In a single race, Kathrine Switzer earned a place in the history books and became feminist icon. In 1967 she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with a starting number – but only because the organizers believed she was a man. Their error marked a pioneering moment for women’s sports.
Kathrine Switzer had chosen her outfit carefully: a burgundy top and matching shorts, and of course her running shoes. She applied her lipstick and put in her earrings. It was Patriots’ Day in Boston in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, and a big day for Switzer. Marathon day. The twenty-year-old journalism student had thrown her hat in the ring. Instead of standing on the sidelines cheering the runners on, she was going to join them on the racecourse as the first woman to officially register and run in a marathon. So she was aiming to look her best. “I had wanted to look nice and feminine at the starting line,” she later said. But that Monday the runners had to contend with more than a few April showers. It not only rained, it snowed, with the wind gusting along the urban streets and temperatures hovering around freezing. The cheerful color of Switzer’s original outfit disappeared under a gray sweat suit, her hair under a cap – just as she involuntarily disappeared into the field of 740 similarly dressed men. At the time, she had no way of knowing that this was actually a stroke of luck. Because as she soon found out, the race officials were not at all pleased to find a woman among the runners. For now, however, she remained undetected and when the starting pistol cracked at noon, Kathrine Switzer began her revolutionary run.
She ran smoothly, fluently, the crowd on the sidelines was cheering them on, and she was happy to be there, with the number 261 pinned to her gray sweatshirt. She focused on enjoying each meter she ran, soaking in the atmosphere, rechanneling and storing the positive energy. Because she knew she would need it down the road. “The first few miles of a marathon are fun. But you know it’s going to hurt later.” She little suspected that this would not be her only problem. After running around five kilometers, she heard the sound of leather soles pounding the asphalt – an incongruous sound in a sea of rubber-soled marathoners. The slap of the hard soles drew closer and Switzer, sensing danger, turned and looked around. And saw race director Jock Semple, a big man with a vicious expression and bared teeth, bearing down on her. Semple had spotted Switzer and was now trying to rip off her bib number. “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” he shouted. Switzer, afraid, screamed and tried to run away from him. But suddenly her boyfriend, former All-American football player and hammer thrower Tom Miller, who was also running the marathon, appeared at her side. His body check sent Semple staggering to the roadside, and Switzer ran on with her number still in place. “I knew if I quit,” she says, “nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles.” So she kept running – and after four hours and twenty minutes, crossed the finish line as the first officially registered woman to run a marathon. But why had she been given a number only to have Semple try to disrupt her run? Switzer’s habit of signing her name K.V. Switzer – for Kathrine Virginia – had kept marathon officials from noticing that a woman had signed up for their race.
That was April 1967. The 71st running of the world’s oldest marathon after the Olympic Games became one of the most important days in the history of the women’s rights movement. Thanks to the sports journalists on the press truck who photographed the entire incident, images of Jock Semple trying the tear the start number off the young runner’s shirt were soon seen around the world. On the very next day, people could read about Switzer in practically every newspaper. A woman running the magic stretch of just over 42 kilometers caused a sensation. At the time, the longest race in which women could officially participate was 800 meters. “People whispered that it would result in medical harm,” said Switzer in the 2018 NDR documentary, “Die Marathon-Frauen – Der lange Lauf zur Gleichberechtigung” (“The Marathon Women – The Long Run to Gender Equality”). “There were all kinds of crazy theories: that you would turn into a man; that your legs would get thick or your uterus would fall out and you’d never be able to have children.” While these theories may sound absurd today, back then they were not unusual. Long-distance running was strictly a male domain.
When she first started unofficially training with the men’s cross-country team at Syracuse University in New York, Switzer could already run long stretches. But she met with resistance there as well. Arnie Briggs, her coach, was a veteran runner who had participated in the Boston Marathon fifteen times and loved telling stories about the legendary race. “Oh, let’s quit talking about the Boston Marathon and run the damn thing!” said Switzer one evening. But Briggs wasn’t having it. As Switzer later recounted, his response was: “No woman can run the Boston Marathon.” But he did offer her a deal. If she ran the full marathon distance in practice, he would take her to Boston. Switzer took him up on his offer – and kept running even longer until Briggs passed out from exhaustion. He kept his word, signing up himself, Switzer, Miller, and John Leonard, a cross-country teammate, for the marathon. With Switzer on the entry form as “K.V. Switzer.”
