So I run roughly 3 miles every other day. I say this because a) I run guys! Like, I do something that people who are on top of their lives do! I’m winning this thing! and b) that’s nothing compared to the distance the runner I’m going to talk about today had to run. Not only was it over 8 times the physical distance of my runs (26.2 miles, to be precise), but she had to win the race against some pretty difficult social obstacles as well. Guys, it’s time to talk about *drum roll here*…
Kathrine Switzer, one of the first woman to run the Boston Marathon!
So you might be thinking “so, she was the first woman to run a marathon, that’s great and all, but what about Susan B. Anthony, or Jeanette Rankin, what about people who accomplished some real victories for women’s rights?” The answer to that is simple – Switzer’s story is fantastic! 😀 The link’s at the bottom of the page, I highly suggest you read the whole tale. It’s one of my favorites!
Kathrine Switzer was born in 1947 in Germany. Her dad was stationed overseas as a U.S. army major. The family moved back to America so Kathrine could grow up in the U.S. By the time she was 19, Kathrine Switzer was studying journalism at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
Kathrine had always loved running, but the university didn’t offer anything in the way of women’s running, so Kathrine trained with the men’s cross-country team. She wasn’t an official member and she couldn’t participate in meets, but she got to go for 10-mile runs and train with Arnie, the university mailman who had run 15 marathons at the time they met.
According to Switzer’s memoir, Marathon Woman, Arnie talked incessantly about the Boston Marathon and the great men who ran it. To be fair, the Boston Marathon is widely regarded as a world-class event among runners, but Arnie was especially enthusiastic about it, and his love for the race rubbed off on Switzer. One winter night, she suggested she run the marathon too, just like the great athletes Arnie gave speeches about to inspire the university’s runners. Arnie replied that no woman had ever ran the Boston Marathon. Switer retorted that Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb (we’ll talk about her in a future biography; she’s the REAL first female Boston Marathoner) had done so last year as an unsanctioned runner (every female participant was an “unsanctioned runner” before 1972, when the Boston Marathon allowed them to officially compete). Arnie denied Gibbs’s run. Despite passionate rhetoric on Switzer’s part, he remained unconvinced. At the time, women were considered so physiologically weaker than men that the longest women’s competitive race was a mile and a half. It was still a strange thought, at best, that a woman could run over 26 miles alongside men.
So Arnie gave his unofficial pupil a test. If Kathrine could run a marathon in practice, Arnie would take her to Boston to run the real race. Switzer was delighted. She trained, and she trained hard. 3 weeks before the marathon, she was finishing a 26 mile run with Arnie when she writes, and I quote: “It felt too easy.” Like, whaaatttT???? This is a MARATHON you’re running, girl! Too EASY?!?!
So this crazy athlete decided she wants to run an extra 5 miles. Arnie agreed. At the end of the now 31 mile run, Switzer realized she had not only met Arnie’s challenge, but exceeded it. Of course she was ecstatic, so she hugged him. Of course Arnie was exhausted (and also 50), so he fainted. This girl literallY RAN UNTIL HER OWN COACH PASSED OUT.
Anyways, the next day Arnie came to Switzer’s dorm and insisted she register for the Boston Marathon. There was nothing about gender in the rules for that race specifically (although the Amateur Athletic Union had issued a statement saying that women couldn’t run distances longer than their 1.5 mile women’s race), so she had no problems signing up. On April 19, 1967, a Wednesday and also Patriots’ Day in the state of Massachusetts, Switzer arrived in Boston to race, accompanied by Arnie and her boyfriend, an ex-football player and “nationally ranked hammer thrower,” Tom Miller. Tom had been excited to run the race when he heard his girlfriend was running in it, but had insisted he didn’t need to train. After all, if a girl could do it, of course a huge, bulking athlete like himself could, right?
They started the marathon, in the midst of snow and sleet. Oh yeah, did I mention the weather? It was snowing. There was sleet and ice. And Kathrin Switzer ran a MARATHON in that mess.
According to Switzer, her fellow competitors were extremely friendly at this point. People came up to her and commended her for having the courage to run. Runners took their pictures with her, like she was a celebrity. Some athletes asked her for tips on how to get their wives into the sport. In fact, the only negativity at this point came from Arnie, who told her to take off her lipstick lest she be discovered and kept from running the race. Switzer refused, so she ran the Boston Marathon and looked amazing while doing it. What have you done today?
Around mile four, the press showed up. Yup, here come the press, crashing the party, ruining everything like always. Ok, that isn’t fair. Kathrine Switzer herself was a journalism student.
