Kathrine Switzer: Women’s Long Distance Pioneer

Aug 14


Kathrine Switzer has had a profound impact on distance running for women. She is probably best known for her infamous 1967 Boston Marathon, as the first woman to enter the event officially (well, sort of). Shocking scenes show the event director attempting to remove her physically during the race. Up until this point, women were NOT allowed to enter the annual Boston race. This experience led her to become a campaigner, and eventually a major influence on the women’s marathon eventually being included in the Olympics for the first time in 1984.

Boston 1967
Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon after an argument with her coach and running partner, Arnie Briggs, who refused to accept that women were capable of running the distance. These were the days when running was widely considered dangerous for women, and could lead to physical effects such as growing facial hair or the uterus dropping.

She took Arnie’s attitude on as a challenge, and completed her entry form under the name of “K. V. Switzer”. She has always maintained that there was no deliberate intent to deceive the race organizers by using her initials, rather she always liked to sign her name that way because she was a journalism student and great admirer of J. D. Salinger.

Be that as it may, on the morning of the race clearly the organizers had no expectation there would be women in the field. In her book Marathon Woman, Kathrine describes the race day being cold and snowy, which led to disorganization in the starting pen, and runners keeping extra layers of clothing on. So she set off without any objections from officials, along with Arnie, her boyfriend Tom, and a fellow runner John Leonard. Other runners were generally excited and supportive to see a woman in their midst. It was only at around four miles that the situation changed.

The photo press bus, driving through runners on its way to catch the leaders, spotted Kathrine running and slowed down right in front of her to take pictures of a female runner – an unexpected sight. Then suddenly Kathrine was pounced on from behind. She writes:

“Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him.”


Kathy Switzer, one of two women in the normally all-male Boston marathon in 1967, evades Marathon Director Bill Clooney (in dark suit), who attempted to stop her from running. 


The man was Jock Semple, Boston Marathon race organiser. Kathrine’s hot-headed boyfriend Tom reacted physically, pushing Jock away with a “cross-body block”. Kathrine describes her utter fear, horror and humiliation. At the time it must have seemed worse that this had all occurred right in front of the press photographers. But in the long-run, the sequence of photos as captured by photo journalist Harry Trask catapulted Kathrine and female athletics into the spotlight. Indeed, it enabled the issue of women’s running to be taken seriously as a subject of legitimate debate.


But as the race continued, Switzer struggled to come to terms with what had just happened to her, and she briefly considered whether she should step off the course. Fortunately she realised she had to persist:

“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, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”

She successfully completed the event in 4 hours 20 minutes, the first of her many marathons.

The experience in Boston 1967 had ignited a new determination in Switzer, which led her to train hard and run seriously. She completed Boston eight times, with an eventual best time of 2 hours 51 minutes in 1975, a time which ranked her then as the 3rd fastest American woman and 6th fastest woman in the world. 

Switzer was the women’s winner of the 1974 NYC Marathon with a time of 3:07:29 (59th overall -men/women). Her personal best time for the marathon distance is 2:51:37, at Boston in 1975.

Switzer was named Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) by Runner’s World magazine and later became a television commentator for marathons, starting with the 1984 Olympic women’s marathon, and received an Emmy for her work. She wrote Running and Walking for Women over 40 in 1997. She released her memoir, Marathon Woman, in April 2007, on the 40th anniversary of her first running of the Boston Marathon. In April 2008, Marathon Woman won the Billie Award for journalism for its inspiring portrayal of women in sports. When visiting the Boston Marathon, Switzer is glad to see other female runners:

When I go to the Boston Marathon now, I have wet shoulders—women fall into my arms crying. They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything. — Kathrine Switzer, (2013)

She was inducted into theNational Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running. Since 1967, she has worked to improve running opportunities for women in different parts of the world. The Avon Running program, Switzer’s brainchild, included events in 27 countries with over a million women participants; and she worked tirelessly to make the program a success. It raised the profile of women’s running to the point where the International Olympic Committee were firmly behind the inclusion of a women’s marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

For the 2017 Boston Marathon, bib number 261, the same number Switzer was assigned in 1967, was assigned to her as “Switzer, Kathrine V.” This marked the 50th anniversary of her historic marathon. She was placed in wave 1 and corral 1 and at age 70 finished in 4:44:31.

Also in 2017, the Boston Athletic Association announced it would not assign bib number 261 to any future runners, as an honor for Switzer.


*Credits: Information Taken from The Flying Runner, by Sarah Wightman and also personal historical background from Wikipedia.

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