It would be exceedingly difficult to summarize all of the amazing accomplishments of Kathrine Switzer in just one article. Her inspiring life took flight when she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon: An achievement that set her on a path of women’s advocacy. Today Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Kathrine as once again she prepares to be the special guest at the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon.
When did you start running?
I started running at age 12 when my father encouraged me to run a mile a day so I could make the field hockey team in my high school.
Why did you want to run the Boston Marathon in 1967?
I discovered early that running always made me feel powerful, free, and fearless. The longer I ran, the stronger I felt, so the 26.2 mile distance intrigued me. It was supposedly open to anyone that wanted to try to run. I felt thrilled by the prospect of running 26.2 miles in a race where supposedly anyone could run in the same race as the greatest runners in the world. There was no other sport like that!
Did you ever think the photos of the official attacking you during the race would have the impact and staying power that they did when you first saw them in the coffee shop driving home that night in 1967?
My teammates and I thought the whole incident was pretty strange, but I think we were all glad it was caught in photos because it is the kind of thing nobody would believe unless they saw it! I knew the photos would be memorable, even humorous to some people (Yes! the original caption began: “Who Says Chivalry is dead?”) but I did not know they would become iconic.
How does it feel now 50 years later to see the photos?
I am more impressed now than ever with the expression on my face, one of both fear but incredible determination. How did a 20-year-old girl in her first big race make a decision to finish under such pressure? At 70, that ability to face adversity and go forward impresses me! And it is why that bib number, 261, has come to mean ‘fearless in the face of adversity’ and created a movement, and now a big foundation called 261 Fearless which aims to empower women around the world through running.
I have read you received a lot of hate mail after the 1967 Boston Marathon. How did you overcome the negativity surrounding you?
Easy: I threw out the hate mail, and read the positive mail. And anytime I felt negativity, I put on my shoes and went out for a run. When you run you feel happy, fearless and free. And it gives you creativity to solve the negative problems.
How has the Boston Marathon experience changed your life?
In just about every way because by the time I finished the race, I was inspired to both become a better athlete myself and create opportunities for other women in running. All this led to several interesting careers, almost all of which I designed for myself and are connected to running and social change. The 1967 Boston Marathon also told me I could persevere over anything. And it has helped me to be fearless in other ways, too.
Was the Boston Marathon in 2017 somewhat of a nostalgic experience?
I would not say nostalgic, but celebratory. It is so entirely different now—extremely crowded, very colourful, very loud, exuberant, mostly non-competitive. It used to be my Number 1 competition of the year, where I put myself on the line 100% so it was never fun or celebratory.
What significance does it hold for you to be there 50 years later?
The significance was to celebrate achievements of the past and reflect on the social revolution in women’s running that in many ways began on the streets of Boston, and it was a look forward, a passing of the torch if you will, to the next 50 years of change that will surely come but be done by others and by the 261 Fearless movement and foundation. Finally, there was enormous significance in terms of gratitude—I am extremely grateful to have had the health and inspiration and determination to be able to run this 42.2 km race, 50 years later, at age 70. Although plenty of women have run marathons at age 70, 80 or even 90, no other woman has ever run one 50 years after her first one, and although I’m proud of it, I’m also very lucky and grateful.
In your memoir, Marathon Woman, you stated “women don’t have the opportunities to prove they want those things. If they could just take part, they’d feel the power and accomplishment and the situation would change.” In your opinion where do women still need to have opportunities aside from what you have written about women and running?
Almost everywhere. In the workplace, at home, in the community, in the voting booth, in taking care of her health, in the way she raises her children. Most of the women in the world—most!—still live in a fearful situation. She may be in Afghanistan or she may live next door to you, but because she has never had the opportunity to do something that makes her feel fearless, she tolerates the often limited and apprehensive life she has because she sees no alternative.
What do you like best about the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon?
