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. Read more
Here at FITNESS, we couldn’t think of anyone more fitting to highlight on National Running Day 2012 than Kathrine Switzer. As one of the women highlighted in the PBS/AOL partnership MAKERS, Switzer is sharing more about what it was like to be the first female to officially enter—and complete—a marathon, despite nearly being pushed off the course by a race director.
She surely inspires us, but who inspires Switzer? “The people creating the MAKERS program are visionaries. They’re archiving an oral history of all of these amazing women so that others can use them as resources in the future,” she says.
Read on to learn about how Switzer got her running start, what she was thinking when a race official tried to knock her off of the course during that first race and her hopes for the future of women in sports.
How did you first get started with running? Why do you love it?
My dad motivated me when I was young. He told me that if I run just one mile a day, I’ll become an athlete. That changed my life because I felt empowered. Finishing a run was a sense of victory no one could take away. If I could run a mile, maybe I could write for the student newspaper or be on the prom committee. Later, when I was at Syracuse University, I met the coach for the men’s cross country team. He and his team welcomed me to train with them and were all wonderful.
What were you thinking when you were being pushed off the course as the first woman officially running a marathon at Boston in 1967?
It was a real surprise. The race director attacked me very suddenly and it scared the hell out of me! Other men on the course were saying, “Keep going!” My boyfriend threw a cross-body block to throw the race director off course. That was my defining moment—I knew I would finish then. I was not the clown the race director made me out to be.
Sometimes when bad things happen, they are the best things. Now, not a day goes by that I don’t thank that race director!
See a photo of Switzer’s “defining moment” and read more about her journey below.