4 hours and 20 minutes: a time insignificant to many but monumental in history. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer triumphed as the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon, paving the way for women athletes to break barriers and fight stereotypes for years to come. But what did it take for her to do this? Sure, she was physically able. But because of extreme opposition toward women in athletics back then, it wasn’t a simple-routed feat.
At the time, Switzer was a 20-year-old journalism and English literature student at Syracuse University. In 1947, she was born in Amberg, Germany, but her family moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, shortly after in 1949. At Syracuse, Switzer sought permission to run with the men's cross-country team. Although her coach and mentor, Arnie Briggs, at first was hesitant (claiming that a marathon was too far a distance for a “fragile woman” to run), he eventually conceded. By the winter of 1966, Switzer was training for the upcoming Boston Marathon on April 19, 1967.
K. V. Switzer was her name, or so Boston Marathon officials thought. According to Switzer, she signed the application like any other document, though this is debatable. Using her first name would give away her identity as a woman, thus preventing her from being admitted to compete. So, she used the name "K. V." as a precaution, ensuring she could run the marathon as an official competitor.
On race day, she had a male runner collect her bib – number 261. Further, she wore a hooded sweatshirt to cover her hair, but a few miles into the course, the hood slipped, making it clear a woman was competing. John “Jock” Semple, a long-term event manager for the Boston Marathon, did not like this. He tried grabbing Switzer's number tag, pushing her over, and tripping her. Fortunately, Coach Briggs and her boyfriend, Tom Miller (note that Miller was a 235-pound ex-football player and nationally ranked hammer thrower), protected her, allowing her to finish the race and become the first woman ever to do so. Kathrine Switzer made international headlines.
According to Switzer, she understood the gravity of her accomplishment and the result of her endurance. She stated later, “I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women's sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win.” She was right. At that time, an arduous activity performed by a woman would supposedly make their legs too big, grow them a mustache and hair on their chest, and make their uterus fall out. These were rumors imposing fear on women by some men. Switzer's performance set those rumors as false.
In 1967, one woman competed in the Boston Marathon. In 1977, 102 competed. In 1987, 1997, 2007, and 2017, 793, 2,477, 7,974, and 11,969 women competed, respectively. 2021 set a new record all-around, with 1,862 more women competing than men in the virtual marathon.
An interview with Switzer in 2017, published in the Runner’s World Magazine, states that 50 years later, she appreciates Jock Semple for attempting to disqualify her from the race. Switzer says, “…it was really Jock who gave me the inspiration to create more running opportunities for women. Almost every day of my life I thank him for attacking me because he gave me this spark. Plus, he gave the world one of the most galvanizing photos in the women's rights movement. Sometimes the worst things in your life can become the best things.”
Kathrine Switzer majorly progressed women's sports and still does to this day with her global non-profit 261 Fearless, which uses running as a vehicle to empower and unite women. Since 2017, the Boston Athletic Association has not assigned bib number 261 to any runner as an honor to Switzer, who just kept running.
Ravenwood High School