The NFWHM is a fabulous event for lots of reasons—first, it actually goes by the Falls twice, you see, hear and feel the power of the falls and get a good dose of spray without all the tourists around—it’s like you have a private pass or something. Nobody gets tired of seeing the falls! Plus the course is really good—smooth surface, lovely green and undulating, no hills; quite fast. Lastly, the spirit is exceptional—huge fun, lots of support and whoops. Also, a special commemorative medal, I don’t know what it is this year but I was certainly pleased when they put my face on it one year!
What makes the NFWHM beneficial for runners?
It is a great course on which to get a fast time if you are looking to snag a PB (personal best) or a qualifying time for another race. And if you are not competitive, a half marathon is a good challenge; it’s still a long way and gives you a huge sense of victory while being fun at the same time. But for sure, when you travel for a race, I always say go to a destination and enjoy it while you are there; see the sights! And being a half marathon means you can run hard and still have the energy to be a tourist, where with a marathon the days before you need to stay off your feet and the days after you are too sore to walk. Lastly, you can come by yourself and not know anybody, but by the time you go to the expo, the run, the festivities, you will find a bus-load of new best friends.
What message will you bring to the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon and in your dinner speech at Betty’s Restaurant.
Every year at Betty’s I have a new important subject. In the past it was some of our historical stories, like that first Boston or getting the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games. Last year was the launch of the 261 Fearless foundation and announcing that I was going to run Boston Marathon for my 50th anniversary. And asking women there to join me—several of them did and raised money, too, for the 261 Fearless Foundation—Bravo to them! So for sure I will be applauding them. This year I will talk about what it was like at 70 to do it, the significance of it, and how aging actively is the best path to getting old. Some women runners come to this dinner annually! Plus the truth: it’s the best food in town. Normally I do not eat when I make a speech, but at Betty’s I chow down!!
What special connections or memories do you have of the Niagara Region?
I have many, and over the years also have made many friends, such as Jim and Ruth Ralston who first invited me many years ago to NF for the International Marathon and started my friendships here; Peggy & Les Potczyk, who are Volunteers Extraordinaire and work a lot of races including the Boston and NYC Marathons; and the Minsk family (owners of Betty’s), and especially their daughter Julianne Miszk, who is a runner who is battling cancer. I met her when she was a young girl and apparently inspired her. She last year won an Athlete of the Year award from one of the newspapers.
Often women put their health and fitness needs second to family and work obligations. What advice to do you have for women to get them started on the right track?
First they need to understand that if they are not good for themselves first, how can they be good for anyone else? Usually, it is [being] overweight that eventually drives them to fitness, but my tips for getting started are these: put your sneakers by the door and just go out for 10 minutes a day, no fuss, just for you…nobody sees you, no judgment…get a friend who wants to move too and make that person your ‘buddy’ and meet three times a week, you don’t keep a buddy waiting…and then have a goal, say you are going to do a local 5k in three months’ time and work up to it. A goal gives you a focus. Lastly, you are never too old, heavy, or uncoordinated to start a fitness program. The body wants to move. Just put on your shoes and go out the door, you deserve to feel good. AND,
you’ll be a good example to your family. Plus, people respect you when you claim some personal space.
What is your biggest victory?
My biggest running victory was winning the 1974 New York City Marathon. I thought my biggest life victory was being a major part of getting the women’s marathon accepted officially into the Olympic Games in 1984. However, I now see that another big accomplishment may lie yet ahead of me: the founding of ‘261 Fearless.’ A global movement that is empowering women well beyond the Olympics.
Any final words of advice for our readers?
Yes, I’d like to remind many of them that fitness and running has transformed them and it would be wonderful if they could spread this message by starting a 261 Fearless running/walking club in their own communities. It’s about creating a non-judgmental community of women, not about elite running or competition. If running has been so good to you, imagine if you passed this sensation on to other women! That is how we will empower women around the world, many of whom have no opportunities at all. We’ll show you how; sign up at 261fearless.org
For more information or to order copies of Kathrine’s books visit marathonwoman.com