“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” ~ Jackie Robinson
Boston Marathon is “one of”, if not “the”, most respected long distance races. It is also the site where in 1967 the lack of respect in our society was laid out for the entire world to see. The rule of the day was that women could not officially register and receive the running bib in the race. They could run, quietly, unofficially, in the background. The time was ripe for humanity to realize that the comforts of status quo required a nudge or, better yet, a shove in the right direction.
Enter Kathrine Switzer – the status quo buster.
Kathrine didn’t plan to become a hero on race day in 1967. She worked hard to prepare for the marathon, even running a 30 mile practice run to make sure that she could finish. She found no rules barring her from entering the event and she registered using the gender neutral name she had been using for her journalism work – K.V. Switzer.
She began the race alongside her boyfriend, Tom Miller, and coach, Arnie Briggs. After just 2 miles into the run, officials tried to remove Kathrine from the race. The eviction attempt was violent and terrifying. The race director grabbed at Kathrine and shouted – “Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!”. To this day, she still recalls the rage she saw in his eyes.
Kathrine attempted to shrug herself free from the clutches of the official. The race director’s decision to abort the eviction was helped along by a powerful body blow delivered by Kathrine’s boyfriend (he was a football player). He was sent flying off. Kathrine ran on. These moments were immortalized forever by the press corp bus riding just ahead of the Switzer race group.
As the race continued, Kathrine went through the 3 stages of becoming a hero:
Anger – she was humiliated at how she and other women were being treated in a sport which can bring so much joy.
Acceptance – she realized that this was the status quo – that people who tried to stop her were under the impression that they were actually trying to help by preventing women from injuring themselves by running too much. The ridiculous idea of a woman’s uterus falling out was one of the myths of the day.
Determination – by the end of the race, a new Kathrine was born, one determined to nudge or shove the world in the right direction with regards to women’s participation in long distance running events.
In the years that followed, Kathrine worked hard to help change the landscape of running today. First, she led the efforts to allow women to officially participate in the Boston Marathon – accomplished in 1972. Below are seven of the eight women who participanted in the first official women’s field of the Boston Marathon – Nina Kusciak (winner), Katherine Switzer, Elaine Pederson, Ginny Collins, Pat Barrett, Frances Morrison, Sara Mae Berman (not pictured – Valerie Rogosheske).
That was just the beginning. Kathrine set her eyes on a much bigger target. An event that would help bring to light her vision of “joy and freedom of running for all” to the entire world. Her quest was to bring women’s marathon to the olympics. This was a monumental undertaking. In order for an event to be considered on this most prestigious of global stages, it needed to be an established sport in 25 countries and on at least 3 continents.
Luck was on her side, determination was in her heart, and pieces were starting to fall into place.
After putting Boston on the right track, she was approached by Avon to help organize a woman-only marathon in Atlanta. A small and manageable event, that may give a little boost in PR for Avon. She jumped at the opportunity but with the attitude that “You either go BIG or go home.” She came back with a proposal for a multi-city, global, running circuit. And thus the Avon International Running Circuit came to be.
The Avon race series helped pave the way for women marathon distance running to be considered and included in the 1984 Olympics. It helped change the lives of thousands of professional women runners today, and millions of those that run and compete just for the love of running. Here is Joan Benoit taking the gold at the 1984 Olympics.
Kathrine continues to run and promote the sport to this day. Her next big running quest is running the Boston marathon in 2017.