And at first, the papers and cameras were upbeat and respectful for the most part. But among them was a not -so-friendly face, Jock Semple, a runner and the race manager. He was not ok with a woman running his marathon. He grabbed Switzer by the shirt and held her tight, grabbing and swiping and scraping at her marathon numbers, screaming at her to get out of the race. Arnie tried to help, but Jock was by all accounts bigger, and kept him at bay while he continued to attack Kathrine. He was only stopped when Tom, Switzer’s boyfriend, body-slammed into him. See? It’s just like I always (or used to always) say; when in doubt, body-slam ’em!
But the press did nothng but take pictures and shout the whole time, and while Jock lay on the ground, stunned by Miller’s rescue, they hounded Switzer, following her even though their presence was no longer welcome. They began to ask Switzer when she’d give up and go home. Switzer responded by politely declining to answer any more questions, instead focusing on finishing the race. She knew she couldn’t quit (she writes so herself in her autobiography). If she did, it would become a proven fact that a woman couldn’t run a marathon. Women’s sports everywhere would feel her defeat.
Nor was Jock Semple by any means dealt with. He got on a bus and rode alongside Switzer and her companions, yelling at them from the vehicle. Eventually he drove away, but not without rattling everyone in the vicinity.
Yet through all the turmoil and trial, Switzer was determined. She told Arnie “You know that guy Jock has gone up ahead and is probably arranging for one of those big Irish cops to arrest us when nobody is looking. If it happens, I am resisting arrest, okay? And something else…Arnie, I’m not sure where you stand in this now. But no matter what, I have to finish this race. Even if you can’t, I have to—even on my hands and knees. If I don’t finish, people will say women can’t do it, and they will say I was just doing this for the publicity or something. So you need to do whatever you want to do, but I’m finishing.” Am I the only who’s like “wow, that takes guts” right now?
Well, the turmoil and trials were far from over. As they were running, Tom Miller, just minutes ago Switzer’s rescuer and champion, blew up at his girlfriend. Miller had attacked an AAU official for her, and would probably not make the Olympic hammer throw team because of it. This is the tamer version of that fight, but he basically told Switzer she ran too slow, tore off his race numbers and stomped them to the ground, and took off to run towards the front. Switzer was, obviously, not in a good state, having recovered from both a physical and now emotional attack, but she writes, “We had such a long way to go, but I didn’t care anymore, not about Tom, not about anything but finishing. I didn’t care how much it hurt or how long it was going to take or if I got put in jail or even if I died. I was going to finish no matter what.”
And Tom Miller had a rude awakening when he had to slow down and walk at mile 13. Switzer ended up passing him, despite his screaming after her “I’d never leave you!” which was, of course, a lie, since he did, and that’s part of the reason why he was so exhausted he was walking after barely completing half the race (that’s what you get for not traaaiiinnninnng ;).
Awesome quote time! Switzer later wrote about the race, “My folks and Arnie had given me this chance, and it dawned on me that I was not special after all; just lucky. My thinking rolled on: The reason there are no intercollegiate sports for women at big universities, no scholarships, prize money, or any races longer than 800 meters is because women don’t have the opportunities to prove they want those things…After what happened today, I felt responsible to create those opportunities.”
And create those opportunities she did! Switzer finished the race with Arnie, pushing him to the front with the help of a fellow runner to make sure the coach finished first. Her time was 4 hours 20 minutes, blisters had formed on her feet and burst, leaving them bloody (and later, bandaged so much that she couldn’t get her shoes on), no one clapped for them, and the press were waiting at the finish line with more mean-spirited questions, but she had finished the race. Kathrine Switzer had proven wome
n could run the Boston Marathon!
At the time, Switzer was front-page news. Even today, people remember her as a pioneer, both as an athlete and an activist. She is an accomplished author and well-respected in the world of running (she still runs races!). And in my opinion, that is exactly where she should be. After all, may I remind you this girl ran her coach until he passed out so she could run the Boston Marathon, in the snow, before women were allowed to race, all with the press hounding her, the race manager physically attacking her, her boyfriend breaking up with her and being a jerk in general, and her feet blistering and bleeding. And she was nine-flipping-jungle-jacks-climbing-crinkling-lumber-cracks-teen! (I’m trying not to curse lately, the results are always interesting). She was 19!
Kathrine Switzer wasn’t the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, and she wasn’t the last to run it before women were allowed to do so officially. But she was among the first of the first, and definitely has a memorable story. She’ll always be one of my heroes. 🙂
Soooo… what do y’all think about my “biographies” so far? I’m thinking of covering Roberta Gibbs next (don’t google her… spoilers ;).