Syracuse alumna Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, is still pushing for change 50 years later
Courtesy of 261 Fearless
On Monday, 70-year-old Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon for the ninth time in five decades. Fifty years ago, while she was a Syracuse University undergraduate, she became the first woman to ever run it officially.
The Boston Marathon had 13,698 female entrants in 2017, with women making up about 46 percent of the field. Switzer was the lone woman in 1967.
“I was just trying to run,” Switzer said, “that’s all I wanted to do.”
Arnie Briggs, Switzer’s trainer, didn’t think a woman could run 26.2 miles. After Switzer proved that she’d be able to finish, he let her compete. Switzer had no intent of making a statement in 1967, but race official Jock Semple attacked her, making her run symbolic.
When someone exclaimed they saw a female runner — Switzer — from the back of a press vehicle early in the race, Semple dismounted and ran up behind Switzer, trying to rip her bib off.
Since Semple tried to wrest the now-famous “261” bib off her, Switzer has led a renaissance for women in athletics. Because of Switzer, women were officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon starting in 1972. The Olympic Games adopted the women’s marathon in 1984. In 2015, Switzer started building her new foundation, “261 Fearless.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Switzer was likely the best woman runner in the world. She won the New York City Marathon in 1974, finished second in Boston in 1975 — setting a personal record of 2:51:37 — and was named Female Runner of the Decade (1966-1976) by Runner’s World Magazine.
“She became the first registered woman to run in the thing,” said retiring Syracuse.com columnist Bud Poliquin, who has covered Syracuse sports for 36 years, “to compete in the thing, to finish the thing. Here we are all these years later and more than half of the Boston Marathon field will be comprised of women.
“You know, all those breadcrumbs lead to her door.”
She took to Boston’s streets, just like she did 50 years earlier. The famous course laid in front of her, the same as a half century ago. The Wellesley Scream Tunnel, Heartbreak Hill and the finish mark at Boylston Street, spanning the thoroughfare.
The route and goal stayed the same. At 20, it was because of the attack. At 70, she wondered if her body could hold up.
With 26.2 miles ahead of her, and 50 years behind her, Switzer just wanted to finish.
Courtesy of the Boston Herald
Two years ago, Switzer realized her bib number, “261,” was becoming a symbol. Some people would write it on their arms, others on the backs of their shirts. Some even inked the digits on their body.
“If someone’s going to tattoo themselves with my number,” Switzer said, “it must mean something.”
She launched “261 Fearless” in 2015 with the goal of helping women around the world feel the strength and empowerment Switzer does when she runs. Throughout the race in 1967, Switzer contemplated why she was attacked, why there were no other female runners and what she would do about it all. When she crossed the finish line, she knew.
“I realized it’s because women themselves were afraid to try and they only needed an opportunity,” Switzer said.
Rather than wait for someone to make opportunities, Switzer did it herself. In 1969, Switzer created the Syracuse Track Club, which still exists as the Syracuse Chargers. Today, the Chargers are one of the largest running clubs in New York.
Switzer’s work with the Chargers taught her how to advocate, organize and get sponsored. Eventually, Switzer undertook her biggest task yet: Getting the women’s marathon in the Olympics. The longest event in the Olympics had just moved from 800 meters to 1500 meters. At the pace the Olympics had been adopting women’s races, she said it would have taken until 2012 for the women’s marathon to be incorporated. She called it a “pipe dream.”
While lobbying the International Olympic Committee, Switzer wrote a business proposal to Avon Cosmetics. The company brought her on board, creating a global program of races to put pressure on the IOC indirectly. The notion was to show women around the world were all capable.
“People don’t believe that they’re allowed to do something until it is sometimes mandated,” Switzer said. “So, for instance, women 100 years ago didn’t think they deserved the right to vote, but when it was finally mandated, they did vote.”
Even after a marathon championship series of 400 races in 27 different countries featuring over a million women, including races in London and Paris that eventually turned into those respective cities’ official marathons, nothing changed.
