In April, Kathrine Switzer—athlete, activist, author, Emmy award-winning television commentator and founder of the nonprofit 261 Fearless—will run the Boston Marathon again. In 1967 the now 70-year-old runner was the first woman to run the race as a registered entrant (in 1966 Bobbi Gibb was the first female to run the Boston Marathon, but she was denied a registration). The course of Switzer’s life crystallized the moment race director Jock Semple tried to rip off her race bib, number 261. That’s when Switzer realized she wanted to empower other women through running. From starting the Avon International Running Circuit for women in the ’70s to lobbying to have the women’s marathon included in the Olympics in the ’80s, any woman who toes the line at a race today does so because of Switzer’s efforts.
What does the Boston Marathon mean to you?
The race, in a funny way, has given me everything—my inspiration, my feistiness, a career path. After that first race, I had a whole life plan about creating opportunities and becoming a better athlete.
How does the renewed activism today remind you of what you experienced during the women’s running revolution?
Since the turn of the century, I’ve been shaking my head a little bit because young women today don’t understand that all the rights and freedoms they enjoy were hard-fought. And now some of them may be taken away. What if someone came along today and said, “Women can’t run more than 800 meters, there’s been a mistake”?
How’s your Boston training going?
My training has been going well. I did a hard, hard 30K recently. So, I’m over the hump. I always see 30K as the breaking point for marathon training. I’ll be in Boston for a few days in March to work on the staging for the 261 Fearless runners. It’s at the same time as the Hop 21 (an unofficial run from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill, organized by many of the charity runners as their last long run), and I’m going to run it to help give me a sense of the course again.
261 Fearless has a big team for the Boston Marathon. What’s next for the program?
We have 121 people running with 261 Fearless, 114 women and seven men. Some are charity bibs the B.A.A. has given us and others are people who’ve qualified already but want to be part of the team and are raising money as well. I still see 261 Fearless as being in its infancy. The Boston Marathon is going to put it on the world map. 261 Fearless Clubs are about having a non-judgmental community of women and running correctly so you can run all your life injury-free. Whatever level these women run is up to them, but we want them to stay happy and healthy their entire lives. It’s a tremendous opportunity for women, but it’s not just “show up and run.” The thought is, if you want to do this, let’s do this correctly.
What will be on your mind during the race on April 17?
The 50th anniversary is about celebration and gratitude. Because I’m really lucky to even be considering running 26 miles at age 70, 50 years later! I’ll be thankful to the city of Boston, to the race, and even to Jock Semple because he radicalized me and created a great photo. And then I’m going to be thinking of the future, as I always do: of other women in the world who still live in fear and how they deserve opportunities; how easy and cheap and accessible running is; and how hopefully with 261 Fearless we can create community clubs and online portals all over the world, even in isolated places.
Thinking back to race day 50 years ago, at what point did you and Bobbi Gibb become aware of each other on the course?
We didn’t. In 1966, I heard that a woman named Roberta Gibb ran the Boston Marathon. And she was part of the argument with my coach for running a marathon. He told me Boston Marathon stories every day on our training runs. I finally told him I wanted to run the Boston Marathon. He said it wasn’t possible, “No dame ever ran no marathon.” I said it was possible, and had even seen it in Sports Illustrated. My focus was on my race. It wasn’t until I saw the newspapers that I realized she ran as well. We finally met in 1978. PBS did the first broadcast of a marathon in the US outside of the Olympics. I was asked to be a commentator, and I interviewed Roberta before the race.
How has running changed since you started training for your first marathon in 1966?
Running has become a social revolution! When I finished Boston in 1967, a journalist asked me what I was trying to prove. I said I wasn’t trying to prove anything, I just wanted to run. I also told him that one day women’s running would become as popular as men’s running. What’s changed hugely is women have become empowered from running. I submit the reason women run at all is because of that sense of accomplishment, self-esteem and confidence running gives them. Once you start running, you question other things in your life that don’t make you happy. I often say, “If you’ve run a marathon, you can do anything!”