Kathrine Switzer, First Woman to Enter the Boston Marathon
Kathrine Switzer talks about the prejudices women athletes faced, her historic running of the Boston Marathon, and the doors it opened.
First Woman to Enter the Boston Marathon
Kathrine Switzer on the prejudices women athletes faced, her historic Boston Marathon run, and the doors it opened for other women athletes.
Why She’s a MAKER: “The idea of running long distances was always questionable for women.” Kathrine Switzer shut down those doubts in 1967 as the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. Her entry ignited a controversy and made national headlines when a male official tried to attack Switzer and physically drag her off the course. Still, she says giving up never crossed her mind. “I’m going to finish the race on my hands and my knees if I have to because nobody believes I can do this … if i don’t finish this race, then everyone is going to believe that women can’t do it.”Flexing Her Muscles: In the ‘60s, “an arduous activity would mean you get big legs, you’ll grow a mustache or hair on your chest, your uterus would fall out,” says Switzer, who entered the all-male race under the alias K.V. Switzer to fool officials. When her coach asked if she was “too fragile” for the 26-mile challenge, it only strengthened her resolve. “It’s the physical equivalent to the right to vote because it’s acknowledgement at the highest level that women can achieve anything physically.”
Run the Good Race: As a girl growing up in Virginia, her dad told her “life is to participate, not to spectate.” She applied that mantra to her organization 261 Fearless which encourages women to come off the sidelines and empowers them through the act of running. The lightbulb went off for Switzer when she realized that the lack of scholarships and prize money in the sport affected how many women participated in the sport. “It’s not because women don’t want those things, it’s because they’ve never had an unintimidating experience and opportunity to prove themselves.”
Crossing the Finish Line: Five years after her historic run, women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon. Switzer also advocated to add the women’s marathon to the Olympics, which was finally included as an event in 1984. On the 50th anniversary of her historic run, Switzer returned to the Boston Marathon in 2017 to compete in the final race of her career—only this time her competitors looked completely different. “Every time I see a woman running, I say ‘she’s mine.’”
- The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women, because an arduous activity would mean that you're gonna get big legs, and grow a mustache, and hair on your chest, and your uterus was gonna fall out. So, I filled out the entry form. I signed my name with my initials, I signed KV Switzer. When I signed it that way, obviously when the form went in, they couldn't tell it from a guy's. [Announcer] The World's most famous foot race even attracts a leggy lady, Katie Switzer of Syracuse.
- So, there we were with my coach Arnie Briggs and my boyfriend and All-American football player, Tom Miller. When other runners would come by they would say, oh it's a girl, and they were so excited. And Arnie was saying, "yup, I trained her." And all of a sudden, the flatbed truck is in front us and I heard the photographer saying slow down, slow down, slow down, and they were taking pictures of us. On this truck was the race directors. One of them was a feisty character by the name of Jock Semple. He just stopped the bus, jumped off, and ran after me. Suddenly, I turned and he just grabbed me and screamed at me, "get the hell out of my race "and give me those numbers." And then he started clawing at me, starting to try and rip my numbers off, and I was so surprised. And he had the fiercest face of any guy I'd ever seen and out of control, really. I was terrified. And all of a sudden my boyfriend, Big Tom, gave Jock the most incredible cross-body block and sent Jock flying. And all of this happened in front of the press truck. The journalists got very aggressive, what are you trying to prove? Are you a suffragette? Are you a crusader? Whatever that is, and I said what? I'm just trying to run. They finally left, then it got very quiet, snow's coming down. Nobody's saying anything, and I turned to Arnie and I said Arnie, I've gotten you into a lot of mess here, I guess. But I said, I don't know where you stand in this, but I said, I'm gonna finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to, because nobody believes that I can do this. And suddenly I realized, if I don't finish this race, then everybody's gonna believe women can't do it and that they don't deserve to be here and that they're incapable. I've got to finish this race. I finished in four hours, 20 minutes. That race changed my life. It wasn't until about midnight when we were driving back from Boston to Syracuse University and we stopped on the throughway to get an ice cream and some coffee did we see the newspapers and they're covered front and back of all the different additions with pictures. I realized that now this was very, very important, and this was going to change my life, and it was probably going to change women's sports.
- I came home one day and I told my father I was gonna be a cheerleader and I was practicing things. And he said no, no you don't wanna be a cheerleader, honey. And I said why? And he said cheerleaders are cheering on the sidelines for other people you wanna be in the game. He said life is to participate not to spectate. I mean what a thing to tell your little girl. And I thought well he's right he said you really wanna play, you can run, you oughta get out there. And your school has something called field hockey and you could play on that field hockey team. And I said well I can't dad, I can't do that. And he said why not? He said I know you've never played it before but it's a matter of conditioning and if you get out and run a mile every day, you'd make that field hockey team. And that was actually the turning point in my life.
- I love being feminine, and I love dressing up, and I loved being strong and tough. I love the surprise of the duality. And it always caught people off guard, and of course, much later in life, when I was asked to be a speaker at something because I was one of the first marathon runners, they always, it was great to watch the audience, 'cause usually, guys, they're expecting a behemoth to arrive, you know, and they were always surprised that you were actually feminine.
