Girl Power: Kathrine Switzer

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I opened up my email the other day and noticed I had received my invitation to sign up for the 2016 NYC Marathon. This race will be my third full marathon and, of course, I signed up without even a second thought. Yet, it’s interesting to think that I could’ve not received the invitation. In fact, it could’ve been against the rules for me to sign up––only because I’m a woman.

Something as simple as registering up for a race is something we now take for granted. The opportunity to run in organized races, and, in a broader sense, the step towards gender equality is something all us women in the running community owe to Kathrine Switzer.

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Image from KathrineSwitzer.com

“WOMEN NOT ALLOWED”

In the 1960s (and years prior), women were told that they were not “physically capable” of completing the 26.2 mile distance (yes, they were told their bodies couldn’t withstand training and running that distance), so all women were banned from running the most prestigious road race: the Boston Marathon.

With the support of a coach, her boyfriend, and friends and family, 19 year-old Switzer signed up for the 1967 Boston Marathon under the name K.V. Switzer. She had her running coach bring her health certificate to the race directors in order for her to get her race number: 261.

On race day, she managed to cross the starting line and run four miles before race officials saw she was a woman. The race director and officials charged toward her and pulled on her shoulders in attempt to physically pull her off the course. The director shouted, “Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!”

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Switzer bravely resisted, and her friends helped block and push the men away from her so she could keep running. She felt embarrassed and frustrated about what had just happened, and for a fleeting moment, she considered stopping. But she didn’t. She had to prove that women could run this race––that women weren’t “too frail” or “too weak” to do so.

She knew this was bigger than herself.

And so she ran. She crossed the finish line in 4:20 and proved, despite protests by organizers of the race, that women were in fact capable of this feat of athleticism.

After the race, her story became national news. Photos of race officials attempting to remove her from the course were shared across the country, which sparked a debate on women in running and women’s rights as part of the women’s liberation movement.

In a post-race interview, she stated, “I think it’s time to change the rules. They are archaic.”

After igniting the fire, in 1972, women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon due in part to the bravery of Kathrine Switzer. She returned to run the Boston Marathon in 1972 where she was able to register and run without fear of being pulled off the course.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN SPORTS

Switzer became an activist, helping to promote women in running and pushing for equality in the sport. Scientific research in the 1970s dispelled myths about the negative effects running had on women’s bodies, and soon more women became interested in participating in the sport.

In 1972, along with running legend Fred Lebow, Switzer launched the very first women-only race in New York’s Central Park. The six-mile race opened up a world of possibilities for a group that was previously excluded from such events.

Switzer became director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and in 1978 began working with Avon to sponsor an international women’s marathon. Her ultimate goal was to help push the the Olympic committee towards including a category for women runners. The first Avon International Women’s Marathon was held in 1978, with subsequent races held in the following years.

In 1981, Switzer went to Los Angeles where the decision was being made for a women’s Olympic marathon category. There she spoke to delegates, convincing them to vote for inclusion. In the end, the women’s race was approved. It debuted in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in California. Switzer participated as a broadcaster, and was able to interview the race winner.

RUNNING ON

Although she worked diligently to encourage women to participate in running, Switzer continued striving for her own personal running goals. In 1974, Switzer reached the culmination of her running career. She ran the New York City Marathon––and won!

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Image from KathrineSwitzer.com

Today, Switzer continues to run and advocate for running women. She’s a sports commentator, author, and public speaker. Her next big move? She’s planning to run the 2017 Boston Marathon, which will be the 50th anniversary of her first race. Next year, be sure to tune into the marathon, and cheer for Switzer.

She has done so much to change the sport; today, 43% of marathon finishers and 61% of half marathon finishers are women. These numbers are a wonderful testament to how far we have come in gaining equality and pushing the boundaries of society, all in part due to one amazing woman who simply wanted to prove she could. Kathrine Switzer is a running hero for so many people; her contributions to have women participate in races, and for breaking stereotypes held against female athletes.