany for the 1972 Olympics and convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that women’s distance-running events needed to be included in the Games. To that end she walked into the Daily News office and said to the sports editor, “You have no one covering the Olympic games. I will cover them for you. I will pay all of my own expenses, and you just have to pay me for what I write.” All she really wanted “were the press credentials — which they gave me, for some crazy reason!”
Being in the pressroom and having access to athletes like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter was “a complete thrill, and I was able to procure some wonderful interviews.” And then the darkness set in. She was staying in an apartment approximately 400 feet from the Olympic Village when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed by the radical Palestinian group known as Black September. “It was horrifying. The Olympic Games were like the sacred altar to me, and I was completely disillusioned to see that sports can be used for political and nefarious ends. Sports are wholly good and pure, for the athletes.”
On top of being so close to such a horrific event, Switzer said that she was “so naïve to think that I’d convince the IOC to allow women’s distance-running events in the Olympics. I never even had an audience!” Before she left, when the Village was dark, she noticed that the only lights came from lit-up billboards advertising Kodak, Coca-Cola and IBM — and then it dawned on her: “The way to get women’s distance-running into the Olympics was through sponsorship, not the IOC.”
She came back and wrote proposals, and was eventually “loved by and hired by Avon, who accepted my proposal. And through them, I went all over the world, helping to organize 400 distance-running events for women in 27 countries. We made it accessible, feminine, glamorous – and it worked. You see, running is not about running when it comes to women; it’s about empowerment, fearlessness: That’s what had so many people afraid.”