No one could have guessed that the race in the April sleet would become an important milestone on the road to gender equality. Frank Litsky, a sports reporter for the New York Times who was on the press truck that day, also did not initially realize what an historic race he would report on. Not until the weather started to clear and the runners took off their hats did he realize what was unfolding on the course. But when the flatbed truck passed the field of runners around Switzer, it was a reporter who called Jock Semple’s attention to the supposed rule-breaker. “We weren’t shocked at all,” recalled Litsky. “We just made notes and thought, ‘this is crazy.’ We knew it was a big deal. But we didn’t know how big of a deal it would become.” And indeed, it became a pioneering moment in the women’s movement.
Kathrine Switzer, the daughter of an American soldier born in Amberg, Germany, was inspired by U.S. runner Bobbi Gibb, whom she had read about in the newspaper. In 1966 Gibb became the first woman to run the full distance of the Boston Marathon. But since she did not have a start number, her participation was not official. Although Gibb had attempted to register in accordance with the rules, she was turned away because she was a woman. Her response was to hide in the bushes near the starting line and slip into the field of runners shortly after the starting signal. She crossed the finish line at 3:21:40 hours, faster than two-thirds of all the male participants. Gibb was the trailblazer who paved the way for Switzer to became a living legend.
Looking back on her historic run in her autobiography “Marathon Woman,” Switzer wrote: “I started as a girl and crossed the finish line as a woman.” Of Semple’s attack, she said, “At first it was very embarrassing and scary. I had the feeling that I was trespassing on sacred ground.” But despite this fear, “down the street we ran, flying past the press truck, running like kids out of a haunted house.” She didn’t even notice when she reached Heartbreak Hill, the dreaded uphill climb ten kilometers before the finish line – she was too absorbed in her thoughts, thinking about fulfilling her dream of finishing the Boston Marathon and making plans for what would come next.
That day inscribed Switzer’s name in the history books as a hero of the feminist movement. She went on to use her international fame to advocate for women’s rights – and her efforts soon bore fruit. In 1972, women were officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time. Switzer was one of nine women who competed that day, finishing third. She then collaborated with Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, to launch the Crazylegs Mini Marathon, the first road running competition exclusively for women. In 1977, she joined forces with sponsor Avon, a cosmetics company, to develop a women’s running series that was held annually until 1984.
Switzer was also largely responsible for getting the women’s marathon recognized as an official Olympic sport in 1984. “We had to submit medical evidence that running marathons is not harmful to women’s health,” said Switzer. She achieved this milestone 17 years after her rebellious run in Boston. “I had invested so much, my whole life long. So much emotion, so much work, to reach this moment. And finally, it arrived. And it was so wonderful,” she added, speaking about those turbulent times. Fifty female runners qualified for the Olympic marathon. American Joan Benoit emerged victorious, running 40 kilometers through the streets of Los Angeles before completing her final laps in the Olympic stadium. “They emerged from the darkness of the athletes’ tunnel into a stadium filled with 90,000 people roaring their encouragement. I thought to myself – this moment is just as important for women as winning the right to vote.”
Kathrine Switzer has given newspaper interviews and appeared on television in several countries in support of the women’s movement. Her autobiography became a bestseller, and today she is still a popular public speaker. And on April 17, 2017, almost 50 years to the day since her first race, she returned once again to the streets of Boston. Everything was different this time around. There was no rain or snow; the temperature was balmy. Some 30,000 runners were waiting in the starting area, 40 times as many as there had been 50 years before. This number included 13,698 women, many of them with t-shirts or tattoos reading “261 Fearless.”
Switzer’s start number has long since been a symbol of the women’s movement, and inspired the name of her non-profit, 261 Fearless, launched in 2015 – a global association with 28 running clubs around the world. “When Kathrine Switzer tells stories about running, she is telling stories about life,” says Edith Zuschmann of the 261 Club in Berlin, Germany. For many, Switzer is an icon, an inspiration, and a legend. And in Boston, which has become a Mecca for women marathoners, the group’s members all run together. Everywhere you look, you see the number 261. But today only Kathrine Switzer can wear it as an official start number. Because in recognition of the historic day in 1967, it has been officially retired in honor of the first woman to wear it in a marathon.