Kathrine Switzer changed the perception of women in athletics, and inspires thousands. This Friday, you can hear her speak for yourself, if you’re the type that likes being inspired, that is.
Photo courtesy of CORBIS
What does a small town runner do when she’s suddenly given the opportunity to interview two running legends?
First, she doesn’t believe it. Next, she has an internal fan-girl freak out–imagine jumping up and down, squealing, grinning… the whole nine yards. But all internal. (I swear.) Then, once she’s recovered, she dives into research so that she can sound at least half-intelligent and capable when interviewing not one, but two internationally acclaimed athletes.
The small town runner, of course, is me. Though I’ve run five marathons, I still consider myself a “baby runner” in the grand scheme of things. The legends: Kathrine Switzer and her husband, Roger Robinson, whose lifelong contributions to running go far beyond the sport itself and challenge everyone to reconsider what each of us is capable of in the endurance sport that is life.
The name “Kathrine Switzer” may not ring bells for the average reader, but in the running community, she is a hero. In 1967, Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon–the legendary pinnacle of marathon running that was, at that time, considered to be a men’s race. This single act kicked off the acceptance of women into the sport of long-distance running, where now, women runners account for nearly 50% of participants.
It’s hard for women of my generation to imagine, but less than 50 years ago, the thought that a female was capable of running a marathon was completely preposterous. Myths around women athletes ranged from the usual “women aren’t strong enough to handle that kind of distance” to the outrageous “if a woman runs any significant distance, her uterus could fall out.” I wish I were joking, but it’s true. Yes, less than 50 years ago, women all over the country were told that if they participated in strenuous sports – and especially in distance running – their reproductive organs would simply spill onto the sidewalk.
Twenty-year-old Syracuse University student Kathrine Switzer wasn’t thinking about wayward uteruses while she huddled with the other runners at the starting line of the Boston Marathon on April 19th, 1967. Instead, the worst case scenario on her mind was that she would be thrown out of the race before she could even start.
“I was worried that an official would come up to me and say that I wasn’t allowed to run,” she told me as she recalled that day. But bad weather and a hectic starting area meant that Kathrine’s gender went completely unnoticed. “It was snowing and sleeting, and I was in a heavy sweatsuit, so from a distance I looked like one of the guys. They checked off my bib number and didn’t bother looking at my face.”
It’s important to note that, although the Boston Marathon was considered a men’s event in 1967, there was no outright rule against women participating. With the support and guidance of her coach, Arnie Briggs, Kathrine had filled out all of official race paperwork– including a fitness certificate from her college infirmary–and thus was officially registered to run the race. She signed the paperwork “K.V. Switzer” – something she had done since the age of 12 when she grew tired of people always misspelling her name.1
With what had been the most worrisome part of the day behind her, Kathrine, along with coach Arnie and boyfriend Tom Miller, crossed the start line with no trouble.
Then, just two miles into the 26.2 mile-long marathon, a scenario that Kathrine had never even considered unfolded: Race Director Jock Semple spotted her, ran into the crowd of runners, and tried to physically remove her from the race.
“When the attack came, it was out of the blue. It scared the hell out of me. Up to that point, we had been happy and running together and there had been no incidents. Nobody had said anything except encouraging words and suddenly the official came up behind me and just grabbed me. It was a definitely a surprise.”
Switzer’s coach yelled and batted at Semple as he tried to tear her race bib–number 261–from her clothing. Switzer’s boyfriend at the time, who just happened to be an ex-All-American football player, wound up tackling Semple, sending him airborne and thus breaking up the altercation.
The incident played out right in front of the photo truck with its score of photographers who captured it all on film, as well as the press officials’ bus. “The dumbest thing he could’ve done!” exclaimed Kathrine. For her and for women runners everywhere, Jock Semple’s temper and timing proved to be a stroke of amazing luck; the series of photographs became iconic images that galvanized women across the country.
Amazingly, by the end of the marathon, Kathrine had not only forgiven Semple–“He was an overworked race director; the weather was bad and miserable, he was tired, and he was a great protector of the race”–but she had decided that she wanted to work to create opportunities for other women in running.
Thus began a remarkable lifelong journey. Over the next few years, Kathrine campaigned for women to be officially allowed to register for and participate in the Boston Marathon, which finally happened in 1972. She won the New York City Marathon in 1974 and ran her personal best marathon in 2:51:33 in 1975–fittingly, in Boston. She created the Avon International Running Circuit of women’s only races in 27 countries; since 1978, more than one million women have participated in these events. Her efforts and championing of women marathoners played a substantial role in the International Olympic Committee’s decision to finally include a women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympic Games.
It’s remarkable to think that this vast shift in attitudes toward women runners can, in a way, be traced back to one man’s bad temper. When I pointed this out, Switzer and her husband, running historian Roger Robinson, both chuckled. “Yes, Kathrine often says he did more for women’s marathoning than anyone else,” observed Robinson.
Today, Kathrine has turned her energy and attention to delivering a message that goes far beyond running–a message of turning negatives into opportunities, the ripple effect that one person can have when they stand up and fight for a cause, and how people can be empowered to be the heroes of their own lives.
