Visible Women

She was the first woman ever to run a marathon. Now, she’s taking on London

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Moya Crockett
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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she ran the Boston Marathon – and was attacked by a male race official for doing so. Ahead of her first London Marathon, she talks sexism, sports and the Sixties with Stylist’s Moya Crockett. 

On 19 April 1967, Kathrine Switzer ran her way into international fame. A 20-year-old English literature and journalism student at Syracuse University in New York, she was competing in the Boston Marathon when a man suddenly appeared by her side, furiously attempting to tear off her race bib.

Startled, Switzer ran faster, away from the man’s outstretched hands. Her boyfriend at the time, who was running with her, shoved the stranger aside. As they sped on, she realised the man was a race official, and he’d been trying to physically remove her from the marathon.

The official was a Scottish-American runner called Jock Semple, and his fury was prompted by the fact that the Boston Marathon in 1967 was a strictly male-only event. It was also the only major marathon in the United States, one that Switzer – a keen runner since she was 12 – had trained ferociously for. She’d managed to get around the no-women rule by signing up using her initials, and her obvious femaleness somehow went unnoticed until she was a mile and a half into the race.

Photos of Switzer’s altercation with Semple were splashed across newspaper front pages around the world. They are extraordinary images, ones that capture the mood of a time when young women were beginning to push back against patriarchal norms. Switzer – trim, youthful, big-eyed – wears an expression of horrified disgust as she darts away from the livid, middle-aged Semple. It was the 1967 equivalent of a viral sensation.

More than half a century on from that famous race, Switzer, now 71, is still running. In 2017, she took part in the Boston Marathon for the third time, 50 years after her first race (incredibly, it took her just 20 minutes longer to run it at 70 than it had taken her at 20). This year, she’s got her sights set on the Virgin Money London Marathon on 22 April. It will be the 42nd marathon she’s run in her lifetime.

Race official Jock Semple chases after Kathrine Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon 

Switzer takes great pleasure in the fact that she’s still able to run marathons, not least because of the many assumptions she had to disprove as a young woman. First, there was the beloved coach who told her that women were “too weak and fragile” to be taken seriously as long-distance runners (he conceded once he saw her do 31 miles without any trouble, and threw his support behind her entering the Boston race). There was also a theory that she’d only taken part in the Boston Marathon as a feminist stunt.

“After I finished, a journalist said to me, ‘You’re not gonna do this ever again, right?’” she says. “And I replied, ‘You know what, in 60 years you’re gonna read about a little 80-year-old lady, still running.’”

She insists she never intended her crashing of the Boston Marathon to become a political statement. She’d always been proud of being a woman runner, but she wasn’t a feminist activist; she was an athlete. “Politically, I was totally unaware of what was going on,” she says. “I was a kid; I just turned 20! All I wanted to do was run this big wonderful race.”

After her clash with Semple, however, Switzer realised she’d inadvertently found herself at the centre of something much bigger than sports. “Epiphanies have always happened to me in running, and that was a great epiphany in the middle of the Boston Marathon,” she says. “I was aware there were not a lot of women [runners], and I thought, this could be an opportunity to create change for women – to help them overcome their fears.”

Switzer’s then-boyfriend pushes Semple away from her

That sense of purpose enabled her to stop feeling angry with Semple and the head of the Boston Athletics Association, Will Cloney, who told the press that if Switzer were his daughter, he’d spank her for intruding on a men’s race. “They were just curmudgeonly guys; they were products of their time,” she says calmly. Rather than pay any attention to them, she decided to focus on dismantling the systemic barriers preventing women from engaging in sports. (She later happily posed with Semple at a later marathon.)

“I started thinking, why don’t we have other opportunities for women? Why don’t we have more Olympic events? Why aren’t there women’s professional sports and scholarships?”

Once she started asking those questions, she says, the whole thing “came down like a tonne of bricks.” Sponsorship deals rolled in, and she began to carve out a career as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s athletics.

Her success in the Boston Marathon had proved that women were more than capable of holding their own as long-distance runners, and in 1972 the event was officially opened up to women for the first time. In the early Eighties, she played a pivotal role in the successful campaign to get the women’s marathon into the 1984 Olympic Games, something she speaks of with immense pride.

“It’s sort of like that line in the movie Field of Dreams, ‘build it and they will come,’” she says: “If you give people the opportunity, talent always emerges. We had to prove to the IOC [the International Olympic Committee] that women deserved to have the marathon in the Games, but once we did, women themselves said: ‘Oh, look! An Olympic event! That must mean we can do it; that must mean we’re accepted on the world stage.’

“People often can’t imagine anything unless it’s there,” she continues. This is where running comes in handy: “You get all those endorphins, so you can imagine a lot of things!”

Switzer crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon in 2017

Today, the proportion of women running marathons in the UK compared to men is around 35%; in the US, Canada and New Zealand, it’s closer to 45%. Research also shows that women are better at pacing during marathons – and while we’re not as physically powerful as men, we do have more stamina and muscle endurance.

“That makes me feel great, like I was right all along,” says Switzer. But she’s enthusiastic, rather than smug: “We need to harness this information and energy and take it around the world, and that’s what we’re doing with 261 Fearless.”

261 Fearless in the non-profit organisation Switzer founded in 2015, named after the number on the bib she wore in her first Boston Marathon. She describes it as a global women’s running network, with the goal of empowering and connecting women around the world through running clubs, events and education.

“Hopefully, we’re bringing that sense of transformational empowerment to women who lack opportunities or self-esteem or confidence,” she says. She’s passionate about the power of running to change how women from deprived or marginalised communities see themselves and their environments. “Running is easy, it’s cheap, it’s accessible. By helping women put one foot in front of the other, we’re letting them feel empowered and strong. And it helps with world health, too – because the more people move, the better they live.” 

Switzer with Jock Semple in 1973: “They were just curmudgeonly guys; they were products of their time”

Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in aid of 261 Fearless last year, half a century after that first ground-breaking race, surrounded by 125 other runners representing her non-profit. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she says simply. “Crossing the finish line was one of those fairy tale endings.”

Greeting her at the end of the race were her husband (“I gave him the biggest kiss you could imagine”) and Joann Flaminio, the first female president of the Boston Athletics Association in its 125-year history. “We were two women who really understood what the moment meant,” she says. “It was phenomenal.”

I ask Switzer what running means to her today. “It has really given me everything in my life, in a funny way,” she says. “It’s given me my health; it’s given me my career; it’s given me my optimism; it’s given me travel; it’s given me my religion, because it makes me feel so close to nature; and it’s given me the great love of my life, my husband.

“But ultimately,” she continues, “the most important thing it’s given me is myself.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images