Fifty years ago, before women were allowed to run in the Boston Marathon, Kathrine Switzer signed up as K. V. Switzer and became the first official female entrant to complete the all-male race. Two miles in, a race official grabbed her. He tried to pull off her bib and shove her off-course, but was blocked by Kathrine’s boyfriend. Undeterred, Katherine kept running.
“I knew if I [dropped out] no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon; they would just think that I was a clown, and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me,” Kathrine wrote on her website.
Before Kathrine competed in 1967, another woman, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, unofficially ran the Boston Marathon in 1966. Bobbi hid in a bush at the start and then snuck onto the field. To her surprise, the other male runners accepted her and cheered her on.
It was from learning about Bobbi that Kathrine, inspired, told her coach at Syracuse University she also wanted to run the marathon. “No dame ever ran no marathon,” he told her, but agreed to let Kathrine do a training run with him. When Kathrine ran the 26.2 miles — and then another four, just to be certain — he passed out.
Since then, both Kathrine and Bobbi have tackled the sexism that women face in sports, paving the way for women to not only enter marathons (a right granted in 1972), but compete in the Olympics and beyond. Kathrine helped create the Avon International Running Circuit of 400 women’s races in 27 countries, and lobbied for the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the Olympics. In 1984, when it was added to the Olympic Summer Games, the qualifiers at the U.S. Olympic Trials were given trophies of a girl running. They were sculpted by Bobbi.
Today, Kathrine, at 70-years-old, finished the Boston Marathon in 4 hours, 44 minutes, and 31 seconds, just 24 minutes slower than her time when she was 20. She donned her original bib number, 261, and was joined by 125 other runners raising money for her charity, 261 Fearless, which connects and empowers women around the world through running.
Bobbi, 72, served as a Grand Marshal of the Boston marathon, where women are 47% of the runners. Now, millions of women run marathons every year on all seven continents. It’s almost hard to believe that Bobbi, just 51 years ago, had to disguise herself as a man to sneak into the race. Even her parents thought she was crazy, until Bobbi talked to them and convinced her mother to drive her to the starting line.
“Mom,” Bobbi told her in 1966. “This is going to help set women free.”