Kathrine Switzer prepped for one of the most famous moments in sports history by training with the Syracuse University men’s cross country team in late 1966, early 1967. A 19-year-old junior journalism student at the time, Switzer gladly would have trained with the women’s team, but there was just one problem—there wasn’t one at Syracuse or at any other college for that matter.
While running with the Orangemen, Switzer befriended Arnie Briggs, a chatty 50-year-old who served as the team’s assistant coach. Briggs loved to regale Switzer with tales about the 15 Boston Marathons he had run. One night, Switzer told him that she intended to run Boston herself. At first, Briggs scoffed. He barked that the distance was too long for “fragile” women to run. This angered Switzer, who pointed out that women had run the marathon before, just not officially. After jawing back and forth a bit, Briggs agreed to take her under his wing and help her prepare for the race that would change her life and the lives of millions of women throughout the world.
She and Briggs checked to see whether there were any rules prohibiting women from entering and discovered that there weren’t, despite the accepted notion of that era that females weren’t capable of running marathons or companies or countries. She decided to sign up for the race as K.V. Switzer because it wouldn’t call attention to her gender and she thought “it sounded cool using initials in your name like J.D. Salinger, the author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’”
On April 19, 1967, flanked by Briggs, boyfriend Tom Miller and Orange cross country runner John Leonard, Switzer became the first woman to officially complete the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon course. Two miles into the race, she briefly considered quitting, not because she was gassed, but rather because she was assaulted. That’s when race organizer Jock Semple attempted to rip off the No. 261 bib pinned to her Syracuse sweat shirt because he didn’t want any women competing in “his” race.
Semple had a handful of her shirt until Miller, an ex-football player and Olympic-caliber hammer thrower, sent the race director sprawling to the ground. All of this was captured on film as news photographers clicked away. Briggs told the dazed and confused Switzer to run like hell, and she followed his advice.
“Now, (Semple’s) hurt, we’re in trouble and we’re going to get arrested,” she wrote in “Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports,” her 2006 autobiography. “That was how scared I felt, as well as deeply humiliated, and for just a tiny moment, I wondered if I should step off the course. I did not want to mess up this prestigious race. But the thought was only a flicker. I knew if I quit everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”
So, she kept running, even after Semple had showed up again several minutes later, riding in a bus and screaming at Switzer in a thick, Scottish brogue: “You all ere in beeeeeeggg trouble!” Despite bloody, blistered feet, Switzer crossed the finish line in four hours and twenty minutes. The photos of Semple accosting her were splashed in newspapers and magazines around the world. They sparked a furor and wound up being included in Life Magazine’s “100 Photographs that Changed the World.”
Switzer immediately became a hero to women everywhere. And her work in creating opportunities and equal status for women in sports and other fields would not stop there. Women, initially banned by the AAU from competing with men, were officially welcomed into Boston in 1972, thanks in large part to Switzer’s history-making race five years earlier and her relentless lobbying efforts. Switzer ran and finished second. Two years later, she was the first woman across the finish line at the New York City Marathon in a time of two hours and 51 minutes.
She would go on to run more than 40 marathons and form an international running program sponsored by cosmetics giant Avon. Switzer also successfully led the drive to make the women’s marathon an official Olympic event, just as it had always been for men. Through her work with Avon, she helped create opportunities for women in other sports, too, convincing the company to sponsor professional tennis, figure skating and bowling championships.
In 2011, her game-changing efforts were recognized when Switzer was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. She has returned to the birthplace of the women’s rights movement this week to raise funds for the Hall of Fame. On Saturday, a Right to Run 19K and 5K will be held. The 19-kilometer distance—11.8 miles—is a nod to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. Next April marks the 50th anniversary of her historic race, and she plans to commemorate it by running in Boston.
“When I go to the Boston Marathon now, I have wet shoulders,” she said recently. “Women fall into my arms crying. They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything.”
They’re inspired by the courage Switzer displayed a half-century ago, when she started a movement by crossing a finish line.
Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author and nationally honored sports columnist for the Rochester Business Journal. You can talk sports with him Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on ESPN Rochester 95.7 FM, AM 950 or online at www.espnrochester.com.
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