- I'd be out running in the summer, and the milkman would come and knock on the door. My mother would come out. He'd say, "Listen, I see your little girl out running. "I mean, is everything okay?" And she said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, she's just, "She runs everyday. "That's what she does." And he said, "Are you sure she's okay?" You know, 'cause they thought I was some kind of deviant, or running away, or was hurt, or something, 'cause little girls didn't run.
- An interesting thing happens when you're running 26 miles and one of the best things is you can't run that long and stay mad. You know, you work out all your aggressions, you come to resolution, finally, and some place over Heartbreak Hill, after I had murdered Jock Semple in every way you could murder him, and being angry at people and especially other women. Why aren't there other women here? And, then I began to get angry and say why is the longest event in the Olympic games 800 meters? Why don't we have scholarships at Syracuse or any other place? Why isn't there prize money sports for women? Why aren't there other teams? You know, all of this suddenly began occurring to me and then the light went on. It's not because women don't want those things, it's because they've never had an unintimidating experience and an opportunity to prove themselves.
- The journalists were so irritated and it was clear that they'd gone back to the newsroom and somebody said you've gotta go back out there and wait for the girl to finish. And they were miserable and they asked very aggressive questions, and were very pushy and I gave as good as I got at that point. And I said, yes, I'm absolutely gonna be back next year, you know, women can run, women deserve to run. Is this an equal rights issue? And I said, yeah, it's becoming an equal rights issue. So I was really, it amazed me that I had the presence of to say those things.
- In '73, there I am on the start line of the race, and all of a sudden, somebody comes up and grabs me. It was Jock, and I went, "Ahhh," 'cause I thought he was gonna hit me. I thought he was mad at me or something. And he put his hand on my shoulder and turned me around, and planted a big kiss on my cheek in front of all of the TV cameras and the press cameras, and said, "Come on, lass, let's get a wee bit of notoriety." And I often say that was Jock Semple's way of saying thank you, a man who never apologized, ever, in his life, for this. But, some people don't say thank you, and that was his way.
- You know, I was back at my campus for about 24 hours and I got a special deliver letter from the Amateur Athletic Union, and it expelled me from the Amateur Athletic Union, which was like, if you are a Catholic, it's like being excommunicated from the church. Serious, very serious. I was so mad at that point because I felt we had done all the things right. We had filled out the entry form, we had paid our entry fee. I was a card-carrying member of the AAU, I took my physical, I'd done the distance in practice, I'd done everything right according to the rules, and now they said it was because I had run more than a mile and a half, I had fraudulently entered the race, I had run with men, which was the worst, 'cause there's a sexual implication to that, I'd run with men but the best thing was, I had run the Boston Marathon without a chaperone.
- I ran and won many marathons, or was the first woman, because I was often the only woman in the race. And after this time at Boston, I got a lot of invitations because the race director knew that he was gonna get a lot of publicity if there was a girl in his race. And I must tell you, this is very important, the guys in running and the race directors, for the most part, were really welcoming to me, really, really helpful. It was just a few really crummy officials who were very narrow-minded and the rules were setup to be narrow-minded. The guys themselves were wonderful.
- One of the few times I was really kind of bitter was I was home late in the afternoon on a commuter train and I got off the commuter train with all these men and the men were met by their women, their wives in the car. The women got out of the cars and they were in their tennis outfits and things and I'm saying, "Well, no wonder they're successful. "They've got somebody running the show at home "who's handling all of that "and probably doing the bills and paperwork "as well as running the house and managing. "Boy, I'd really like a wife too. "That would be terrific."
- There was a part of the Women's Liberation Movement that did upset me a lot that was you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So, for instance, in my case, here's another running thing, I ran in little tennis dresses because shorts were not designed for even men in those days, or women to run in, and they really badly chaffed your legs. So, I realized that I ran very well in my hockey tunic. I could run in a little tennis dress and I looked pretty good as well. So, I took an unmitigated amount of grief for this because I was looking too girly-girl, I was pandering to the male establishment. And I thought, I am just trying to prevent my legs from chaffing. Now, here we are 45 years later and the running skirt is all the rage. And I think it is so great that we can do anything we want to do. But to run in a pink running skirt in 1971, oh forget it.
- Do I regret not having children is, of course, the question everybody asks me. No, quite frankly, but I'm lucky, 'cause every time I see a woman out running, I say she's one of mine. So I've got a couple million women out there who are my own children, I feel.
- It's interesting that many people still imagine that if a woman is an athlete, she's gotta be somehow masculine, not feminine. Certainly, that exists in a lot of countries. I'll never forget when I was organizing races in Brazil. The head of the athletic federation there said, "Our women aren't gonna run your race. "You know, women here are feminine." I said, "Well, there's nothing unfeminine about running." He said, "Oh, well." He said, "My wife will not come with me to the race, "and I won't permit my daughter to run." That was the level of fear. This was 1979 and 1980. He said, "Your race isn't gonna be successful. "You'll probably have 150 women." We had 10,000 women. And, you know, you can't ignore 10,000 women in shorts running through the streets of Rio. And the women themselves, of course, found it joyful and wonderful. They just wanted the opportunity.
- To me, in fact, getting the women's marathon in the Olympic Games as important in a way as giving the women the right to vote. It's the physical equivalent of the right to vote because it's acknowledgement at the highest level that women can achieve anything physically.