In 1967, Kathrine Switzer made history by becoming the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official race number. She did so despite the best efforts of race director Jock Semple, who tried to forcibly remove her from the course. Photos of the altercation landed in newspapers around the world, and in the years that followed, Switzer became a crusader for women’s sports, as well as a noted journalist, author, and TV commentator. Switzer won the New York City Marathon in 1974 and placed second at the Boston Marathon the following year, and she was a moving force in the effort to include the women’s marathon as an Olympic event.
The Power of Running
The daughter of a U.S. Army major, Switzer was born January 5, 1947, in Amberg, Germany. She moved to the United States with her family in 1949 and grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she discovered sports as a teenager. In addition to playing field hockey and basketball, she ran a mile each day, relishing the fitness and sense of empowerment she gained from running.
She took up track while attending Lynchburg College and competed in the handful of short-distance events available to women at the time. She transferred to Syracuse University in 1966 and began training with the men’s cross country team and tackling longer distances. During this time, Switzer decided to run the Boston Marathon. As there was nothing in the official rulebook prohibiting women from entering, she signed up for the 1967 race. She used the name “K. V. Switzer,” which was how she always signed her work.
Switzer wore bib number 261 on April 19, 1967, the snowy day she changed the face of women’s athletics. Going in, the 20-year-old journalism student had no intention of making a political statement. She was simply a running enthusiast looking to finish a famous race, and she was taken aback by what happened roughly four miles in. “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Semple shouted, and had it not been for a body-block from Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller—a man she married and later divorced—the race director might have snatched the bib from her sweatshirt. A shaken Switzer managed to finish the race, and in the aftermath of the highly publicized incident, she resolved to help other female athletes who’d been denied opportunities.
Making a Difference
The Boston Marathon finally began accepting female runners in 1972, and three years later, Switzer placed second at the race with a time of 2:51:37, her personal best. In 1977, she created the Avon International Running Circuit, a worldwide series of women’s races that paved the way for the women’s marathon becoming an Olympic event, in 1984. During that inaugural Olympic race, held in Los Angeles, Switzer provided commentary for the ABC telecast, and she’s covered running for all of the major TV networks. In 1997, she released her first book, Running and Walking for Women over 40, and in 2007, she returned with the memoir Marathon Woman.
Still an active runner, Switzer plans on tackling the Boston Marathon in 2017—the 50th anniversary of her historic inaugural run. She has received numerous honors, among them the New York State Regents Medal of Excellence and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Billie Jean King Award. She’s a member of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2003, NYRR awarded her the Abebe Bikila Award in recognition of her contributions to running.
|1967||Becomes first woman to officially enter and finish the Boston Marathon|
|1974||Wins New York City Marathon|
|1975||Runs a personal-best 2:51 at the Boston Marathon, making her sixth in the world and third in the United States among female marathoners|
|1977||Begins nine-year stint as director of Avon Sports Programs|
|1984||Provides TV commentary for inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles|
|1997||Returns to Avon as program director of Avon Running Global Women’s Circuit|
|1997||Publishes first book, Running and Walking for Women Over 40|
|1998||Named one of five inaugural inductees into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame|
|2000||Receives Fred Lebow Award from Road Runners Club of America|
|2002||Becomes director of women’s health and fitness for RYKA’s Take Fitness to Heart initiative, a series of walking and running events|
|2003||Receives NYRR’s Abebe Bikila Award|
|2007||Publishes memoir, Marathon Woman|
|2008||Marathon Woman, wins “Billie Award” from Women’s Sports Foundation|
|2011||Inducted into National Women’s Hall of Fame|
|2012||Named a “Hero of Running” by Runner’s World magazine|