Kathrine Switzer: The Marathon Woman

When Kathrine Switzer was growing up, she never envisioned herself changing the sports world as she did. Her interest in sports began the way it begins for many young girls: she wanted to be a cheerleader because that, of course, makes you instantly popular. When she told her father about this, he replied by saying “You don't want to be a cheerleader. That's silly. Life is for participating not spectating. The cheerleaders lead cheers. You should play sports and have people cheer for you. You like to run and be active. Why don't you go out for field hockey?”

She took her father’s advice to heart and started conditioning by running a mile each day. Her dad helped her measure the yard and she never failed to run that mile. Kathrine soon realized that running every day built her endurance and she used it to her advantage in every sport she played. Soon after entering college though, she realized that the woman she played sports with weren’t nearly as dedicated as she was. They didn’t take the games seriously and didn’t care whether they won or lost. She continued to run her mile though, and when the men’s track team coach approached her about running with his team, because they needed another running in order to qualify for a meet, she agreed immediately. Word had gotten out about the woman that was the run with men, and on the day of the meet, the field was swarmed with media. She finished the race and did well, but soon after received hate mail because of the sole fact that she ran with men.

Kathrine realized then that she was being judged not on her ability as a runner, but the fact that she was a woman. Realizing there was no hope for a sports career, she transferred to Syracuse University in 1966 to become a sports journalist. Still loving the sport of running, she wanted to continue in University, but came to the sudden realization that there was absolutely no woman’s sports available at the school. She decided to take a chance and went to talk to the men’s cross country coach, hoping to convince him she could keep up with his team. He told her that it was against the rules, so she couldn’t officially be on the team, but she could go work out with them anytime she wanted. He was thoroughly surprised when she actually showed up the next day.

Keeping up with the men was a lot harder than Kathrine expected, and she continued to get lost behind them every day. The unofficial assistant coach, Arnie Briggs, saw this, and decided to take Kathrine under his wing and work with her. He was a mailman at the University, but had run the Boston Marathon fifteen times, and though he had all sorts of injuries, he could still run at a speed Kathrine could keep up with. They ran together for years, and soon they were able to run up to ten miles, even in the freezing cold and snow. Arnie would entertain Kathrine with stories of the Boston Marathon, but soon he began to repeat himself. One night, she told him that he should stop talking about the marathon and they should go run it. He looked at her like she was crazy.

“Women can't run the Boston Marathon. Women aren't capable of running 26.2 miles. It's the law of diminishing returns.” He said. After all, 26 miles was much longer than 10 miles was. Kathrine was confused, wondering how he could think such a thing after he’d been running with her every night. She argued with him, trying to change his mind, and finally he said that he would personally take her to the marathon if she proved to him that she could run twenty-six miles.

Kathrine trained like crazy, running as much as she possibly could, and soon, they set the date that they would attempt the 26.2 miles. She was so excited, but was concerned that they had mapped out the distance wrong, and they decided to add five more miles onto course. They ran the entire course, and were going to go on to the actual Boston Marathon. They filled out all of the paperwork and went over the rules, making sure that there was nothing about gender, and they were all set. Kathrine didn’t realize that, by signing her name “K.V. Switzer”, as she did with all of the papers and articles she wrote, that no one would realize she was a woman.

Arnie sent in the paper work for everyone planning on running the race, which included Kathrine’s boyfriend Tom, who decided that even though his sport was the hammer throw, he could run it if a girl could. He was 235lbs and had never run a race in his life, but he was convinced he could do it. Soon, they were off to the race, which occurred on a day filled with rain, sleet and snow. They arrived at the race, and seeing she was a woman, all of the men got really excited and supportive. They’d never run the Boston Marathon with a woman before! The race started soon after and they were off.

Four miles into the race, media started swarming around Kathrine trying to get pictures of her. Following the media were the race directors, Will Cloney and Jock Semple, the latter of which became infuriated that a woman had entered into his race. The media was teasing him, making fun of the fact that a woman had somehow entered the race without his knowledge, and he exploded. He pounced on Kathrine, trying to rip off her number and push her out of the race.

'Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number.' He screamed, wrestling against her. Arnie attempted to help, but it was to no avail. Tom soon realized what was going on and slammed his body weight against Jock, throwing him against the sidewalk. As soon as he was down, they all ran as fast as they could, and eventually finished the race. Jock was furious and Kathrine’s time was never recorded, as he disqualified her from the race.

The events of her first Boston Marathon made Kathrine realize that woman did not have equal rights in the way of sports as men do, and made it her mission to change this. With the help of other women that ran the Boston Marathon unofficially, Kathrine attempted to convince the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) to lift the ban on female runners and finally in 1972, women were officially allowed to run the marathon.

Kathrine continued to run many marathons, including the Boston Marathon eight more times, and went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974. She got better and better, and when she set herbest time at two hours and fifty one minutes, she decided she wanted to help other women have opportunities to set times like that. She used her knowledge of journalism and skills as a writer to write proposals to big name companies, asking for their help to make that happen. Avon Cosmetics soon took her up on the offer and Avon Running Women’s Circuit was born, a program that brought female-only races to different countries all over the world. This program was especially special to Kathrine, because it was what was able to convince the Olympic Committee to include the woman’s marathon as an official sport in the 1972 Olympic Games.

Kathrine has gone on to be inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame in 2011, win an Emmy for her work as a television commentator, and was the Female Runner of the Decade from 1967-1977. She has also written two books, the first being Running and Walking for Women over 40 and the second being a memoir entitled Marathon Woman, in which she talks about her experiences from the beginning of her passion for running to where she is in life now.

Kathrine Switzer will forever be a name to be remembered in the world of sports, and will continue to be an inspiration to woman who want to follow their dreams.


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