Run, Women, Run
When more than 23,000 runners line up for the Boston Marathon April 16, women will make up 40 percent of the field. Forty years ago there was just one official female entrant: Kathrine Switzer, barely out of her teens, who was famously assaulted on the course by a codirector of the race when he realized there was a girl running in the world's most prestigious marathon. Switzer fended off the official with the help of a body block from her boyfriend, finished the race, and went on to become a pioneer, not just of elite running but also of feminism and all women's sports.
Through her racing, writing, and advocacy, she has worked to tell women around the world about what she says is the key to feeling great about yourself, staying healthy, and aging well. Her new book, Marathon Woman, chronicles her journey to the Boston start in 1967 and what she's done since crossing the finish line.
When you ran Boston, were you aware of what it meant, symbolically?
I was a college student who wanted to run a marathon for the same reasons anyone else does. And I wasn't the first woman-Roberta Gibb jumped out of the bushes [and ran unofficially] the previous year. So I was proud of myself and happy to show that a woman could run a marathon. I knew I'd be noticed. By the end, I knew if I didn't finish, nobody would believe women could do it. I would have finished the race on my hands and knees if I had to. To finish that race was a feminist act.
You reconciled with Jock Semple, the race codirector who yelled, "Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers!" and tried to get you off the course.
He was very protective of the race and really hated people who made a mockery of it. When he saw a girl in the race wearing race numbers, he thought I was a clown. But he was like so many men-once they saw what women were capable of, they became evangelists. At the starting line of the 1973 marathon, he hugged me in front of a photographer and said, "C'mon lass, let's get a wee bit o'notoriety." He was a real best friend after that.
Why were people threatened by women running long distances?
Women were actually the hardest to convince. They'd been imbued for thousands of years with the idea that they were not strong and might hurt themselves. And mostly, they thought it was inappropriate. But I was raised to think a woman could do anything. I wanted to be very feminine and to be an athlete, too. I had this eureka moment in the Boston Marathon: "I'm just lucky to be here. Other women could be here, too, and the only way to convince them is to give them the opportunity."
Why do you call running your "secret weapon"?
It opens your consciousness to what you are capable of. That power you feel translates into every aspect of your life-you know if you run a marathon you can do anything. You think, "I've done that myself-I feel so good, and no one can take that away from me."