“If I quit, everybody’s going to believe women can’t do this.”
That’s the thought that latched itself into Kathrine Switzer’s head when a male official tried to push her off the course of the Boston Marathon in 1967.
At just 20 years of age, Switzer had registered for the event after months of training, deciding she was ready to tackle the ultimate distance run.
She had registered for the event as “K.V. Switzer”, a gender-neutral name she says wasn’t intended to mislead officials — it was habit, the same way she signed off her college papers.
In fact, Switzer showed up at the start line wearing lipstick and eyeliner — the first woman to do so as a registered athlete.
(Switzer wasn’t the first woman to run the Boston Marathon — Bobbi Gibb ran, unregistered, the year before.)
But just two miles into the race, Switzer was accosted by Jock Semple, a race official who grabbed her and tried to pull her off the course.
Recalling the moment, Switzer says: “There’s this split second where you say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done something really wrong, I’m so scared, I’m so ashamed’.”
“Then all of a sudden I said, ‘no, no, if I quit, everybody’s going to believe women can’t do this’.”
And by the end of the race — she crossed the finish line at 4 hours and 20 minutes — Switzer had what she calls “a life plan laid out in front of me”.
“You get to about 35km and you can’t be angry or afraid anymore, it all goes away … I was no longer angry with the official and I was just totally determined to finish,” she says.
“I had a long time to think about why this official had done that and I went through the whole thing of murdering him every way a person could be murdered and I realised he was an overworked, angry race director.”
Switzer says she then “got angry with the women” for not racing, before realising she was being “really stupid” and forgetting they didn’t have the positive reinforcement and coaching team that had made the difference for her.
“It became the focus of my life to create those opportunities,” she says.
“I wanted to do it, I knew it could help women and I knew women deserved it.”
So, that’s what she did.
‘If I can do that, how much talent is out there?’
Perhaps the most significant of Switzer’s achievements was her role in having the women’s marathon added to the Olympics in 1984 — almost 90 years after the men’s event.
By 1970, she had returned to Boston — “1968 and 1969 I was still very afraid of Jock Semple” — and would do so for the next eight years, running her best time of 2:51 in 1975.
Although Switzer came second to Liane Winter in that race, who ran a world record time of 2:42, her time was the third-best in the US and the sixth-best in the world, at the time.
“I had a real chip on my shoulder because everybody said, ‘you’re just a jogger’, and that really upset me,” Switzer says.
“I knew I wasn’t a really talented athlete but I also can work really hard and when I worked hard and got down to 2:51, that’s when I really realised, if I can do it, anyone can do it.