Switzer took her efforts along with statistics, international representation and medical data to Peter Ueberroth, who planned the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Switzer pitched Ueberroth about how women’s running would bring in massive new revenues to the games.
The two agreed, and the women’s marathon was approved for the 1984 Olympics in a 1981 special vote.
“I’d put K’s impact on women in sport right up there with Billie Jean King and the women’s 1999 World Cup soccer team,” said Laurie Orlando, CBS executive and Syracuse alumna in an e-mail.
“I don’t have kids of my own,” Switzer said, “quite on purpose. But every time I see a woman runner, I feel like she’s one of mine.”
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It took Cathy Troisi 15 tries to get Switzer into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
That idea first popped into Troisi’s mind after seeing Switzer speak on a panel of women marathoners at the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon in 1997. Beside fellow panelists Sara Mae Berman, Bobbi Gibb and Nina Kuscsik, Switzer stood out.
“Kathrine needs to be in the (National) Women’s Hall of Fame,” Troisi thought as she drove back to her home in Seneca Falls, New York.
Troisi, who didn’t know Switzer before seeing her speak, linked up with Switzer through a mutual friend. The mutual friend assured Switzer that Troisi wasn’t “some stalker,” and Troisi began working on the application.
Initially, Troisi thought Switzer would be a shoo-in. After each failed attempt, Troisi amended the application to fit Switzer’s new accomplishments. Every year, she shrunk the font and struggled to find anything worth dropping from the list.
“Pretty soon she’s getting pissed off because she thinks that I should really be in the National Women’s Hall of Fame,” Switzer said of Troisi.
At a certain point, Troisi even set up a succession plan for friends to continue nominating Switzer if something were to happen to Troisi.
Fortunately, it never came to that, as Switzer was officially inducted in 2011 alongside Coretta Scott King, Lilly Ledbetter and eight others.
On April 6, 2017, Poliquin placed Switzer at No. 16 in the Syracuse University sports Top 25 all-time greats. She is the only woman to make the list.
“We weren’t trying to be politically correct,” Poliquin said. “We were trying to be correct. She becomes, in my mind, the No. 1 noteworthy, female athlete to come out of Syracuse.”
Courtesy of Hagen Hopkins
Some people do yoga to clear their mind. Switzer runs. Some people lift weights to let out pent up anger and aggression. Switzer runs. Some people pray. Switzer runs.
While she runs, Switzer goes through her “gratitude list” — all the things she’s grateful for. Everything from “It’s such a nice day out,” to “I’m lucky to be alive.” It’s her way to stay humble and keep a sense of reality.
But on a training run in 1967, no such joy was to be found. Switzer was on an 18-mile run with her trainer Briggs when she hit what runners and athletes often refer to as, “the wall.”
At 16 miles, Briggs asked Switzer why she was walking. She hadn’t even realized. Two miles later, just as the finish approached, Switzer stopped, laid down on the curb, and fell asleep.
“I’d obviously just bonked, completely bonked,” Switzer said.
She had never run 26.2 miles before. Only a few weeks later, Switzer and Briggs were out for a full marathon practice run, and Switzer felt so good they decided to go for 31 miles. They made it, and Briggs immediately passed out.
The next day, he and Switzer signed up for the Boston Marathon.
Signing her name “K.V. Switzer,” she didn’t realize the race authorities wouldn’t figure out her gender. It wasn’t even a question on the application. On the day of the race, Briggs picked up their bibs. It was a dreary April day, and Switzer opted for the warmth of her sweatshirt instead of a colorful tank top.
Nothing stopped her. Semple couldn’t, and four hours and 20 minutes after starting, Switzer had made history. She just didn’t know she’d be doing it 50 years later, too.
“We were simply trying to follow the rules,” Switzer said. “The opposite happened though. I mean, it upset everything.”
This year, the bib number “261” was awarded for the last time in the Boston Marathon to “Switzer, Kathrine V.” After she finished in 4:44:31, just 24 minutes slower than her original time 50 years ago, the number was done.
Published on April 19, 2017 at 12:34 am