Reflections on a Women’s Running Trailblazer

Photo courtesy of Kathrine Switzer
Last weekend, the world marathon record fell in Berlin. A new fastest-ever time was recorded by Patrick Makau of Kenya as he crossed the finish line in an amazing 2:03:38.

Perhaps just as many eyes in Germany were on Paula Radcliffe, the legendary current women’s marathon world record holder who has battled back from various injuries and hadn’t run a marathon in two years. Radcliffe finished third, paving the way for a potential Olympic bid in 2012.

But long before there was Radcliffe, there was another runner paving the way for all future female marathoners: Kathrine Switzer. Switzer competed in era before the Radcliffes and the Kara Gouchers and, by way of a registration fluke, was the first woman to run the United States’ most storied race, the Boston Marathon, with an official bib.

It was 1967, and women had run Boston before, but only has non-registered “bandits.” It’s difficult to imagine today – when some 43 percent of finishers at the 2011 Boston race were women – that a mere 40 years ago most people thought women were physically incapable of running 26.2 miles, that such a feat was impossible or would cause some sort of infertility. Indeed, both Switzer’s running partner at the time and her boyfriend were in disbelief when she told them she wanted to compete and to do it in Boston. She worked hard to prepare, logging a 31-mile training run to be sure that a marathon finish was well within her grasp.

An aspiring journalist, Switzer registered under the pen name she always used for her signature, K.V. Switzer. It was an unintentional cover-up, but race directors had no idea a woman was running the famed Boston race when Switzer toed the start line amidst an all-male field. And then, for lack of a better term, all hell broke loose.

A few miles into the race, the press truck carrying reporters and photographers noticed Switzer, running with her bib firmly pinned to the front of her shirt. Also on that truck was Jock Semple, co-director of the race. Captured in the series of now-famous photographs above, an angry Semple attempted to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, only to be shoved aside by Switzer’s boyfriend.

Switzer ran the rest of the race, logging a respectable time of around four hours and 20 minutes, though Boston officials refused to count her time among the finishers for such egregious reasons as not being accompanied by a male chaperone. Switzer would go on to run more races, winning the New York City Marathon in 1974 and placing second in Boston the following year with an impressive time of two hours and 51 minutes.

It would take until 1972, the year the Title IX sports equality law was passed, before women were allowed to register for Boston. And although Switzer was one of many pioneers who would set the tone for the future of women’s racing, perhaps today’s marathoners – especially ones struggling up Heartbreak Hill in Boston – can think of her for inspiration during the last few grueling miles.

Hear Switzer’s own words about the race plus more about the history of women in marathons in this NPR story from 2002.