First Woman Marathon Runner

In an article published April 19, 2010, “Boston Marathon: By the Numbers,” NBC’s Universal Sports website reported that 11,350 women (42 per cent of the field) entered the Boston Marathon in 2010 setting an all-time record. Data retrieved from the 2010 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon “Searchable Results” page showed that women made up over 51 per cent of the field in the event.

The growth in the number of female marathoners is all the more impressive considering the past history of distance running. As recently as 1970, according to Canadian website The Globe and Mail article, “Watch out, guys: Marathons a boys’ club no longer” women were denied entry into many marathons. In his book Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games’ Most Storied Race published in 1997 by Greenwood Publishing, Charles Lovett observed that women were not officially permitted to participate in the Boston Marathon until 1972 and it was not until 1984, 12 years later, that a women’s marathon was included in the Olympic games.

Famous Female Marathon Runners

When it comes to famous female marathon runners, many people likely are familiar with names like Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first Olympic women’s marathon in the 1984 summer games or English runner Paula Radcliffe, owner of the record for the three fastest marathon finish times among women.

Fewer people may be familiar with the name Kathrine Switzer, the woman responsible for breaking the marathon gender barrier, an achievement comparable to that of Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke the major league’s color barrier in 1947.

Marathon Woman Kathrine Switzer

According to Lovett’s book, in 1966, a 23-year old woman, Roberta Gibb attempted to enter the Boston Marathon but her entry was denied and returned with a note from race officials stating that “women were not physically capable of running a marathon.” Undeterred, Gibb hid near the starting line and jumped into the race after it started. Technically she became the first woman to finish the grueling Boston Marathon course in a respectable, albeit unofficial time of 3:21:25.

A year later a 19-year old journalism major from Syracuse University familiar with Gibb’s story, Kathrine Switzer was inspired to enter the marathon. In her 2007 book, Marathon Woman, published by Carroll & Graf, Switzer relates how she began training unofficially with the Syracuse men’s cross country team and later recruited 50-year old Arnie Briggs, university mailman and Boston Marathon veteran to coach her.

Initially Briggs was reluctant to coach her stating that women were too fragile for marathon running and that “no dame ever ran the Boston Marathon.” He eventually relented on the condition that Switzer prove that she could run the distance by completing a 26-mile run in training before he would take her to Boston. Switzer actually completed a 31-mile training run three weeks before the marathon and the bargain was struck.

While Switzer denies doing so to deceive race officials about her sex, she entered the race using her initials, K.V. Switzer rather than Kathrine Switzer. Entry forms at the time did not include sex since only men participated in marathons. A couple of facts make the claim a bit suspect. She acknowledged in her book that she was aware of the Gibb’s story and likely knew that Gibb had been denied entry the year before because she was a woman. In addition her coach picked up her race numbers after her entry was accepted. Nevertheless, Switzer along with Briggs and two other male friends traveled to Boston for the race.

On April 19, 1967, Kathrine started the marathon uneventfully but two miles into the race, race official Jock Semple noticed her. Chasing her down he attempted to rip her race numbers off her shirt and tried to physically remove her from the course. Kathrine’s boyfriend at the time, a 235-pound, former college football player also running the race, disposed of Semple with football block and Switzer continued to run. Four hours and twenty minutes later she became the first woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon.

Continuing the Fight for Female Marathon Runners

After retiring from competitive running, Kathrine Switzer continued to work tirelessly towards getting a women’s marathon included in the Olympic summer games. She worked with the Avon cosmetics company in producing a series of women’s distance races including a 1978 Avon International Marathon which drew women marathon runners from nine countries.

In 1981, Switzer’s lobbying efforts among members of the Executive Board of the Internal Olympic Committee at a meeting in Los Angles were instrumental in gaining the required votes to have a women’s marathon approved and included in the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, the very race in which Joan Benoit Samuelson took the gold medal for the United States.

While Switzer never won the Boston Marathon, set any finish time records or ran in the Olympics, few have achieved more for their sport than she.