No series spotlighting women in the endurance industry would be complete without Kathrine Switzer. An iconic figure for all women, Switzer very publicly overcame prejudice and physical assault en route to changing the rules of equality for women everywhere.
Best known for breaking the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon, Switzer was the first woman to officially register into and complete the race in 1967. Since women were not allowed to enter, Switzer registered and signed using her initials, K.V Switzer, and was admitted into the field, with officials not questioning the name. Running alongside her trainer and her boyfriend, she began the race and was even cheered on by other male runners along the course.
Then, as she described herself in this interview, the event photographers were snapping photos of her mid race, when race director Jock Semple jumped out of the media truck and ran toward her. He physically grabbed her, attempted to rip her bib off, and yelled at her to “get the hell out of my race.”
“He had the fiercest face of any guy I had ever seen. He was out of control, really,” Switzer said. Her boyfriend, Tom Miller, was able to shove Semple away and make sure Switzer was okay. With cameras present and the marathon being as popular as it was, the assault, and her entry into the event, made immediate headlines. The image of the attack was so impactful, it was named to “Time-Life’s 100 Photos that Changed the World.”
Switzer finished the race, although her place was insignificant. She had broken through and become a hero to so many. That, in and of itself, would make for a wonderful story. But Switzer was not just an average runner. She became a champion and cemented her legacy soon thereafter.
Born in Germany, her family relocated back to the U.S. when she was just 2 years old. She enjoyed running, and simply wanted to complete the iconic Boston Marathon rather than make a courageous attempt at history. It took five years after her incident for the Boston Marathon to legally allow women to compete in the race for the first time in 1972. Then, in 1974, she won the New York City Marathon, and the year after, Switzer raced her personal best time and finished second in Boston.
Beyond an incredible runner, she was and is to this day an amazing advocate for women’s rights and a major driver of change throughout the running industry and beyond. Some of her notable achievements include:
Along with other female runners, Switzer played a key role in convincing the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to enter the marathon until they did so in 1972.
She founded the Avon International Running Circuit, creating running programs throughout the world for over 1 million women. This paved the way for the women’s marathon to gain inclusion into the Olympic games beginning in 1984.
She is an Emmy-award winning TV commentator, notably covering the inaugural Olympic women’s race.
She completed the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon in 2017, 50 years after her initial run in Boston and 43 years after her victory in New York.
The Boston Marathon has retired bib number 261 in her honor.
She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011, and was also enshrined in the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1998.
Runner’s World Magazine named her one of four “Visionaries of the Century”
Kathrine Switzer is a legendary figure for equality in women’s sports. Her dedication to creating opportunities for women forever cemented her status as a pioneer in the running world, beyond a marathon champion.