Marathon Woman, by Kathrine Switzer

Marathon Woman: Running The Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports

switzer marathon woman review

Kathrine Switzer, Marathon Woman   2009, Da Capo Press, 448 pages

by Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer deserves her name to be familiar to all distance runners, particularly female ones. She has had a profound impact on the sport at every level, from the mass participative to the elite. In this book she tells the tale of her experiences and dispels some of the myths that have followed her (and women’s running more widely) for decades.

She is probably best known for her infamous 1967 Boston Marathon, as the first woman to enter the event officially (though she is at pains to point out that Roberta Bingay Gibb had run it the previous year without an official number, by hiding in a bush and joining the race once it had started). Marathon Woman gives blow-by-blow account of the dramatic turn of events which flung both Kathrine and the issue of women’s running into the spotlight.

Boston 1967

Switzer entered Boston after an argument with her coach and running partner, Arnie Briggs, who refused to accept that women were capable of running the distance. She took this on as a challenge, and completed her entry form under the name of “K. V. Switzer”. She has always maintained that there was no deliberate intent to deceive the race organisers by using her initials, rather she always liked to sign her name that way because she was a journalism student and great admirer of J. D. Salinger.

Be that as it may, on the morning of the race clearly the organisers had no expectation there would be women in the field. Kathrine describes the race day being cold and snowy, which led to disorganisation in the starting pen, and runners keeping extra layers of clothing on. So she set off without any objections from officials, along with Arnie, her boyfriend Tom, and a fellow runner John Leonard. Other runners were generally excited and supportive to see a woman in their midst. It was only at around four miles that the situation changed.

The photo press bus, driving through runners on its way to catch the leaders, spotted Kathrine running and slowed down right in front of her to take pictures of a female runner – an unexpected sight. Then suddenly Kathrine was pounced on from behind. She writes:

“Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Then he swiped down my front, trying to rip off my bib number, just as I leapt backward from him.”

The man was Jock Semple, Boston Marathon race organiser. Kathrine’s hot-headed boyfriend Tom reacted physically, pushing Jock away with a “cross-body block”. Kathrine describes her utter fear, horror and humiliation. At the time it must have seemed worse that this had all occurred right in front of the press photographers. But in the long-run, the sequence of photos as captured by photo journalist Harry Trask (shown below) catapulted Kathrine and female athletics into the spotlight. Indeed, it enabled the issue of women’s running to be taken seriously as a subject of legitimate debate.

switzer marathon woman review

Photo credit: AP Images, photos by Harry Trask

But as the race continued, Switzer struggled to come to terms with what had just happened to her, and she briefly considered whether she should step off the course. Fortunately she realised she had to persist:

“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”

She successfully completed the event in 4 hours 20 minutes, the first of her many marathons. The experience had ignited a new determination, which led her to train hard and run seriously. She completed Boston eight times, with an eventual best time of 2 hours 51 minutes in 1975, a time which ranked her then as the 3rd fastest American woman and 6th fastest woman in the world. She also won the New York City Marathon in 1974.

Attitudes to Women’s Running

In Marathon Woman, Switzer recounts her life from the earliest time when running became important to her (she started running a mile a day in order to make the school field hockey team, and found it helped her so much that she began calling it her Secret Weapon – a name that stuck!). She covers the build up to the famous race at Boston, the race itself, and the impact on her life subsequently, as well as the high points of her athletic achievements. She also gives a candid account of her personal life through this period. Though Switzer’s writing style is home-spun and conversational, and the book is not a literary masterpiece, this fades into insignificance if you care about the story being told.

Most importantly, she provides a window into a world in which running was not widely accepted as an appropriate activity for women. She describes the frequent disbelief and hostility she faced, more often than not from other women. She tells us of women drivers swerving towards her when she was out on road runs, and women supporters at races who stopped clapping and looked on in horror when she ran past. This was a world still full of myths about how running could damage women’s bodies, cause the uterus to drop, lead to masculine muscles and facial hair, and other ridiculous ideas. It was only at the 1960 Olympics that the women’s 800 metres had finally been reinstated, a distance which had been banned since 1928 when spectators and media had been shocked at the sight of women finishing breathless and exhausted (as anybody is after two fast laps of the track!).

Throughout the book, Switzer frequently talks about clothes, hair and make-up. Initially I felt irritated by this. I didn’t care that she was wearing lip-stick when she ran Boston 1967, and found this in fact a superficial distraction from the matters of substance she was contending with. But as I progressed through the chapters I began to realise that this is an important part of the story for her. She wanted to be a female runner, to retain her identity as a woman, and to demonstrate that femininity and sport are not incompatible. She needed to dispel the myths, and for her that was about being feminine and a normal woman, just as much as it was about running the fast times that she felt would enable her to be taken seriously as an athlete.

The Path To Inclusion

Switzer was determined to share the importance of women’s sport, encourage participation and elevate the recognition of the elite performances. Ultimately, she was determined to achieve this by seeing the women’s marathon included in the Olympics. In many ways, she was ahead of her time in understanding how this elevation of women’s athletics might be achieved. She spent a long time considering how corporate sponsorship might be harnessed to reach out to more women, to encourage wide participation and growing acceptance at grass roots level, as well as to provide a means of identifying and nurturing talent. She sacrificed her own running career to devote herself to this battle. Switzer was persuasive enough to bring big names on board, and to articulate her vision to people who ultimately enabled her to achieve her ambitions. She also understood diplomacy, and the power of working cooperatively rather than antagonizing people, as she felt was sometimes the mistake of women’s activists who vociferously denounced men.

Legacy

The Avon Running program, Switzer’s brainchild, included events in 27 countries with over a million women participants; and she worked tirelessly to make the program a success. It raised the profile of women’s running to the point where the International Olympic Committee were firmly behind the inclusion of a women’s marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The book ends with an account of the 1984 Olympic marathon, and Joan Benoit’s sublime victory. It’s the perfect happy ending. Fortunately for all of us female runners (and for the males too, as female participation has made the entire sport much richer), Kathrine Switzer was not only a determined athlete, but a grafter and a visionary.

 

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