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Kathrine Switzer—still running strong

Runner pushed off the Boston Marathon course returns 50 years later

Created date

May 23rd, 2017
Kathrine Switzer poses with a replica of her first Boston Marathon bib, number 261.

Kathrine Switzer poses with a replica of her first Boston Marathon bib, number 261.

The starting line of the seventy-first Boston Marathon was a sea of gray. The weather that day was brutally cold and snowy, so many competitors had decided to run the race in their warm-up gear. In 1967 “warm-up gear” meant baggy gray sweat suits. 

Similarly dressed in gray, an entrant wearing bib number 261 did not elicit any undue attention...until that competitor passed the two-mile marker. 

That’s when race official Jock Semple gazed out the window of the bus he was riding to the finish line and saw that runner 261 was, in fact, a woman. In 1967, the Boston Marathon was a men-only event. 

Infuriated, Semple bounded off the bus and attempted to physically remove 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer from the course. Unfortunately for Semple, he made his move in full view of the press vehicle.

Describing what happened, Switzer says, “It was very bad timing for the official, but it was very good timing for women’s rights. The photo of the incident was flashed around the world and is now in Time-Life’s book 100 Photos That Changed the World.”

As it turned out, Semple was no match for Switzer’s football player boyfriend, who forcefully shoved him off the course allowing Switzer to complete the remaining 24 miles of the race. Although she was officially disqualified, she finished the marathon in 4 hours, 20 minutes.

‘I could not let fear stop me’

Switzer says she entered the race honestly under the name of K.A. Switzer. She wasn’t trying to deceive officials or hide her identity. In fact, she had planned to wear shorts, but the freezing temperatures prompted her to wear her baggy gray sweats instead. 

Neither was she there for publicity or to make an international statement. She says she ran the Boston Marathon to prove to her coach at Syracuse University that a woman could go the distance. 

Semple’s action revised her motivation. “I knew if I dropped out that no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon,” she says. “They would just think that I was a clown and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me.”

Despite Switzer’s accomplishment, women were not officially welcomed into the Boston Marathon until 1972. Since that time, thousands of women have competed in the historic race. Switzer has run Boston six more times, and over the past 50 years, she competed in hundreds of races all over the world. 

The high point of her running career came in 1974 when she won the New York City Marathon with a time of 3:07:29. 

Besides being a successful runner, Switzer has enjoyed a distinguished career as a television sports commentator and author. She has also been a passionate advocate for expanding opportunities for women runners. 

She was instrumental in the effort to get the International Olympic Committee to include a women’s marathon in the Olympic games. When the first women’s marathon was run during the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, Kathrine Switzer was in the broadcast booth doing commentary for ABC -TV Network sports.

50 years later

This past April, Switzer returned to Boston. “It is an honor and joy to participate in the 121st Boston Marathon,” she said before competing. “What was a dramatic incident 50 years ago when angry race codirector Jock Semple tried to throw me off the course for being a girl, became instead a defining moment for me and women runners throughout the world. The result is nothing less than a social revolution; there are now more women runners in the United States than men.”

“At 70, I am grateful to have these opportunities and still be able to run this challenging distance,” Switzer says. “One reason I can is because of the support and gratitude that I receive from women all over the world.” 

261 Fearless

Switzer has gained so much from running that she started a nonprofit called 261 Fearless, named after that original bib number. “261 Fearless uses running as a vehicle to empower and unite women globally through the creation of communication platforms, clubs, training opportunities, ambassadors, merchandising, and events,” says Switzer. “Through these networking opportunities, 261 Fearless breaks down the barriers of geography and social class and creates a global community for women runners of all abilities to support and talk to each other, encouraging healthy living and a positive sense of self and fearlessness.”

When she ran the race in April, she did so with her own Fearless 261 team. “I cannot think of a better way to celebrate 50 years of pushing forward the women’s running movement than to line up with a big group of women, all who believe in using running as a way to empower and connect with other women.” 

Switzer finished the 121st Boston Marathon with a time of 4:44:31, about 24 minutes slower than her time 50 years ago.

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