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."
And of course, it's good for you.
If there's a fountain of youth, it's exercise. I look better at 60 than my mom did at 40-exercise really keeps you healthy, keeps your weight down, and keeps you feeling good about yourself. It's going to help us live not necessarily longer but better.
Your old boyfriend said women stopped being attractive when they sweated through the back of their shirts.
Oh yes! But athleticism is totally integrated into femininity now. To watch the end of the New York City Marathon and see these women who are totally soaked and horrible from the race and men who look the same locked in a big sweaty embrace-it's great.
Would you ever have dreamed a woman could run a 2:15 marathon, just 10 minutes slower than the men?
I did, but I dared not say it at the time! People were howling at me for saying a woman could break 2:30. But women are winning 100-mile races overall and pulling their coed teams through adventure races. We're going to see more sports that take advantage of women's capability in endurance, balance, and stamina. I really think this will contribute to men and women doing more sports together.
You helped secure the women's marathon as an Olympic event and created the Avon Running program; participation in women's sports is way up, and pro athletes are being paid more-what more is left to do?
The next area of women's sports is global. The Kenyan women runners are transforming their society-they take their winnings and go home to build schools and inoculate their kids. In Asia, women are the rock stars of their sports. At an Avon race in Brazil, women who came to do a race were so poor they didn't have shoes. They did the race, got a T-shirt and a medal, and had the same eureka moment that I did: If I could do this, what else can I do? It's much more than fitness. It's about changing a woman's life.
This story appears in the April 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.