Katherine “K.V.” Switzer signed up for the Boston Marathon in 1967. At least, that’s what she thought she was doing. She wouldn’t realize she’d be running for women’s rights until she passed the second mile.
Kathrine Switzer found a passion for running at a young age. When she went to Syracuse University, there wasn’t a women’s running team at the time, so the men’s team invited her to practice with them. It was there she met her coach, Arnie Briggs.
On one dark, six-mile run in the dead of winter, Arnie retold glory stories from his 15 Boston Marathons, inspiring Kathrine to want to do the same. “Women are too weak and too fragile for 26.2 miles,” he said. Between breaths, Switzer replied, “Women throughout history have done arduous things,” telling him just the year before how Roberta Gibb had finished Boston.
Arnie exploded. “No dame ever ran no marathon.” Arnie’s opinions weren’t surprising. Society believed that running was too strenuous for the female form. According to most, running made women’s legs swell, mustaches grow, chest hair sprout, and uteruses fall out.
This is exactly why the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)—the current sport’s governing body—limited women’s racing to just 1.5 miles at a time.
Kathrine knew women were capable of so much more, and she said so. Arnie replied, “I believe you could, but you’d have to prove it to me. And if you’d show me in practice, I’d be the first person to take you to Boston.”
Challenge accepted. Three weeks before Boston, Arnie and Kathrine ran a 26-mile test run. As they neared the end, Kathrine wasn’t tired. Instead, she felt energized. She suggested another 5 miles to feel “extra confident.” After 31 miles, Arnie nearly passed out, but Kathrine was invigorated. It was time for him to own his side of the deal. It was time for Boston.
Arnie said she needed to register according to the AAU rules. The two scoured the rulebook, searching for any gender-specific wording that’d prohibit her from racing. They couldn’t find anything.
She filled in her AAU number and paid the $3 cash entrance fee. Kathrine signed her name as she always did, “K.V. Switzer.” Arnie submitted both their registrations together alongside their fitness certificates (this was before qualifying times). As far as the AAU knew, “K.V. Switzer” was a 20-year-old male Syracuse student. After all, she had just registered for Boston—a “men’s race” of 70 years.
“I’m going to finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to.”
On the morning of April 19, 1967, Arnie and Kathrine began their warm-up jog before making their way to the start line of the Boston Marathon. Rain, sleet, and wind tormented the athletes from start to finish.
Throughout the race, runners folded their hands into their armpits to keep them from freezing. Others wore beanies, ear warmers, hoods, and gloves.
Kathrine tied her hood up to her chin and used a black plastic garbage bag to cover her torso. As they passed the gates, she flashed her bib number—261—and the officials motioned her to the starting line.
Arnie smiled at her and said, “See, told you there wasn’t going to be any problems.”
Two miles later, the press bus drove alongside and honked to get Arnie and Kathrine to move over. One reporter saw Kathrine running in her gray sweatpants, sweatshirt, lipstick, and her short brown bob bouncing up and down and immediately reported it to the co-race director, Jock Semple.
As Kathrine continued to run, she was met with smiles and encouragement before she heard the scraping of leather shoes on the ground only to realize what was happening at the last moment.
She turned mid-stride. Jock Semple grabbed at her, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” He reached to rip off her front bib number, but he missed. She jumped back and turned to run away. He swiped at her back bib number and caught her sweatshirt. As she cried out, Arnie yelled at Jock, “Leave her alone, Jock. I’ve trained her. She’s okay, leave her alone!” And Jock screamed back, “Stay out of this, Arnie!”
Katherine’s boyfriend, 235-pound ex-All American football player Tom Miller, had accompanied her to the Boston Marathon. When he saw Jock clutching at his girlfriend, he went on the defensive, charging forward and plowing into Jock with a body check that hurled the man off the road into the grass. Arnie then turned to Kathrine and said, “Run like hell!”
Kathrine considered stopping. She was terrified and humiliated.
Journalists drove alongside her, asking, “What are you trying to prove?” and “When are you going to quit?” She told them she wasn’t trying to prove anything—she just wanted to run the marathon. They suspected she’d drop out at any moment.
Then Jock Semple pulled up alongside Kathrine, holding onto the outer door rail of a bus yelling “You all are in big trouble!” as Arnie yelled back, “Get out of here, Jock! Leave us alone!”
Kathrine kept looking down at the pavement. Her fear and humiliation quickly turned to anger.
When the press finally left, it got quiet. Snow was falling. The only sound was feet striking pavement and labored breaths. Kathrine turned to Arnie and said, “I’m going to finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to. Nobody believes I can do this.” Kathrine realized that if she didn’t finish the race, she’d prove the doubters right. It’d validate their beliefs that women didn’t belong in marathons.
She never intended to break the rules, but quickly realized that that’s exactly what she did. Kathrine was inadvertently pushing the boundaries and questioning what everyone believed a woman could physically do.
So she ran. And she kept running until she crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 20 minutes.
“I knew if they were offered an opportunity to try, they would respond.”
Even though Kathrine ended up being disqualified from the race and expelled from the AAU, she proved that women could run a marathon. And not just any marathon, she proved women could run and finished the Boston Marathon.
Later, an Avon executive reached out to Kathrine after reading about her bravery and athletic achievement and asked her to look over a proposal for a women’s-only marathon in Atlanta. Instead of stopping at one women’s-only race, Kathrine rewrote the proposal into a 40-page report to include multiple road races, which inspired an international running circuit.
Women-only races erupted across 27 countries, paving the way for the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon in 1984.
It wasn’t just the circuits Kathrine was behind, but she was on the the scene and influencing Olympic officials, running the worldwide governing body, and the Los Angeles Olympic Committee. Finally, in 1981, the International Olympic Committee voted to include the women’s marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Without trying to make a political statement, Switzer officially proved that women could run 26.2 miles and inspired a new generation of female runners along the way.
If Kathrine Switzer hadn’t questioned the status quo and signed up for the Boston Marathon, we don’t know how much longer it would’ve taken for the athleticism of women to be recognized or accepted.
The moral of the story is not to let anyone dictate what you can or cannot do. Kathrine took one of many first steps forward. Fifty years later, we are still taking those steps.
Then, get active with Zwift’s women's community at www.zwift.com/women.