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The story of how Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon when women weren't allowed to participate

"I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, it would set women's sports back, way back, instead of forward."

The story of how Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon when women weren't allowed to participate
Cover Image Source: Kathrine Switzer attends The 2020 MAKERS Conference at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown on February 10, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

It's been a little over 54 years since Kathrine Switzer made history by becoming the first woman to formally enter and complete the Boston Marathon. Over the years, the story of why Switzer decided to take part in the men's-only event and the facts of what actually went down on the 26-mile course have been distorted and misquoted multiple times. Since the historic marathon is the first thing most people ask her about, Switzer took it upon herself to immortalize her story in her memoir, Marathon Woman. Excerpts related to the race, shared on the icon's website, take us right to that eventful April day in 1967.


"I entered the race simply because my coach (Arnie Briggs) had been a 15-time Boston Marathon runner. And he didn't believe a woman could do it, but he loved running with me and telling me stories about the Boston Marathon. So he energized me. And, you know, when I told him that I really wanted to try and he said he didn't believe a woman could do it, I was bound and determined to prove him wrong," Switzer told NPR in a 2017 interview. Recalling Briggs' initial resistance in her memoir, she wrote: "Arnie insisted the distance was too long for fragile women to run and exploded when I said that Roberta Gibb had jumped into the race and finished it the previous April."


"'No dame ever ran the Boston Marathon!' he shouted, as skidding motorists nearly killed us. Then he added, 'If any woman could do it, you could, but you would have to prove it to me. If you ran the distance in practice, I'd be the first to take you to Boston,'" she continued. Switzer, who was a 19-year-old journalism student at Syracuse Uni­versity at the time, was determined to prove Briggs wrong. "Three weeks before the marathon, Arnie and I ran our 26-mile trial. As we came down our home stretch, it felt too easy, so I suggested that we run another five-mile loop just to feel ex­tra confident about Boston," she recounted. "Arnie agreed, reluctantly. Toward the end of our 31-mile run, he began turning grey. When we finished, I hugged him ecstatically—and he passed out cold."


"The next day Arnie came to my dorm and insisted that I sign up for the race. He said it was wrong to run without registering and, besides, I could get in serious trouble with the Amateur Athletic Union, our sport's strict governing body. We checked the rule book and entry form; there was nothing about gender in the marathon. I filled in my AAU number, plunked down $3 cash as entry fee, signed as I always sign my name, 'K.V. Switzer,' and went to the university infirmary to get a fitness certificate," Switzer continued. "I wasn't running Boston to prove anything; I was just a kid who wanted to run her first marathon."

Image Source: Kathrine Switzer

Little did Switzer know that her participation would go down in history as a defining moment in American athletics. While she and her companions sailed through the first few miles of the marathon on April 19, 1967, trouble came looking for them at about mile four. "It was the photo press truck; on the back were risers so the cameramen could each get a clean shot as the vehicle pushed up to the front of the field. Suddenly, though, the truck slowed to be right in front of us, and the photographers were taking our pictures. In fact, they were getting pretty excited to see a woman in the race, a woman wearing numbers," she recalled.


"A man (Jock Semple) with an overcoat and felt hat was then in the middle of the road shaking his finger at me; he said something to me as I passed and reached out for my hand, catching my glove in¬stead and pulling it off... I thought [Semple] was a nutty spectator, but when I passed I caught a glimpse of a blue and gold BAA ribbon on his lapel... Moments later, I heard the scraping noise of leather shoes coming up fast behind me, an alien and alarming sound amid the muted thump thumping of rubber-soled running shoes... Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I'd ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react [Semple] grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, 'Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!'"


"Then [Semple] swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him. He missed the numbers, but I was so surprised and frightened that I slightly wet my pants and turned to run," Switzer recounted. "But now [Semple] had the back of my shirt and was swiping at the bib num¬ber on my back... The bottom was dropping out of my stomach; I had never felt such embarrassment and fear." What happened next was splashed across newspapers the next day. Switzer's boyfriend, "a 235-pound ex–All American football player and nationally ranked hammer thrower known as Big Tom Miller," tackled the race director to the ground. 


"You know, we laugh about it now because it's so funny when a girl is saved by her burly boyfriend. But, you know, I said to my coach immediately after the incident - and I said, I have to finish this race now because if I drop out of this race, nobody's going to believe that women are serious," Switzer told NPR on the 50th anniversary of the marathon. Describing the thoughts that ran through her head at the time, she wrote in her memoir: "I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win." Switzer finished the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes. 

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