How One Woman Broke Marathon Barriers for Women and Is Still Running 50 Years Later

Susanna Sisson's picture
Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 as the first official female registrant to enter and complete the famous Boston Marathon, although she was not the first woman to run the race. In 1966, Roberta Bingay Gibb, ran the marathon without being registered. Women runners were rare because many people had the misconception that women were the weaker sex and physically unable to run long distance.

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Switzer’s athletic career began early when her father encouraged her to begin running a mile a day. At James Madison and George C. Marshall High Schools in Vienna, VA, she played field hockey and basketball. Switzer went on to Lynchburg College where she also played field hockey and ran three miles a day to improve strength and endurance. She transferred to Syracuse University in New York to study journalism where she was disappointed to find there were no intercollegiate teams for women. She went to the men’s track coach to ask to be a part of the team but was turned down due to NCAA rules against women running, but she was invited to train with the men’s track team.

Serendipity would step in and Switzer met 50 year old Arnie Briggs, the campus mailman, volunteer track assistant and avid marathoner. Briggs began to train Switzer and she participated in amateur racing. While she ran the mile, the 440 and 880, it would be long distance running that would make her a star.

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With the help of Briggs, Switzer trained for the Boston marathon. She registered with her initials and while there was no regulation against women running, it had never been done. A short time into the race, the race director, Jack Semple, saw her and attempted to tear off her bib, number 261 and dismiss her from racing. Switzer merely kept on running despite the angry attack and turned her own surprise and anger into an opportunity to prove women could perform equally well in an athletic competition.

Prove it she did, winning the 1974 Boston Marathon and in 1975 racing her personal best time of 2 hours 51 minutes, a time that was then ranked 6th in the world.

Not only did Switzer go on to become a competitive runner, she became an activist for women in sports, author and Emmy Award winning sports announcer. Switzer started the Avon International Running Circuit in 1977, a global series of women’s races that became her life work. The Avon International Running Circuit grew to 400 races in 27 countries for over a million women and, along with Kathrine’s tireless lobbying, was a main factor in getting the women’s marathon into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games for the first time.

Switzer has run 39 marathons and hundreds of races all over the globe. In 2017, at age 70 she again ran the Boston Marathon wearing her iconic number 261 making the Boston her 40th marathon. Truly this woman is a pioneer and tireless advocate for women, not only in sports but in life.

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