Kathrine Switzer didn’t sign up for the Boston Marathon in 1967 to stir any trouble; she just wanted to run. But when the then 19-year-old defied race officials and tradition by becoming the first female to officially enter the race and created headlines in the news, she became a trailblazer for women in running and fitness. Switzer, along with other strong, empowering women will star in Makers: Women Who Make America, a PBS documentary airing February 26 about the social revolution for women’s political, economic and personal power. We chatted with Switzer–who is still running marathons, finishing the Berlin Marathon in 2011–about her history-making race, the future of women’s sports and how running and fitness can change your life.
FITNESS: Before 1967, no woman had ever officially entered the Boston Marathon. Did you have an idea that it would make such an impact in sports?
Kathrine Switzer: I didn’t want to run it to prove anything. I had heard that other women had run marathon distances and that one woman in 1966 ran the Boston Marathon but without a bib number, so I wasn’t trying to break any barriers. It wasn’t until a race official attacked me during the run because I had officially signed up and was wearing a number did I become determined to finish and speak out on behalf of all women.
But I also knew that if other women could feel the sense of empowerment that I’ve felt since I started running when I was 12, that it would create a tidal wave.
What have you learned from running throughout the years?
KS: It’s not about running; it’s about changing your life. It’s about power and self esteem. The motivation to get other women running has kept me running. It’s also about equality. Women have led the charge in women’s sport. More women are running in the US now, compared to men. I’ve also learned that consistency and tenaciousness is better than talent. The more you do the better you can do. One of the best ways to get older is to keep active. I’m proud of myself for what I’ve done. Every day that I get to run is a bonus at this point.
I’m grateful for the things I’ve done and things I have to do yet. The very simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has changed my life so greatly.
What were your goals when you started the Avon International Running Circuit?
KS: The goal was to get women’s marathon in the Olympic games and to get women on the road and getting fit. If the world saw women performing at the highest level in the marathon in the Olympics, then we could change world attitudes about women’s limitations. When you see others doing something, you think ‘Hey, I can do that.’ Television opened the world’s eyes.
In Makers, you said that “Getting women in the Olympics is the physical equivalent of getting women the right to vote.” Women’s boxing was just recently added. Is there any other sport or change you’d like to see?
KS: I really hope Makers will open the eyes of so many people to see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If you look at the ‘impossibilities’ of the future, and then you look at people who’ve done these things in the past, you’ll think ‘Yeah, we can do that.’ It’s not just going to be traditional sports in the next 50 years. We can see women are running very well. Women have endurance, balance, stamina and flexibility. I hope to see events that enhance women’s capabilities and events where we work together with men, like men and women’s relays. We have relay races in New Zealand where there has to be 3 men and 3 women in a team. The men themselves have been impressed by how women can do compass work even when they’re exhausted. Let’s use those capabilities in sports. The future of women’s sports and fitness is exciting.
In terms of the Olympics, I want to see women more involved in areas like the Middle East. We have women in other countries where they’re practically slaves. I’m working on a way to bring those women out. For the first time in history, Saudi Arabia brought female athletes in the last Olympics and one in judo and in track. The runner ran in a head scarf and in long sleeves. Even though she finished last, she got a standing ovation. Yes, they were forced to admit her, but the point is, she was there. A woman led them in the Games. The crack has been made. It’s not an easy door to push open, but it’s possible. Women were watching this. Freedom starts in the heart. I hope to give these women empowerment, whether virtual or in reality.
In another clip, you also talked about your dad encouraging you to join the hockey team at school. What advice would you give someone who’s too afraid or intimidated to try something?
KS: The only way to overcome fear is to start. If you want to run, put on some shoes and go around the block. If you want to start weight lifting, start with cans of soup or water bottles at home. Ask around. Go to a running shoe store, go online and search for running clubs. Ask a runner on the street. Go up to an instructor and ask. You can’t just sit there.
Makers features such amazing women. Who are your female role models?
KS: Now, I have many role models. When I was a child, my mom was a role model. Even though she wasn’t an athlete, she could do anything. One of my greatest role models is Billie Jean King. She’s so fearless. If she didn’t like something, she changed it. When things got tough and nasty, like when people gave her a hard time for starting Women’s Tennis Association, she stood up to that and was still a world class athlete. She’s strong.
But there are thousands of women I’ve met who were overweight, depressed or had enormous problems who took that first step and started running and getting fit. They regained their health–those are my real heroines. These women picked themselves up.