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Kathrine Switzer: Attacked At The Boston Marathon

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The sight of a middle-aged man shoving a young lady off the racetrack at the Boston Marathon would have sparked worldwide outrage today. But this was 1967, and Kathrine Switzer was about to run the race of her life.

This is the amazing story of Kathrine Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon.

Who is Kathrine Switzer?

Kathrine Virginia Switzer was born into a US Military family in 1947. Her family relocated from Germany to the United States in 1949 and made their abode in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Kathrine Switzer was a star athlete at George C. Marshall High School. After graduating, She set off for college education at Lynchburg College but later transferred to Syracuse University in 1967, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism.

Kathrine Switzer

Her love for running was nurtured by Arnie Briggs, a former marathon track athlete who coached her at Syracuse University. The 19-year-old Switzer listened to his captivating stories about marathons, which stirred an impatience within her to tackle the ultimate challenge: the Boston Marathon. 

Training for the marathon

Kathrine Switzer dedicated herself to rigorous training; she trained with members of the men’s cross-country team at her institution. However, her journey was not without its challenges in a time when women were often discouraged from participating in sports.

In the past, people believed women were “too fragile” for long-distance running. Even notable organizations such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) supported this notion. The common belief was that running would lead to women developing big legs and chest hair and even causing their uterus to fall out—yes, the 60s were wild.

Undeterred by these opinions, Switzer strived to leave her mark at the Boston Marathon. She trained tirelessly for the hard 26.2-mile race (42 km). She completed a grueling 31-mile (50 km) practice run before the event to prove her mettle to her coach.

Women at the Marathon

Switzer’s quest to challenge the marathon norm was not an isolated incident. The previous year, in 1966, Bobbi Gibb had made history as the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. 

However, despite her impressive finishing time of 3 hours, 21 minutes, and 40 seconds, Gibb had not been an official entrant. BAA (Boston Athletic Association) Director Will Cloney, who believed that women were physically incapable of running 26 miles, denied her official status at the race.

Bobbi Gibb

It wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to participate in the Marathon. 

Though Gibb was the first woman to cross the finish line at the controversial 1967 event, finishing an hour ahead of Switzer, it was Kathrine’s act to enter the race officially that made the headlines.

Kathrine Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon

1967 was a different time, and Kathrine Switzer’s involvement in the Marathon shed light on the barriers women encountered in pursuing their athletic dreams during that era. 

Switzer found a loophole in the race’s registration process that allowed her to enter as “K. V. Switzer” instead of using her full name and paid the $2 entry fee.

She found a clever way to bypass the mandatory pre-race physical examination for the Boston Marathon. Instead of lining up with the other runners, she enlisted the help of her coach and fellow runner, Arnold Briggs. They submitted a health certificate on her behalf and collected her race number—261.

The morning of April 19 was cold in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Contestant 261 stood at the starting line flanked by her dad and boyfriend, Tom Miller, who were also participants in the race.

Switzer wore a standard racing tracksuit, but it was evident that she was a woman due to her distinctive hair and lipstick. 

However, the male runners around her were surprisingly supportive and welcoming. Some even expressed their desire for their wives to take up running, seeking advice from her and offering words of encouragement like, “Go for it; we’re with you all the way.” 

Switzer with the crew

With bib number 261 proudly pinned to her shirt, Switzer embarked on the race, unaware of the significant encounter that would ultimately reshape American long-distance running.

The race started on a positive note. However, the situation quickly changed a few miles into the race when press trucks arrived, drawing attention to Switzer as a woman.

Excited reporters began questioning her intentions and even challenging her right to be in the race. The atmosphere became tense, setting the stage for a significant turning point in her journey. 

Who is Jock Semple?

Enter John “Jock” Semple. The former runner had managed the race for decades and was “Mr. Boston Marathon”. 

Jock Semple smiling in a room

Semple had a well-documented history, dating back to at least 1957, of physically confronting Boston Marathon runners whom he considered to be lacking seriousness, regardless of whether they were officially registered or running unofficially on the course. 

His belief led him to lump K.V. Switzer in that category. And notorious for his fiery temperament, the defiance of the female runner “ruining the race’s integrity” incited him. 

Without warning, John Semple dashed to confront Kathrine on the race course. He shouted at her, attempted to rip off her bib, and physically grabbed her. However, Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller, a strong and experienced hammer thrower, swiftly stepped in. Semple was sent to the ground with a mighty thrust.

