Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon, returned to the course 50 years after she made history — finishing in 2017 with a time of 4:44:31.
When Switzer ran in 1967, she was 20, and entered as “K.V. Switzer” — so none of the race organizers would know she was a woman. When she was discovered, after the marathon had already started, the race director tried to rip her bib numbers off her back.
Switzer finished anyway, and came back eight more times. In her later races, no subterfuge was necessary. And in 2017 Switzer, now 70, was cheered, not met with rage.
At the point where she was once confronted by that race official, she posted a Facebook Live video — smiling as she ran, with her bib number, 261, pinned safely in place.
Before the race, Switzer spoke with NPR about the day she made history.
She noted that a woman had already run the course once — without entering. Bobbi Gibb hid in the bushes by the starting line and snuck into the mass of runners as they passed, finishing in 3:21:40.
Still, despite proof that women could clearly complete marathons, the athletic world generally assumed that women “couldn’t run and didn’t want to run” that far, Switzer says.
The longest distance women were allowed to run in the Olympics at that time was 800 meters.
“It was feared that anything longer was going to injure women, that they wouldn’t be able to have children or they somehow turned into men,” she told NPR.
” ‘You’ll never have children,’ they said. ‘You’re going to get big legs. You’re going to grow hair on your chest.’ It was hilarious, the myths.
“And, of course, when people hear myths, they believe them — because to try otherwise might mean damaging yourself. So people were afraid and they just went about their lives that way and restricted themselves.”
Switzer’s coach in 1967 was a 15-time Boston Marathoner and didn’t think a woman could do it — which energized Switzer to try. (She changed his mind as she was training for the race, when she ran 31 miles during one session, SB Nation reports.)
So she entered the marathon, following all the proper procedures and just, well, neglecting to mention she was female.
Switzer told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro what happened when she was discovered:
“At about a mile and a half into the race, the press truck went by us, and they saw that I was a woman in the race wearing numbers and they began taking pictures. And alongside of the photographer’s truck came the officials’ press truck. And the race director [Jock Semple] was on the truck and the guys were teasing him.
“And he got so angry that there was a girl in the race that he stopped the bus and jumped off it and ran after me and attacked me in the race and tried to pull off my bib numbers, screaming at me, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.’
“And I was just blindsided by this. I was terrified. I was scared. And my boyfriend came along with a full streak and gave the official a cross-body block and sent him out of the race instead. You know, we laugh about it now because it’s so funny when a girl is saved by her burly boyfriend. But … I said to my coach immediately after the incident: ‘I have to finish this race now because if I drop out of this race, nobody’s going to believe that women are serious.’ ”
Switzer finished the race in four hours and twenty minutes.
As the years went on she advocated for women to be admitted as full competitors — and kept running more and more marathons. She won the New York City marathon in 1974. And she competed in Boston several more times, placing second in the women’s race in 1975 with a time of 2:51, her personal best.
Spitzer said her return to the race in 2017 was a way to, “celebrate the fact, first of all, that I can run — that I’m capable of doing it, amazingly enough, and I’m very, very grateful for that.
“And I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to thank a city and the streets that changed my life,” she said, “and help to empower millions of women all around the world and change the face of the sport.”