How Kathrine Switzer overcame sporting misogyny to become the first woman to run a marathon
The thousands of spectators who line marathon routes are famous for screaming encouragement, but it has not always been that way.
“One guy shouted at me, ‘you should be back in the kitchen making dinner for your husband’.”
It is one of many moments that Kathrine Switzer recounts as she talks about her memories of becoming the first woman to officially run a marathon.
It was 1967 and women were not allowed to run more than 1,500 metres in sanctioned races. Marathons were for men. But Switzer slipped through by signing her name on the entry form for the Boston marathon by using her initials, KV Switzer. The rules did not explicitly prevent women from running, but it was tradition rigorously upheld by the organisers. The only way women could take part was to join the race from the sidelines and run without a number. Switzer slipped through the net because organisers saw her name on the entry list and presumed she was a man.
Now aged 71, Switzer is guest of honour in London this weekend, part of the London marathon’s #spiritoflondon campaign. She will start the elite women’s and wheelchair races and then join the 40,000 other runners on the streets of the capital this morning for her first London Marathon and 42nd overall.
She will wear the same number, 261, that the race director tried to rip off her back in Boston 51 years ago. It has become a symbol in running of female empowerment and social change.
“I had no intention of making history that day. I was just a 20-year-old kid who wanted to run,” she says. “I was training in Syracuse, New York, where I was at university and there I met a guy who was 50 and coach for the cross-country team. He had run 15 Boston Marathons and he started coaching me and telling me stories about the Boston Marathon. I thought this guy schleps through the snow training so he can go to the Boston Marathon for one day and be a hero in his own life. It sounded like the most heroic event in the world. I realised I was not as fast as the guys but I could run forever. I loved the distance and that feeling of empowerment it gave me. The combination of that and hearing about the marathon was why I wanted to do it. It was one of those dreams. I thought I really want to do this.”
The race director was Jock Semple, a Scot who emigrated to the United States and became the overlord of the Boston Marathon. He was known for physically yanking runners off his course if he thought they were “non-official”. He was on the press bus when he spotted Switzer, jumped off and tried to pull her out. She has recalled looking at the “most vicious face I had ever seen” as he tried to grab her. “He thought I was a clown. In those days, people would run with signs saying ‘Go to Joe’s Diner’. But my coach was screaming at him saying ‘leave her alone I have trained her’. But he was a man of his time. He did not think women should be there. People in those days thought that if a woman ran she would turn into a man.”
Switzer’s boyfriend barged Semple off the road, a moment captured by a photographer from The Boston Globe that ensured its place in running history. She finished the race with bloodied feet, badly shaken by her experience and upset for having a row with her boyfriend who blamed the fuss over her presence for ruining his race (she finished before him). But despite the stress and upset, Switzer had unintentionally started a social movement for equality in sport.
“After the race, I was disqualified and expelled from the athletic federation because I had run with men, because I had run more than a mile and a half (the legal limit for women) because I had illegally entered the race, which was not true, but the worst one of all was because I had not run with a chaperone. It just shows you the attitudes that existed in 1967.
“I look back and think, how did a 20-year-old girl have the guts to finish the race? But I was willing to kill myself to finish, on my hands and knees if necessary. I wanted to finish on behalf of all women because I knew if I didn’t people would say women could not run a marathon. I remember how burdensome that felt at the time and how relieved I was to finish the race. The funny thing was that the men around me running in the race were very encouraging. There were shouts from the sidelines as well such 'go on girl do it for all of us'.”
Switzer had only just started. Boston eventually allowed women to compete officially in 1972 thanks to her campaigning, in 1974 she won the New York Marathon and set up the Avon Cosmetics International Marathons series, a global series of women-only running events that culminated in a race on the streets of London in 1980. It was the first time London roads had been closed to traffic for a sporting event and was the precursor both to the first London Marathon a year later and for the women’s marathon to become an Olympic sport in 1984.
Just 300 of the 6,300 finishers of the first London Marathon in 1981 were female. There will be more than 22,000 women on the start line today. In the United States, 58 per cent of marathon runners are women. In Canada it is 65 per cent. Switzer has set up 261 Fearless, named after her race number. It is a social network for female runners around the world building groups in countries.
“For me, women being allowed to run the marathon at the Olympic Games was the physical equivalent of the right to vote. The right to vote was about intellectual and social acceptance,” she says. “This is about physical acceptance. More women are running than ever before and it is a global trend. It is not because they want to be Olympic athletes or like they used to say ‘I want to lose five pounds’. It is because they feel empowered and a sense of self esteem and accomplishment.
“What I take as a great measure of success is that of the 390,000 people who applied for this London Marathon, 181,000 were first-timers and more of them were women than men. It means those women are taking on the challenge and believe in themselves to enter something as serious as the London marathon.”
In February, The Sunday Telegraph reported on a campaign for women to run the same distances as men at the English Cross Country Championships. “It is a shame this battle is still being fought and by having different distances it signals that women are not up to snuff,” she says. None of thousands of cheering supporters will think that today.