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Official at Last: The Year That Changed Everything

 
 
On the eve of the Boston Marathon, Kathrine Switzer-- the first woman to officially enter and run the race-- celebrates the anniversary of the year that changed everything:
 
“And, so, uh…you ladies are welcome at Boston. But you have to meet the men’s qualifying time!”
 
So spoke Jock Semple, the crusty race co-director of the Boston Marathon to a handful of us women on the eve of the Boston Marathon in 1972.  Jock was the man who, five years before, physically attacked me in an explosion of rage when he saw me—a girl! —running with official bib numbers in the Boston Marathon. Women were not permitted to run the marathon, insisted Jock, and even though I finished the race, he had me disqualified from the race and expelled from the athletic federation.
 
There really were no rules then forbidding women to run; there just were no long distance events offered for women, mostly because people believed that women doing anything as arduous as running 26.2 miles were endangering their femininity and shouldn’t run with men anyway.   But after my run and Jock’s attack made headlines, people began to question this reasoning. Other women began to run and a few of us annually made our way to Boston and ran unofficially, jumping into the race after the start and getting better and better.  For five years we ran, campaigned, wrote articles, and legislated to get official status for ourselves in the marathon race. The media was all over it, showing how our improved times clearly showed our strength and capability.
 
In 1972 we were successful at last, but old Jock was still fuming and insisted we do it on the male standard.  That’s fine, we said. There were seven of us who could run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon and we were all at Boston that day.
 
I remember very clearly how exhilarated we felt: after all these years at last we were free to be athletes and no longer had to run carrying the banner of the whole female sex.  We knew we were breaking down a political and social barrier just as surely as our suffragist foremothers did when they won the right to vote, or forced universities to become coeducational. Our only limitations now were self-imposed. 
 
Today in the age of extreme sports, it is important to remember that in 1972, the marathon was considered the most arduous of all sports events.  Giving women permission (or the endorsement) to participate alongside men threw thousands of years of preconceptions about female weakness out the window. Fifty years earlier, people had been afraid to let women exercise their brains.  Until 1972, people were afraid to let women exercise their bodies.  Inclusion in the Boston Marathon was the turning point in that thinking.
 
We were the women who made it happen, we were there together, and when we stepped over the starting line we knew were stepping into a new era.  We were still nervous, though!  There naturally was a burden of expectation, but the pressure and defensiveness of previous years was over.  We’d already won the Big Race.
 
It is interesting that two months later, on June 23, President Nixon signed into law Title IX, the equality of education amendment that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity within an institution receiving any type of federal financial assistance.  This wasn’t directly related to our work in getting the Boston Marathon to open it’s door to women, but the timing was significant.  Clearly, if women can run a marathon, they can do anything.
 
I finished third in that 1972 race and Jock Semple presented me with my trophy, which was broken.  He apologized for that, but said, “I’ve been mad at you for five years and you deserve a broken trophy.”  The next year he gave me a starting line kiss in front of the press cameras, and we became the best of friends.
 
There are now more women runners in the United States than men, and around the world, millions of women identify themselves as runners. On Monday, April 16, there will be over 10,000 women running the Boston Marathon. The women’s race in Boston has become such a featured attraction that the elite women have an earlier start, so we can enjoy watching their competition as much as the men’s.  Among those watchers will be a few of us from 1972, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the year that changed everything.
 
Kathrine Switzer, now an acclaimed speaker and the author of Marathon Woman, ran the Boston Marathon eight times, and posted her best time of 2:51 there in 1975.  On April 16, she is doing her 33rd consecutive television broadcast of the race. She is a featured profile in the upcoming AOL/PBS documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America”.  Her story was featured on MAKERS.com, and will also be included in the upcoming PBS documentary MAKERS: Women Who Make America.
 
Visit her website - MarathonWoman.com