Recently, this message has been brought to life through her newest project, 261 Fearless–a global community of women who have found strength, power, and fearlessness from putting one foot in front of the other. 261 Fearless provides training for running group leaders, a series of running clubs and events, and a network of support for women of all abilities–whether walker, jogger, runner, or front of the pack racer.
“Women love that number, 261. It resonates with them, and they’re pinning it on themselves because it makes them feel fearless,” says Switzer.
This message is one that definitely resonated with Richmond resident Jennifer Mott. A three-time cancer survivor, Mott is also a runner who has completed four marathons, including the Richmond Marathon in 2012, just one month after her last chemo treatment. Having just read Switzer’s book, Marathon Woman, she ran with one of Switzer’s mantras written on her arm for inspiration, “Be your own hero.”
When she met Switzer at the New York City Marathon race expo in 2014, Mott was immediately bowled over. “She gives four minutes and 30 seconds to every person who comes to see her… she was so fantastic and so genuine with everyone that day. Afterwards, I made an effort to search her out and sent a quick thank you email. When she emailed me back and told me she remembered my story, I was blown away.”
It didn’t take long after that for Mott to decide that bringing Switzer to Richmond to deliver her message was a must. Originally, the natural fit seemed to be for Kathrine to address Sports Backers’ Marathon Training Team, which, with 57% of its participants being women, is a perfect testament to the success of Switzer’s efforts.
But the more Mott talked with Switzer and Robinson, the more she began to think about how their visit could serve a greater purpose–to generate funds and awareness for the Massey Challenge, of which Mott is the Chair and the captain of Team Caped CUREsaders.
“It really came together when we started talking about the ripple effect; how one person standing up for something or fighting for a cause can have such a far-reaching effect,” says Mott.
Standing up to cancer is precisely what the participants of the Massey Challenge pledge to do, through fundraising efforts that directly support the ground-breaking, life-saving research happening every day at the Massey Cancer Center. The Massey Challenge has come to be inexorably linked to the running community in Richmond, in large part due to its prominent role as the charitable partner of the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k.
Kathrine Switzer was the single stone thrown into the pool of women’s running whose ripple effect changed the face of the sport. Similarly, thanks to the effort of each Massey Challenge participant, over $5 million has been raised to change the ways that cancer is detected, treated, and controlled.
These three threads–running, standing up for a cause, and the power of the ripple effect–all came together as an almost impossibly perfect backdrop for Switzer and Robinson. Add in Richmond-based consulting firm SingleStone as a more-than-appropriate presenting sponsor, and you get “An Evening with the Dynamic Duo.” On Friday, November 13th at 6:00 PM, Switzer and Robinson will be the featured speakers in an evening that benefits the Massey Canter through the Caped Curesaders, Jennifer Mott’s Massey Challenge team.
“I think what is remarkable about this occasion is that it’s three sided,” says Robinson. “There is the health aspect–that’s the running; there’s the research into an important medical cause–cancer; and the mission of taking initiative and spreading the effects. These three things are really the story of Kathrine’s life and our lives to a great extent. We believe in these three things.”
Much in the way that Kathrine has been a crusader for women and Mott for cancer research, Roger himself is tackling myths about aging. A competitive runner for 63 years, in his 40s and 50s Robinson won several world and national masters championships (masters racing is for runners over the age of 40) and set age-group records in major marathons including a 2:18:45 at Vancouver at age 41, a 2:20:15 at Boston at 44, and a 2:28:01 at New York at 50.
“People’s attitudes about aging are not dissimilar to the attitudes they used to have toward women. Women needed protecting and if you see an older person stressing themselves, your instinct is that they need protecting… People are always telling me just to do things moderately and take it gently. My current campaign is to say, ‘Why?'”
Why indeed. Now 76, Robinson and his artificial knee (which he affectionately named “Russell” in honor of the surgeon who performed the surgery) are still running and racing hard, pushing the limits and other’s assumptions of what an “old person” can and can’t do. In fact, he seems to delight in defying expectations and surprising people out on the course.
He told me about a recent experience at a race in Boston. “Near the end, this young man running near me kept saying ‘There are only 200 meters to go’ and being very solicitous. I think he thought I was going to die!” At this, Robinson laughed. “It may have looked quite possible!”
Be on the lookout for Robinson on November 14th, as he is planning on racing the HCA Virginia 8k.
“I’m going to race it as hard as I can with no apologies. It’s an experiment to just see what happens… Maybe I’ll keel over and be carried off. Who knows!”
What I do know is that missing the opportunity to hear Switzer and Robinson’s inspiring message of empowerment and becoming the hero in your own life is something that shouldn’t be missed.
Tickets for their speaking engagement, An Evening with the Dynamic Duo, are available online. Sponsored by SingleStone, the event will take place on Friday, November 13th at the Carole and Marcus Weinstein JCC. The evening will include a book signing at 6:00 followed by the talk at 7:00. All funds raised benefit the Caped CUREsaders, a Massey Challenge fundraising team.
- I don’t blame her for that either… as a “Kathryn with a y,” I always slightly smirk when my barista asks me if my name begins with a “c” or “k,” as I’m fully aware that whatever ends up written up my cup will most certainly not be correct anyway. ↩