Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman
by Doug Kurtis, Jul. 7, 2008
Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman
Kathrine Switzer is probably best known as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official race number. Photographs that captured official Jock Semple trying to rip the numbers off Kathrine’s sweatshirt have become part of running’s lore.
In her newest book Marathon Woman, Switzer shares intimate details of the events leading up to her first marathon as well as her quest to break three hours. She describes her propensity for hard work off the road too. As a coordinator for the Avon International running circuit she helped shape women’s running around the world and played a major role in bringing the women’s marathon to the Olympics.
I had the opportunity to interview Switzer via phone from her winter home in Wellington, New Zealand the country's capitol. As she described, “It is like a miniature San Francisco. We have a view of the whole city and the sea and the mountains beyond. We say we have a $2 house with a 2 million dollar view.” She and her husband Roger Robinson split their time between Wellington and New Paltz, NY in the Hudson Valley.
“The photographs have been a fabulous vehicle to propel women’s running and women in sports. The photographs have been used not only by women’s running but other sports to denote courage in the face of adversity.”
“A serendipitous as the moment was, I was fortunate that the photographer was right there. Would history been changed quite as much? I would have gone on to fight for women’s equality in sports. The incident might have been a footnote in history and mythologized rather than a major turning point for women running in the Boston Marathon.”
Switzer still enjoys retelling the story especially doing it in the context of the changes that have been made in women’s long distance running. “Forty one years ago, Jock Semple tried to tackle me and stop me from finishing the Boston Marathon. Now there are more women registering to run marathons than men.”
She is still out on the road promoting the sport and hasn’t tired of sharing story because it has had a huge impact on her life and on the sport as a whole. It’s been fun because there is always a new audience that likes hearing the story. Some who weren’t born when the incident happened.
“For me it’s more than sharing a good yarn. I see it as her responsibility as an author and a speaker is to leave them with something that might change their lives and let them know that they can actively make a change. The capacity for human achievement is astonishing.” Switzer’s first marathon was 4:21. She set a best time of 2:51, a remarkable improvement.
As an author she felt compelled to explain things like why she had bloody feet from running, (because women’s running shoes back in the late 60’s were basically thin tennis shoes). There wasn’t clothing for women’s runners when she started so she improvised, such as wearing women’s tennis shirts because they didn’t chafe her thighs when she ran.
“I loved writing the book because it was a pivotal and transitional time in women’s sports. The public witness people like Billy Jean King playing tennis against Bobby Riggs. The twenty-five year period between the late sixties to the eighties saw more change in women’s sports than any other time in history, not only from a capability point of view but equipment as well.”
She is proud of writing about the parallels in history to what was going on at the time of her accomplishments. “For some it helps people to have a sense of where they were at that time that I began running marathons.” Her book ends with the first Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984.
I asked what she enjoyed about writing the book: “One of the thrills about running is getting in shape and discovering new territory and your body’s limits even as you age. I panicked when I first started writing because I was afraid I might not remember enough about incidents that happened. It was torture getting started but just like running my brain got in shape and it wanted to get to work. The more I started writing the more she would remember. She literally couldn’t type fast enough.”
“The last six weeks I got lost in the process.” She isolated herself and would be up all night cranking away to meet her deadline. She equated it to being on a really long run and being in the zone or endorphin high. “Except that working on a book, you need to put glue on the seat of your pants.”
Marathon Woman is Switzer’s third book. He second one was collaboration with her husband, whom she met her husband in 1983 while working on an Avon Marathon in Australia. She was asked to share the speaker’s platform with the world class master’s runner. “When I heard him speak I fell in love with him at first voice.”
In her book, she said the hardest thing was admitting that she was divorced twice. “My dad said we all make mistakes but getting it right is what counts.”
I was surprised how candid she was about her relationships and marriage. She said she would have dampened things down if my parents were still alive. “Nice girls didn’t live with their boyfriends back in the 60’s. My parents would have been devastated. Now at 60 you feel you can be more outrageous talking about your life.”
Switzer helped organize over 400 events. She said her life was not her own but very fulfilling. “The fun part of sponsoring Avon races was giving away company products like lipstick or powders. We handed out T shirts cut for a women’s shape. We also made the race feminine with lots of flowers and jewelry for awards.”
“A key thing that I realized on the streets of Boston was that the reason women weren’t into running wasn’t because they didn’t want to. It was because they were intimidated and didn’t think they could. And if they had the experience and opportunity to explore it, they would run. This was when I came up with the idea for the program and women around the world responded to it.”
“We offered a fun opportunity to try running and also developed programs that helped make the Olympic marathon for women happen. For an event to qualify for Olympic inclusion it must be practiced in at least twenty-five countries and on three continents.”
Here’s a sampling from Marathon Woman:
“The crowds at the top of Heartbreak are the Holy Rollers of the Boston Marathon, the zealots who believed that topping Heartbreak was like touching the hand of God.”
“While conducting business in other countries, especially as a woman she found it important to be patient and remember that I was a guest. Because a lot of previous publicity had given me the reputation of being a firebrand, I had to win people over with an especially cooperative attitude, even if it meant privately chewing my nails from time to time.”
In Rio de Janiero: “Some saw the race as another celebration of body. Many others saw it as an opportunity to leave poverty behind for awhile, or perhaps they even ran it for a free shirt, a medal and a lipstick, all things they had never had before. Some women ran without shoes. The race gave them a sense of recognition and significance that was as unfamiliar as a medal. A public relations program for Avon turned into a social revolution.”
“The Devil is in the details, when it comes to managing races and making them successful.”
“While working the Boston Marathon as a journalist and speaker I was suddenly overcome with sadness. I ached to be a runner again. I came home weeping. My husband forced me to face what I could not admit. If you do this program (Avon) you know your competitive running days are over. You will never have the energy to go forward.”
“Then I thought about all those times looked forward to not having the pressure of training and realized I hadn’t lost a friend at all. My friend just became a jogger. I never looked back on my decision. Running became more fun than it had ever been. Forty years later it, it still is.”