You’ve seen the photos — a race official trying to rip the bib number off a female runner at the Boston Marathon in 1967, as another athlete shoves him away.
Kathrine Switzer wasn’t the first woman to run Boston — that honor goes to Roberta Gibb, who jumped out of the bushes and ran, bandit-style, without an official number, in 1966, after the Boston Athletic Association rejected her application. But a year later Switzer became the first woman to run with an official number, when she paid $3 to register as K. Switzer.
Switzer finished the marathon that year in 4 hours and 20 minutes, after a race promoter named Jock Semple tried to yank her off the course, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Switzer’s boyfriend, hammer thrower and football player Big Tom Miller, shoved Semple away, as photographers snapped pictures.
But Switzer’s real race started afterward, as she pushed for the acceptance of women in sports and eventually helped win the addition of the women’s marathon at the Olympic Games in 1984.
At 71, Switzer is still working for women’s equality.
Switzer shared her story in Austin in February, as the keynote speaker at the American Heart Association’s annual Go Red for Women luncheon, presented by St. David’s HealthCare. We talked with her while she was here.
American-Statesman: When you ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, how did the other runners, spectators and volunteers treat you?
Kathrine Switzer: Boston in those days was a small event, and it also was really cold that day — 35 degrees and sleeting. Nobody wanted to be out. They’d run out to see the elite runners go by and then go back inside. Very few people saw stragglers like me, but in some areas I got mixed reactions. Women clapped for the guys, then they’d see me and stand there in suspended animation. One woman went down on her knees and clapped and shouted, “You do it for all of us!” One man said, “You should be in the kitchen,” and another said, “You want it all, don’t you?”
What was it like to run in sweatpants?
I wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt and gloves because it was freezing cold. I’d planned to throw them away on the course. I’d trained in those sweats all the time. They were warm and cozy. The pants got so soggy I took them off at mile 6.
Did Big Tom, who shoved the race official to the ground, go to the Olympics in hammer throw?
Sadly not. It was a tortoise and hare relationship. I became the better athlete because I trained and slogged and trained and slogged and he thought he didn’t have to train. Our relationship foundered on that. There was a lot of jealousy and misunderstanding. We were married for five years but only together three. (Switzer has been married to Roger Robinson, a writer and elite runner, for 30 years.)
What was life like before sports bras?
We wore ordinary bras, and it was absolute torture. I always got chafed.
Over the years, did you ever talk to Jock Semple, the official who tried to pull you off the course?
We became best of friends. It took five years, but women worked hard and we got official in Boston. (Semple) had to admit us. He didn’t like the idea at first; he was grumpy about it. Then he saw us run, and we ran well. He never said he was sorry, but he came up on the starting line the following year and gave me kiss on the cheek in front of the cameras. I helped him launch his book and visited with him right before he died. Life’s too short not to forgive.
What do you say to a young female athlete who wants to break a barrier?
I would say absolutely you can do anything you put your mind to. I always thought I was an untalented athlete, but I worked very hard and got very good. If you take one step and work on that, you can go further and further. But you can’t take on a giant barrier without doing the homework first. Understand the challenge and overcome it. It may take a while, but never underestimate your capability.
Has being such a badass caused you any difficulties in life?
Oh, sure. For many years, people were really defensive around me and thought I was going to challenge them about everything. I commanded a lot of respect because I wasn’t afraid to go into a meeting and I’m not afraid to be the only woman in the room. I’m actually a really compassionate person.
What if your daughter wants to run against the guys in the Olympics?
Is she good enough to square off against the boys first? After 30 or 40 miles, women will win in ultra-distances, because women have more endurance and stamina than men. But the best woman in the 100 meters is never going to beat the best man in the 100 meters — or 1,000 meters or 10,000 meters. This is not about men versus women and women versus men. This is a much bigger story. We’re on the threshold of revolution, and women are realizing their capabilities.
How do we teach the next generation to be unstoppable?
We give them role models. More importantly, we give them opportunities. Talent is everywhere, it only needs an opportunity. Kids don’t know they have talent until we give them training, venues, encouragement and excitement and the self-belief. Kids need somebody to say, “Attaboy, you can do it.” I was lucky. My dad encouraged me to run a mile a day when I was 12.
You played a major role in women’s equality in sports. What do you think about the role of current athletes in equality movements?
We need to keep creating role models and stars and getting publicity out there. Also, we need to be patient that sometimes women’s sport is different from men’s sport. I love women’s soccer more than men’s soccer. It’s more interesting to watch; there are no fake injuries or histrionics and I can watch strategy better, but it’s a different game from men’s soccer, which is more fast and powerful. The human mind is capable of watching both. Right now men have gotten all the publicity and prize money. We need to keep nurturing and creating a popular fanbase, and women themselves need to support that fanbase.
What’s your message to older women?
Last year I crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon on the 50th anniversary of the first time I ran it. Basically, I think I’m 25, and running still feels the same, it’s just slower. I’m really grateful, and I’m really lucky that I’m healthy and able to cover that distance. My message is: Stay active all your life. You can stay trim and stay fit and stay optimistic. It’s never too late for anybody to start. I’m seeing women starting running programs at 75, and I joke with them — you’ve got an old body, but you’ve got new legs. They’re my new inspiration, these older women grabbing life by the throat.
Tell us about your 261 Fearless Inc. organization.
Running for women is not about running — it’s about self-esteem and empowerment. Millions of women get out and run every day, through thick and thin, bad weather and darkness, because it makes them feel really good about themselves. We’ve harnessed this movement into something called 261 Fearless, named after my old bib number that Jock tried to rip off. People were emailing me pics of themselves wearing No. 261 and saying it made them feel fearless. We’ve got to take this message out to women who are fearful. If we can get you and me to take her hand and say, “We’re going to walk and run together,” she’s going to start feeling full of self-esteem. We’re creating community groups around the world and penetrating different places, going into Iran and Saudi Arabia and North Africa. We’ve only been in action two years and have 57 clubs.
What else can we do?
All around us is injustice. You just pick up a piece of injustice and turn it upside-down and there’s an opportunity to do something good, like those school kids in Florida. I was a 20-year-old girl in the Boston Marathon and a guy embarrassed and humiliated me and scared me in front of the media. What are you going to do, walk away? You’ve got to finish it.
I plan to run the London and Berlin marathons this year. When I ran Boston last year, my time was only 24 minutes slower than the first time I ran it, and I stopped 13 times and did interviews along the way. (Switzer ran her personal best Boston Marathon in 1975, clocking a 2:51 and finishing second in the women’s division.)