In 1967, Americans were mostly on the same page that women couldn’t run a marathon. The patronizing consensus was that 26.2 miles was physically impossible for women to complete. It wasn’t until a 20-year-old journalism student entered the male-only Boston Marathon under the gender-ambiguous name K.V. Switzer and crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 20 minutes that people began to rethink, “Well, I’ll be damned. Women can go the distance.”
Still, it took another five years (1972) before another female was legally allowed — and invited — to run the famous New England course. By that point, however, Kathrine Switzer was already well on her way to becoming a sports icon, front-page feminist, and, eventually, a first-place finisher at the New York City Marathon in 1974.
MapMyRun caught up with the 70-year-old author (she just re-launched her memoir “Marathon Woman” in April), Emmy award-winning television commentator and nonprofit director to talk about her recent return to the Boston Marathon, donning the same official bib, Number 261, that she wore that fateful day in 1967. Amazingly, age hasn’t really slowed Switzer, who completed the April race in 4 hours and 44 minutes. Here’s how she prepared for her 40th marathon, what it meant to be back in Beantown, and why we still need to level the playing field — yes, five decades later.
Q: Congrats on your epic return to Boston! You ran in 1967 with fear, anger and courage. What were your emotions running it this April?
Switzer: Oh, amazing. When I got to the start line, the emotion was also fear. There was so much pressure to finish. Certainly, everybody was saying, “70 years old, 50 years on.” It wasn’t unusual to be 70 and run a marathon because many women who are 80 or even 90 had run marathons. But no woman had done it 50 years after she ran her first. It’s not a compliment to me. It just shows how few women were running 50 years ago. Sure, there were other marathoners besides me, but they chose, obviously, not to do it 50 years later. I did. Emotionally, I really felt the pressure of finishing.
However, I would say the overwhelming feeling this year was gratitude. No question. It’s incredible to look back at 50 years and see what we’ve accomplished in women’s running. See the phenomenal changes we’ve made in women’s lives by simply empowering them, and giving them a sense of freedom and self-esteem. There’s a transformation that occurred, not just in running, but every aspect of life. You run a marathon, you can do anything.
I’m also hugely grateful for being healthy enough to even consider running. … I was also full of gratitude for the streets of Boston, the people, the place and the event because that’s where it happened. The race director, Jock Semple, did not attack me in the Green Bay Marathon. Jock Semple attacked me in the Boston Marathon, and it made world headlines and changed my life. So you have to imagine going back to the place and the city where it happened and reliving it. Back in ’67, there was nobody on the streets because it was so cold. This year, it was a beautiful spring day. At least a million people cheering. So many of them holding signs that said, “Go 261. Fearless. Go Kathrine.”
And then, not only having the bib number that the Boston Athletic Association tried to tear off me, awarded to me again, 50 years later, but to have it retired because the number has become a symbol of fearlessness. That was very, very touching. So all the way down the line, I guess, I could say, ‘Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.’ So that was my dominant feeling.
Q: How did you train now compared to back then?
Switzer: I always believe in getting the mileage on your legs. But a lot has changed in my training over the years. I probably overtrained back in the ’70s. I was running a marathon distance every weekend. How I did all that with full-time job, husband and everything, I don’t know.
Before the Boston Marathon this year, I had spent three and a half months in New Zealand, where I was doing some ferocious hill- and speed-work. When I went to a physio, she said, “You really need to run every other day.” I screamed, “Are you kidding?” She said, “No, the day off is the day you recover and, at your age, recovery is as important as the training.”
Days that I didn’t run, I felt really refreshed, but anxious. I incrementally increased my long runs from an hour and a half to two hours to two hours and 15 minutes to two hours and 30 minutes, etc. When I finally got to the four-hour mark, I thought, “Should I go further than this?”
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I said to my friends, “OK, guys, all I need to do is finish this race. Let’s dial back and enjoy it. There’s only one 50th anniversary in my life and I really want to have fun. I want to finish in one piece.” I’ve never been 70 before, and so I didn’t know if my legs would suddenly develop a meniscus problem or something like that. I decided that I was going to walk every water station, and I did.
Thankfully, it turned out really well. I did eight interviews on the road during the race, which meant stopping, hugging and talking. Considering the amount of time I spent walking, I thought, “Holy smokes, I could have been really close to the time I ran my first race 50 years ago!” Now I’m going to do the New York City Marathon in November. When I won that race in 1974, it was in the park. I’ve never run in the streets of Manhattan and have always wanted to! So this is going to be really fun and I’m already in shape, so let’s take advantage of it.
Q: When was the last time you ran a marathon before Boston this April?
