If you’re an avid runner then you know who Kathrine Switzer is, and if you don’t, you should! Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official entrant. Before she was making history, she had a pretty ordinary upbringing. Switzer was born in Amberg, Germany in 1949, daughter of a major in the United States Army. She later went on to complete high school, college, and earn her master’s degree at Syracuse University.
During her college career, Switzer got the idea to run in the Boston Marathon. “I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I loved running and knew that for others who had run Boston, it was a great experience,” Switzer said.
Her coach, Arnie Briggs, contended that a marathon was too far to run for a “fragile woman.” Resistant at first, Briggs was eventually persuaded to assist her in training. After all, she wasn’t going to let anyone deter her. The race had been technically men only for 70 years but there was nothing addressing gender in the rulebook. Katherine trained long and hard before competing in the 1967 Boston Marathon with the Syracuse Harriers athletic club. She entered as number 261 and “K.V. Switzer” because she’d gone by that since she was a child and finished in four hours and 20 minutes.
Her race was both physically and mentally trying. She was even chased down by a male race official who tried to tear off her number. Luckily, Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller, was there to intervene, with some determination and brute force. He shoved the official aside and sent him flying to the pavement.
Instead of opening doors for women, unfortunately, Switzer’s debut as a marathon participant, led to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) prohibiting women from competing alongside male runners. Switzer, along with many female runners, pleaded their case to the Boston Athletic Association. In 1972, five years after Katherin’s monumental moment, women were officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon for the first time.
Two years later, Switzer was the women’s winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon, with a time of 3 hours and 7 minutes. She was also named Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) by Runner’s World Magazine. She later became a television commentator for marathons and received an Emmy for her work.
In 1997, Katherine Switzer wrote Running and Walking for Women over 40 and later released her memoir, Marathon Woman. Its release coincided with the 40th anniversary of her first running of the Boston Marathon. Marathon Woman won a Billie Award for journalism because of its inspiring portrayal of women in sports. Switzer went on to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
On the 50th anniversary of her historic moment, Switzer was assigned the same number during the 2017 Boston Marathon and registered as “Switzer, Kathrine V.” The Boston Athletic Association would not assign the number 261 to any future runners, as an honor for Switzer. She led a team of runners from her nonprofit, 261 Fearless, an organization that “empowers and unites women through running”.
She summed up her feelings by saying, “I was nervous, but also excited. The race wasn’t about a finishing time; it was a celebration, inclusion and gratitude. I was running to say thanks to a race, a city and thousands of wonderful people who have done so much to give strength to women.”
Whether you run marathons or just casual weekend races, the running world has Katherine Switzer to thank for her courage and bravery.