Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 by becoming the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. She was just 20 year old Syracuse University journalism student then. 50 years later she has yet again repeated this history by crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon wearing the same bib number. What’s so significant about this bib number is that when she ran tried to rip off her clothing in the 1967 race. This encounter was captured in an iconic photo that turned Switzer into a hero and launched her career as an advocate for women in sports. She didn’t intend to break any barriers. She simply participated in the race by scoring a bib and signing it with her initials, K.V. Switzer. There were no official rules saying that only men could participate in the race. Switzer says that there was no option on the entry form that required the gender to be listed.
But in those days, women rarely participated in professional or competitive sports. Even Switzer’s own coach had advised her that the distance was too long for “fragile women”. The candid photo exposed the ugly truth about sexism in sports, shifting the spotlight to Switzer.
“We’ve come a light year but we still have a long way to go.”
Not ashamed of being a woman, Switzer blatantly showcased her femininity by wearing lipstick, earrings and burgundy shorts. But all this was under-wraps because she ended up wearing baggy sweats over her “feminine” running gear because of the wintry weather. One of her friends even told her to wipe off her lipstick so that the organizers would not notice her. But Switzer refused and began the race. After a few miles into the race, she saw a man with a felt hat in the middle of the road shaking his finger at her. Soon after, she heard the patter of leather soles instead of the rubber running soles. That’s when she realized something was wrong.
“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!'” Switzer remembers with a shudder. The man was race director Jock Semple and the press had a field day as they captured Semple’s contorted face as he grabbed at Switzer’s numbers while her boyfriend pulled Semple off her. She ran from the scene bewildered but it was not long before her anger transformed into energy and she took off for the finish line.
“…I knew if I did that no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon; they would just think that I was a clown, and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me,” she said. Clearly dropping out was out of the question. She finished the race in four hours and 20 minutes, but was later be disqualified and expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union. But this was just the beginning. Support soon eclipsed the fallout and she became a celebrity.
Switzer used her influence to campaign to get women into the Boston Marathon by 1972. She went on to run 39 marathons, and achieving her personal best in 1975, 2:51:33, when she finished second in Boston and went on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974. She created the Avon International Running Circuit of women’s-only races in 27 countries, paving the way for the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. She became an author and TV commentator for the Olympics, World and National championships before returning to marathons at 64.Along the way, the bib number 261 became a rallying cry among female runners. Switzer formed 261 Fearless, a non-profit running club for women that has other groups across the country.
“Running is a social revolution now. Women are not just doing it to get into races or to lose a couple of pounds, they’re doing it for fun, for their self esteem. It’s transformative,” she said. “What happened on the streets of Boston 50 years ago completely changed my life and changed other people’s lives,” she said in a phone interview after the race. “The race today was a celebration of the past 50 years; the next 50 are going to be even better.”
Plenty has changed in the running world since 1967, thanks in part to Switzer’s commendable efforts. After all that was what welcomed female participation in the Boston Marathon and other major races.
This was Switzer’s 40th marathon and her ninth time running the Boston race. The 70-year-old walked through water stations, stopped for pictures and interviews and still managed to finish under qualifying time: 4:44:31 and an average mile of 10:51.Her bib number would come to represent fearlessness in the face of adversity for female runners ever since. The Boston Marathon will retire number 261 in Switzer’s honor.