“Running always made me feel powerful, free and fearless,” says Kathrine Switzer, a woman who has devoted her life to making other women feel the same. The first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon – a race that changed her life forever – defeated presumptions about the limits of female strength.
As anyone who has attempted it knows, the marathon tests will as much as endurance. For female runners in the 1960s, however, there was an additional challenge – it was generally believed they simply couldn’t run that far, that they would hurt themselves or become too ‘masculine’. So, when Kathrine entered the 1967 Boston Marathon (using her gender-neutral pen-name ‘K.W. Switzer’ on the form), she was breaking unwritten protocol, rather than anything in the official rules. Even her University coach had suggested that women were too ‘fragile’ to undertake that distance – she proved him wrong by running 31 miles in training.
However, rather than Kathrine finishing the Marathon, it was an infuriated official forcibly trying to remove her from the race that became the catalyst for change. With the intervention of her then boyfriend, Kathrine escaped and kept running. Captured on camera, the incident was circulated around the world, and later named one of Time-Life’s ‘100 Photos that Changed the World’. But the photograph alone didn’t change the world, it’s what Kathrine did next. Over her subsequent 24 miles, Kathrine realised she now had a mission. By the time she limped across the line at 4hrs 20, she had vowed to “become a better athlete” and to “create opportunities for other women in running”.
True to her vow, Kathrine created a circuit of women’s only races, spanning 27 countries and including over a million participants, debunking myths about running’s negative effect on women’s health. Thanks to her campaigning, the women’s marathon was finally introduced into the Olympics in 1984. To date, Kathrine has run 39 marathons – including, in 1972, the Boston Marathon, the first year women were officially admitted.
This year, 50 years after the event changed her life, Kathrine will be running it again, this time alongside women from her ‘261 Fearless’ project. Named after the bib number she wore that day, it promotes women’s running as a route to social change.
Today, that women can run alongside men, push our bodies, our will, feel the elation of crossing the finish line – but don’t have to fight simply to participate – is thanks, in part, to Kathrine. Little wonder that when she goes to the Boston marathon now, she describes how women approach her, crying: “They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything”.
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