First woman to officially run Boston Marathon does it again – 50 years later

Kathrine Switzer, who became women’s rights hero in 1967 after completing all-male race, crosses line aged 70

A runner who saw off furious race officials to become the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon has repeated the feat 50 years later.

Kathrine Switzer became a hero of the women’s rights movement in 1967 after she officially completed the then all-male race. Having registered under the name KV Switzer, her gender went unnoticed by officials at the start line, but a few miles in she was attacked by an angry official who tried to pull her off the course – creating an enduring image of women’s rights history.

With the help of a bodyblock from her boyfriend, Switzer evaded the official and finished the race in four hours 20 minutes.

The altercation between Switzer, a marathon official and her boyfriend during the race in 1967.
The altercation between Switzer, a marathon official and her boyfriend during the race in 1967. Photograph: AP

On Monday, aged 70, she ran it again, finishing just under 25 minutes slower in 4:44:31.

In a sign of how times have changed, Switzer was cheered by crowds, and fired the starting gun for the women elite runners’ race.

Switzer told CNN that running in the two races 50 years apart was “like night and day”. On having heard her name called out by supporters, she said: “I’ve got to tell you it was one of the most gratifying emotional experiences I’ve ever had [...] it was a wonderful moment.”

She wore her original number – 261 – which was retired by race organisers after she crossed the finish line as a mark of honour. The Boston Marathon has retired only one other number in its history: 61, in recognition of the 61 races started by the athlete Johnny Kelley.

In her memoir, Marathon Woman, Switzer recalled the moment she was attacked. “I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen,” she wrote. “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!’“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.”

Switzer, who completed the Boston Marathon in 1967 in four hours and 20 minutes.
Switzer, who completed the Boston Marathon in 1967 in four hours and 20 minutes. Photograph: Suzanne Vlamis/AP

That year, another woman, Bobbi Gibb, tried to race the marathon by jumping out of a bush, but Switzer was the only one to be officially registered.

Switzer said the transformation of her experience of the marathon mimicked the social revolution that had taken place in women’s running and women’s sport in general. Women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon five years later in 1972, and to compete in the Olympics at the distance in 1984. Now 58% of marathon runners in the US are women.

Switzer has entered more than 30 marathons, winning in New York in 1974 in 3:07:29, and has worked as a television commentator. She founded the women’s running club 261 Fearless, named after her 1967 Boston Marathon number.

Of her legacy, Switzer said it came as no surprise that women continued to embrace the “sense of empowerment” that came from running. “We have come a light year, really,” she said. “But we have a long way to go.”

The rise of the older runner

Road racing might seem like a young person’s game. But tell that to 83-year-old Katherine Beiers, who finished the Boston Marathon on Monday, writes Kate Carter. Or Kenneth Jones, lining up to start Sunday’s London Marathon. He’s also 83 – and has competed in every one since it was first run in 1981. Or to the 6,263 over-50s who completed London last year.

Of course it is impossible to defy the ageing process. Science suggests that whichever sport you chose, there is a similar pattern, with a gradual decline in the 30s, getting steeper with each succeeding decade. For a typical adult, each decade past their 30s brings on average a 9% decrease in aerobic fitness and a loss of 10% muscle.

However, research also suggests the decline in endurance – as opposed to speed – is less steep. Social media site Strava revealed that the fastest age group for -London Marathon competitors among their users last year was 35-44, followed by the 45-54 group. More experienced athletes are often better at holding their chosen pace for the entire race.

Study after study also shows the multiple benefits of aerobic, weight-bearing exercise into older age – and that, far from ruining your knees, as many fear, running may actually help protect them. A study of nearly 75,000 runners and 15,000 walkers published in 2013 found the runners were less likely to develop osteoarthritis.

Switzer ran this year’s Boston Marathon just 25 minutes slower than she did 50 years ago. However, it was only in 1975, when she ran 2hr 51min – ranking her sixth fastest in the world at that time – that she showed her true speed. This year’s time was nearly two hours slower, at 4hr 44min and 31sec. But if Switzer’s time is entered into an age-grading calculator – which works out your time relative to your age and gender – she scores 72%. The equivalent marathon time for a 30-year-old man would be 2hrs 49min. And there aren’t many who can do that.


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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