Kathrine Switzer celebrated her 71st birthday on Friday, January 5th in Wellington, New Zealand, where she winters with her husband, runner and author Roger Robinson. Switzer was a pioneer female marathoner in the 1960s, a sub-elite racer (with a personal best of 2:51 for 26.2) in the mid-1970s, and a tireless worldwide promoter of women’s running through the Avon global running circuit.
Nine months ago, she became the first woman to complete marathons 50 years apart. In 1967, K.V. Switzer famously finished the Boston Marathon in 4:20, even though race director Jock Semple tried to rip off her bib number, 261, during the race’s the early miles.
Last April, after a weeklong media blitz, she finished Boston again, this time in 4:46. She ran with members of her nonprofit, called 261 Fearless. She also ran the New York City Marathonlast year, finishing in 4:48.
Switzer explains what it was like to run Boston for the first time since 1976, how she got in shape for the big effort, why she has continued running for half a century—and where she is headed next.
Runner’s World: Running Boston must have been a wonderful day for you.
Kathrine Switzer: Except I was so stressed from all the media work I had done that I woke up that Monday feeling like I had had a stroke. I was tilting to the left. I didn’t know what was going on. I hadn’t slept much in the previous three weeks.
So when we got to Hopkinton, I assembled my team—we had about a hundred 261 Fearless runners—and told them we had to dial way back. We had to walk at every aid station. In training, I had thought about trying for the same time I ran in 1967, 4:20. But that was completely out the window now. The only goal was to finish.
Amazingly, once we got started, I felt good. The stress flew off me. My body just wanted to be running. We still took at least 13 walk stops of 20 seconds each at the aid stations, and I did eight interviews en route. There was also all the stopping for hugs and hellos on the course.
Toward the end, we were running faster every mile. I felt fresh as a daisy. Who knows, maybe I could have run 4:20 on a good day. Or maybe a faster pace would have wiped me out, and I would have finished over five hours.
As it was, I got a tremendous reception all the way, and it felt like a personal validation of everything I’ve worked on the last 50 years. Now it’s up to the new generation of women runners to carry the torch for the next 50 years.
RW: That’s a strong marathon for a 70-year-old. How did you get in shape for it? And how far did you have to come from your lowest fitness point in the last 50 years?
KS: I always kept running to some degree. In my busiest Avon days in the late 1990s when we relaunched the global women’s circuit, I probably only managed one 45-minute run a week. On good weeks, I’d do several runs.
In 2010, I built up to run the Athens Marathon, and the next year I finished Berlin. But then I injured my Achilles tendon in a non-running accident. I stepped in a pothole while returning to my car. It took forever to get better. I thought my running days were over. The Achilles only improved when I started doing heel dips. They seem like something you should avoid, but they work.
I was going to a physio in 2015 for the Achilles and doing a lot of core and ab work, so I told her about my Boston 2017 dream. She said I should only run every other day. I practically jumped off the table, and screamed, “No, you can’t get ready for a marathon on just three days a week.” Ever since 1966, I had trained six days a week, with one long run, whenever I wanted to do a marathon.
But I was afraid of getting injured, so I followed her advice, and it worked great. I looked forward to every run because I had a rest day beforehand, and I recovered well from everything. Even the long runs.
RW: What were your best workouts and weeks as you got closer to Boston?
KS: Basically, I did one moderate run a week of about an hour, plus a longer run where I increased 10 percent a week until they got too long to add 10 percent. At the end, I was up to four hours and 10 minutes. I did most of these on New Zealand trails that included monster hills. But I switched to the roads for the last four or five long runs, because I knew I had to get used to the roads to run Boston.
I also did Yasso 800s once a week most weeks. Eventually, I got up to 10 in an average of 3:58. They really improved my turnover. Roger commented that I looked like the runner I had been decades earlier. They made my whole body feel stronger—shoulders to leg lift.
RW: You’ve often described yourself as a low-talent runner, at least compared to the many elite marathoners you have known through the years. But you’ve got something. Where do you think your marathon ability comes from?
KS: I’m very persistent and good at long-term goal setting. I’m willing to wait a long time to get the results I want. I had to use that at Avon, as well as in my own running. At every country where we hosted an Avon event, I was told, “The women here don’t run.”
I just smiled and said, “Okay, we’ll see. And in the meantime, I appreciate any assistance you can give us.” We put on our races, and the women always turned out in numbers way bigger than anyone could have imagined.
I have a strong belief in planning. I believe you need to see your end result, and hold onto that vision, and keep working toward it, even if it takes a long time.
RW: You do a lot of public speaking engagements. What questions do you hear most often, and how do you answer them?
KS: Two questions keep coming up over and over again. The first is: “How can I begin running when I’ve never done anything athletic in my life?” It’s such a universal, nervous question, no matter how much information and how many great role models we have today. And that’s the reason for 261 Fearless: to help women connect with each other and to take control of their lives through running.
The second question is directed at me and my age: “How do you keep going at your age?” I always laugh at this one. We have so many studies and research results now to show that older runners are healthier, more optimistic, and more energetic than their peers. It’s never too late. You only have to put one foot in front of the other.
In some ways, this isn’t too different from what women faced 50 years ago. We were told we were too fragile, that exercise was too difficult, that we should be careful to take it easy so we don’t hurt ourselves. The opposite is the truth, and it’s true at every age of your life.
RW: What’s the most important thing you’ve gained from running?
KS: Running has given me everything: my work, my career, my religion, my husband. But most of all, it has given me myself. It has given me my sense of place in the universe, and a sense of knowing myself.
RW: What’s next?
KS: In the short term, I’m planning to run the London Marathon in April. I helped design that race because we put on an Avon Marathon in London in 1980, which was the year before the first London Marathon in 1981. But I’ve never run it myself.
Longer term, I’ll continue working on 261 Fearless until it becomes a major force for empowering women around the world, including places like the Mideast and Africa. Also, to push into the next frontier and promote active aging. And, of course, to run until I drop.