Switzer: In 2011 I ran Berlin. I had a 32-year layoff from marathons — though I’ve never stopped running. I always run, but I don’t need to do big events anymore. I love it, but it’s time-consuming. Plus, my husband, Roger, and I live in two countries [the U.S. and New Zealand] and we travel all the time. I just didn’t have time to do those three- and four-hour runs on Sunday. So, I put it behind me. Besides, I’m never going to run better than 2 hours and 51 minutes. That’s hard. (Note: That was Switzer’s second place finish time at the Boston Marathon in 1975 — her last appearance before 2017.)
Q: About 16,000 men and nearly 14,000 women ran Boston this year. Did it feel surreal?
Switzer: Very emotional, but not surreal. Don’t forget, I’ve been at the forefront of the campaign to get women in running. I had started organizing women’s-only races globally in 1978, and over the course of four decades, have reached more than a million women in 27 countries.
There were some surreal moments over the years when, for instance, people said in Malaysia, “Nobody is going to come to your race.” And then hundreds of women — many of them in burkas and hijabs — turned up to run. That was a wonderful moment.
The interesting fact about Boston is that it is almost 50-50, which is outstanding considering it’s a tough race and you have to qualify to participate, for the most part. So to see women runners who are just like us — they’ve got time constraints, they’ve got kids, they’ve got a job — chasing after it, is great. They don’t really have a lot of disposable time to train hard. That was a real coup for us.
Q: Tell us more about this global running club.
Switzer: We would love your readers to get involved in 261 Fearless. It’s both a movement and a nonprofit charity. Our mission is to use running as a way to reach out to women who are nervous about taking control of their own lives. 261 Fearless is about communication. We have a very good website where women can talk to each other and become friends in a safe environment.
We’re also creating a series of global clubs in many different countries. We have more than 40 clubs, globally. We’re getting about 10 applications a day to start new clubs, which is terrific. Anyone can start a 261 Fearless club and invite women to meet once a week with no judgement, no expectations.
Whether you walk or run or have never put on a pair of running shoes, come on, let’s do this together. It’s not about getting faster or being competitive. We’re just going to run safely and injury-free for the rest of our lives.
Q: Can men join a 261 Fearless club?
Switzer: We welcome their support, but the group itself is women-only. There are plenty of women who, for the same reason, want to be in a women’s only race — maybe because they’re still intimidated by guys. A lot of women feel, “Oh, I don’t want to run if guys are there. They’re going to think I’m too fat.” Honestly, we get this all the time. And when we get them with a group of women, they get over that. But they need to take the first non-judgmental, non-intimidating step.
This is important: This is not about excluding guys. This is about giving women an opportunity. And I’ll tell you, it’s going to be really tricky for us because there are plenty of countries where women can’t go outside alone or drive a car or get an education. So we’ve got a long road ahead of us, and if we can keep it women-only in those countries, which we have to, then we will have success.
Q: Do you think that you’ll ever run the Boston Marathon again?
Switzer: At this stage, I don’t think I should run Boston again because I had a fairytale ending. I felt better in the race than I ever imagined, and I had a lot of fun. I felt the stress just dropping away from me like scales, and then coming across the finish line to my husband — we had a huge smooch on national TV. It doesn’t get any better than this. But I never say never, so who knows. Maybe I’ll do Boston again when I’m 80. I’d have to wear a different number, though, because they retired 261.
Q: Did you ever make peace with race director Jock Semple, who tried to yank you off the course in 1967?
Switzer: Jock Semple and I became the best of friends. It took us five years to get women officially in the Boston Marathon and, during that time, it was pretty touchy. But in ’73, he came up to me at the start line of the Boston Marathon and gave me a big kiss. Yet, he never said he was sorry. That was enough. I knew what that meant. And we did talks and panels together. I helped him launch his book.
I visited him a few hours before he died [in 1988] and, yes, we talked. It’s funny, he always maintained he was right. And, he understood that I, too, was right because I had actually followed all the rules. He said, of course, that I interpreted them wrong. But I stood by my story, and he stood by his.
The point is, he knew he was a big part of the social change because he created an incident that created the photograph that is one of the most galvanizing in women’s rights history. And I knew after I left the hospital, the last time I saw him, I called my husband and said, “The sad thing about this is that for all the good things Jock Semple has done for running, he will be best remembered for attacking me in the race. Sure enough, his obituary the next day in The New York Times had the whole series of pictures again.”
You have to look at this way: Sometimes, things that are terribly negative at the time can become very positive and that’s always been my attitude. I’ve said that was the worst day of my life and it became the best thing that ever happened to me.
Q: Can you imagine your life if none of this had happened?
Switzer: Yeah. I would have been very, very active in women’s equality through running. Running changed my life phenomenally. I would not have had the vehicle of that picture, but I was already a journalism student. I was already pushing for women’s sports coverage. I morphed that into creating opportunities. I had a career in sports marketing and management, which I created myself. So definitely, I would have gone forward with what I did, but probably in a less dramatic way.