Kathrine Switzer Won’t Be Stopped
More than 50 years ago, this 20-year-old became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, even while organizers tried to pull her off the course. She finished—and started a movement.
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Kathrine Switzer told her story to producer Caro Rolando for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
There was a kerfuffle behind me and I turned, and at the last minute I saw the most ferocious face I’ve ever seen in my life, And he screamed in my face, “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers!”
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area.
I started running when I was 12 years old. I had told my parents that I wanted to be a high school cheerleader the next year. And my father said, “You don’t want to do that. You want to have people cheer for you. The game is not on the sidelines, the game’s on the field.” He said you should run a mile a day, and make the field hockey team in your high school. I ran a mile a day all that summer, and he was right. By the time autumn came around, I was one of the best players on the team. Not because I had any skills, but because nobody could catch me and I never got tired. That’s when I fell in love with running.
When I got to Syracuse University, there were no sports whatsoever for women. I was really gutsy because I had been playing sports running; I was now running up to three miles a day. I went and asked the men’s track coach if I could run on the men’s cross country team. And he was really shocked. He said, “No, it’s against NCAA rules. But if you wanted to come and work out with the team, we wouldn’t mind.”
I knew he was lying because when I closed his office door, I heard him burst out laughing to his colleagues and say, “I guess I got rid of that one.”
So the pressure was on for me to show up. I showed up the next day. He was surprised, and the team was wonderful. All of those guys came running over to me and saying, “This is great. We’ve never had a girl out here before.” One guy in particular, his name was Arnie Briggs. He was 50, I was 19. So, this guy was ancient. He was a kind of volunteer manager. He was a really fine distance runner, and in fact still held the New York State record in the marathon. He’d run the Boston Marathon 15 times. And he took me under his wing and ran with me every day.
One night I told him I wanted to run the Boston Marathon, and he said a woman can’t possibly do it. And I said, “What are you talking about?” I told him that a woman by the name of Roberta Gibb had actually jumped out of the bushes and run the Boston Marathon the year before, and he absolutely refused to believe it. He said “No, you’d have to show me in practice. I don’t believe any woman can do it.” So, finally I said, “OK, we’re on.”
Arnie Briggs said, “You’ve got to sign up for the Boston Marathon if you’re going to run this.” I signed the entry form. I paid my $2. But I signed my name with my initials, K.V. Switzer. That’s probably why the Boston officials accepted the entry, because they thought it was from a guy and not from a woman.
I was so excited. The Boston Marathon was in April, and I was going to wear the sexiest, cute shorts and top. They didn’t have running clothes for women then, so I had dyed a pair of old shorts, and I had a maroon top to match. I looked really good. I was very proud of being a woman. I wasn’t trying to disguise myself in the least, so I dutifully put on my earrings and my lipstick and my mascara, and my boyfriend looked over at me because he came with us to Boston. And he said, “You’re wearing lipstick!” And I said, “Of course I’m wearing lipstick. I always wear lipstick.” He said, “Take it off. They’re going to see that you’re a girl.” And I said, “I want them to know I’m a girl. I’m not hiding here.” And he said, “Oh, it might be a problem.” I said, “There won’t be a problem.”
The gun went off. Down the street we went, and it was a problem because the press truck came by us and they were going crazy. They saw that I was in the race wearing bibs. They started saying, “Oh, there’s a girl in the race.” And they started looking at their program to read my number, and they began taking pictures like crazy. We thought it was kind of cute; there was Arnie and my boyfriend and the guy from the cross country team and me, and we just waved at the press truck and we thought it was our moment to say hi to our moms on the nightly news, you know?
Then there was a kerfuffle behind me and I turned, and at the last minute I saw the most ferocious face I’ve ever seen in my life, right in front of my face. This man grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me back. He swiped at my front to try to rip my numbers off, and I jumped back and I said, “Hey, hey!” And he said, “Give me those numbers, give me those numbers!” My coach suddenly started to beat on him and said, “Leave her alone! She’s OK, she’s OK, I’ve trained her, leave her alone!” And he said, “You stay out of this!”
He smacked my coach, and came back and I turned to run, and he grabbed me by the sweatshirt. He was pulling me back and trying to get the number off the back of my shirt. And then my boyfriend charged into the race director who was attacking me, a beautiful shoulder charge, and sent him flying out of the race. My coach Arnie said, “Run like hell.” And down the street we went.
I just felt a combination of profound embarrassment, profound fear, and also profound ambivalence. I didn’t know if I should step off the course or continue running. Then when I was alongside the press truck, they followed me, and all the officials and the photographers and the journalists got incredibly aggressive. “What are you trying to prove? Why are you here? Are you a suffragette? Are you a crusader? What are you doing? You don’t belong here. When are you going to quit?”
Then, it became like a mantra. “When are you going to quit? When are you going to quit?” And I thought, they expect me to quit. They can’t believe a woman is here seriously. And I said, “I’m not going to quit.”
I turned to Arnie and I said, “Arnie, I gotta tell you something. I’ve gotten you in a lot of trouble now, and you can do what you wanna do. But I’m gonna finish this race and I’m gonna finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to.”
I often say destiny is not some angel coming down and tapping you on the head at the perfect time. Destiny is finishing the job. Just put one foot in front of the other and get it done, and that’s when destiny happens.
The decision to finish the race was what I call my 261 moment. The moment that bib number I was wearing, 261, came to life. Who would ever have imagined that moment would have changed millions and millions of womens’ lives, and changed my attitude and my perspective on everything, and given me a vision that I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Making the decision to finish changed my whole life.
Since becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor in 1967, Kathrine Switzer has run more than 40 marathons. In 1974, she won the New York City Marathon. Kathrine is also the co-founder of 261 Fearless, a global nonprofit organization that offers education and running opportunities for women around the world. Learn more at 261fearless.org.
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