Semple attacking Switzer

Despite the chaos, Briggs urged Switzer to continue the race, and she pressed on with determination. 

In Switzer’s words, “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by—you can’t run and stay mad!” Each stride she made was fuelled by a sense of liberation and empowerment. She completed the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes.

Switzer stated that her resolve to finish the race on that famous day, knowing that it would perpetuate the belief that women were incapable of such achievements if she didn’t reach the finish line. 

The incident at the 1967 Boston Marathon catapulted Switzer into the spotlight, igniting her passion for championing women’s participation in athletics.

The aftermath

Switzer, still reeling from the disqualification co-race director John Semple hit her with, was expelled from the AAU. She also faced the backlash of hate mail and negative press, a witch hunt of sorts. 

However, her resilience shone through. Crossing the finish line, despite the obstacles, marked a decisive turning point for her. It wasn’t just the end of the race but the beginning of a new chapter in her life. 

Newspaper headline with Switzer

The renewed desire to help other women experience the transformative power of running a marathon motivated her to steady course on her mission to empower and inspire.

Away from all the bile, Kathrine Switzer received a great deal of support from the running community. Many media outlets also interviewed her, and her story altered the course of women’s participation in long-distance running.

In 1972, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) lifted its ban on women running marathons, and Switzer competed in several more marathons, including the Boston Marathon, again in 1974.

In 1982, she founded 261 Fearless, a non-profit organization that supports women runners worldwide.

Kathrine Switzer posing with 261

Kathrine Switzer’s efforts were instrumental in convincing the International Olympic Committee to include the Women’s Marathon as an official event in the 1984 Summer Olympics. 

Kathrine Switzer’s personal life

In 1968, Switzer married Tom Miller, who stopped Semple’s attack during the 1967 Boston Marathon. Their union ended in divorce in 1973.

Switzer is a mom of a son and a daughter. Her son, Andrew, has also competed in several marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Her daughter, Nina, is a writer. She has written a book about her mother’s life called “Marathon Woman: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic First Run.”

In 1975, Switzer achieved a remarkable personal milestone in the Boston Marathon, completing the race with a time of 2 hours 51 minutes. A significant improvement of 89 minutes from her first race.

Switzer’s friendship with her attacker, Jock Semple

In the later stage of his life, Semple underwent a change of heart regarding women’s participation in the Marathon. Marja Bakker, a subsequent race organizer, attested to this transformation. 

Semple and Switzer eventually reconciled publicly, with Switzer stating in a 2015 interview, “Old Jock Semple and I became the best of friends. It took a long time: six years. But we became best friends.”

Kathrine with Jock Semple

Unlike George Wallace, who lived and died in eternal infamy, Jock Semple restored his image after the incident. The public was ready to forgive him because he took responsibility for his actions. And to be fair, he was doing his job. 

A few years after the 1967 race, Switzer reencountered Jock Semple at another race, and while he didn’t offer a direct apology, he embraced her, kissing her on the cheek; a former foe was now a staunch supporter. Their reconciliatory photo hit the New York Times the next day.

Their friendship endured until Semple’s passing in 1988.

Kathrine Switzer’s legacy

Switzer was christened the Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) by Runner’s World Magazine

Her famous bib number “261” now holds cult symbolism; it has evolved into a revered emblem among female athletes, a crest symbolizing fearlessness and determination.

In hindsight, the story may evoke laughter, but Kathrine recalls the experience as terrifying. Fear, embarrassment, and humiliation consumed her at that time.

Kathrine at the Boston Marathon

Five decades later, Kathrine returned triumphantly to the 2017 Boston Marathon, completing her 9th race. This time, she had the big company of a team of runners from her non-profit organization, 261 Fearless, Inc

Her vision was to create a community that connects and empowers women through running. What was once a solitary journey for her has now transformed into a collective movement with over 13,700 women.

Also a prolific writer from her days as sports editor for her college newspaper, she has written some books about her experiences, including Marathon Woman and Running and Walking for Women over 40

She has also spoken out on women’s rights at numerous events and provided commentary for the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984.

Kathrine Switzer reading a newspaper

Being honored with induction into both the National Distance Running Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame is a fitting recognition for a remarkable and distinguished career.

Her relentless efforts over decades brought about lasting change and opened doors for women worldwide to participate in and excel at long-distance running, just like Eric the Eel did for African swimmers. Kathrine Switzer was a gym class reject who forced her way through the glass ceiling at the risk of physical harm.

Who wrote this?

Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

Ebuka Agbasi
Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

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