“I’d dreamed all through my training of this magnificent race, it was like a pilgrim going to a shrine. I had a coach, a training partner, a plan, and a goal: the biggest race in the world – Boston. I was just a kid who wanted to run her first marathon, not to prove anything.” Kathrine Switzer, Marathon Woman
Extraordinary Happens Podcast
Today we take it for granted that female athletes run marathons around the world every weekend. But not long ago, the situation looked different and wouldn’t have changed if it was not for amazingly brave women who revolutionized female sport.
20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, finishing her race despite being attacked by the race director along the route. To this very day Kathrine has remained true to what she did 50 years ago; she’s still running through her life marathon, encouraging and inspiring women to fearlessly push boundaries and unlock their life goals. The 261 Fearless community she founded, named after the bib number she wore back in ’67, unites women globally to celebrate empowerment and good health.
Did you set out to create history or was it just the byproduct of personal drive?
Not at all. I was just a kid who wanted to run and my coach fulfilled his promise to take me to the marathon. It was he who insisted that I officially register; I was so naïve I didn’t know you had to do that. But I loved the idea of distance; my dad used to tell me a human could hunt deer because they could out-run it, by being able to run it down over time. This was fascinating especially when I began to discover that the longer I ran, the better I was in comparison to the men I was training with.
In the race itself, I was proud of my ability; I felt I had a secret reserve of power! I knew I could do it, and I was very proud of being a woman because I knew most women would never consider such a thing.
Those closest to you supported your challenge to break barriers. How important is it to have people in your corner encouraging change?
My father, my mother and my coach were magnificent; no doubt, that early foundation was critical to my success. It is why I tell every adult to give every kid they know opportunities and encouragement. Capability and talent is everywhere; it only needs an opportunity.
My boyfriend then was less encouraging. He was happy I was fit and healthy, but the only reason he came to run the Boston Marathon was because ‘if a girl could do it, he could do it.’ Positive people are good because they give you support and more information.
Having people who encourage you, or give you opportunities, is very important. I had a lot of external negative stuff thrown at me but running gave me huge sense of strength and persistence.
Entering the race with wearing lipstick was a daring thing to do. Was this a way of not conforming to the male requirements of the race?
Hell, no. I love makeup, lipstick, perfume, girly things. I wore the lipstick because I wanted to be me, feminine. I loved that duality – being able to be feminine and do something very tough. I always thought people, men or women, should be allowed to be both strong and sensitive, both athletic and artistic.
In your book 'Marathon Woman', you write about being scared and humiliated after the race director attacked you 2 miles into your run. What’s your formula to overcome fear?
Which is shorthand for saying the more you do, the more prepared you are for adversity. The reason I could continue running after that incident was because I’d been running for a long time, and I knew quitting would be much worse than trying and possibly failing, that facing fear was more noble than losing self-belief.
Seven years after you ran Boston you won the New York City Marathon. What did that winner’s medal mean to you?
Actually, that particular race was an anti-climax because my primary goal was to break three hours. Getting personal bests – beating my own previous times – was what truly motivated me. I’d trained so very, very hard to do it and was ready but the race day temperatures were near 100 degrees F and the humidity was high. So the time on paper is not great (3:07) but it is my most ‘important’ victory medal. The next year in Boston, I ran a perfect race, a 2:51, but was second place. But to me, that was like winning because I had run a solid, world-ranked personal best.
50 years on, your run continues to symbolize the challenges women are facing every day. What keeps you running your own race?
The more you do, the more you see what needs to be done. The last 50 years have been miraculous in the progress of women and women’s running is nothing less than a social revolution, but most of the women in the world still live in a fearful situation. She might be in Afghanistan or she might live next door to you. Running is a simple and accessible means of helping to empower her, and that is why 261 Fearless is so important. We now have a way of reaching her and we will try.
I don’t regard running as sport, I regard it as soul-restoring. In that respect it IS life, not larger than it. I lead a very demanding life, with little down time and the run helps give me focus, drive and vision.
You've inspired so many people and you keep doing so. Who is your inspiration?
All the women out there who need running, and all the women who run and are inspiring others – including me- especially those involved with 261 Fearless.
The future is female, some say. What do you think?
I think the future is everyone – men, women, or however you regard yourself – together in a kinder, non-judgemental world. In running we’re gender-free; we’re runners.
For more on Kathrine Switzer’s running story listen to our Extraordinary Happens Podcast hosted by Mark King.