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Thursday, April 12, 2012
How Kathrine Switzer paved the way

By Sarah Lorge Butler

This week, as she has for three decades, Kathrine Switzer will make her happy homecoming at the Boston Marathon. She'll unpack in a hotel, start interviewing elite women runners and prep for her television commentating job for the race.

When she's not working, Switzer will mingle on the floor of the race expo, dole out advice and pose for pictures with thousands of runners. She'll autograph copies of her book, "Marathon Woman," which came out in 2007. In Boston more than any other place, fans will recognize her on the street, come up and shake her hand.

"This is my 30th consecutive year," Switzer said. "Can you imagine? It's really been amazing. I've broadcast every televised edition of the Boston Marathon."

It's a far cry from 1967.

Push comes to shove

Forty-five years ago, Switzer ran the race for the first time and tried to keep a low profile. When officials noticed a woman in the race, they launched an ugly attack -- which today is one of the most famous moments in the race's 115-year history -- to get her off the course.

Switzer, at the time a 19-year-old journalism major at Syracuse University, simply loved running. She had trained for months, even completing a 30-miler, to be sure she could finish. She and her coach, Arnie Briggs, had checked to see whether there were any rules prohibiting women from entering. There weren't; in those days, the idea of women running the 26.2-mile distance was so foreign, the rulebook made no mention of them. So she entered the race using her initials, K.V. Switzer, as was her habit, and was issued No. 261.

"I thought K.V. Switzer was a very cool signature," she said. "Like J.D. Salinger."

Switzer, her boyfriend, Tom Miller, and Briggs were two miles into the marathon when officials tried to evict her from the course. Their tactics were terrifying. In a rage, race director Jock Semple came lunging at her. He got his hands on her shoulders and screamed "Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!" The wild look in his eyes still haunts Switzer. "Seeing that face scared the s--- out of me," she said.

Before Semple could rip off Switzer's numbers, Miller, a 235-pound athlete (he was a football player and hammer thrower), laid a cross-body block on Semple, sending him to the side of the road in a heap. The entire sequence was captured on film by the press corps bus, riding just ahead of Switzer's group.

Switzer kept running. Over the next 20 miles, she felt humiliated, then angry, then brushed it off. Semple was a product of his time, she thought. It was inconceivable to most men that women could run long distances without doing harm to themselves, their reproductive systems (a woman's uterus might fall out, the thinking went) or their fragile psyches.

In the final miles of her race, Switzer began mulling why there weren't more opportunities for women to run.

"While I was running, I had been kind of blaming women for not knowing how wonderful running and sports could be," she said. "And then I realized it wasn't their fault. They didn't have opportunities. I'd been really lucky. It was kind of this 'Eureka!' moment."

After she finished in 4 hours, 20 minutes, news of her feat -- and the confrontation with Semple -- spread worldwide. At a New York State Thruway rest area on the way back to Syracuse that night, Switzer spotted the first pictures of herself on the back page of a newspaper. Her life had changed.

In the coming years, Switzer graduated from Syracuse, married Miller (and later divorced him), earned a master's degree and returned to run in Boston when women were officially welcomed in 1972, the same year Title IX became law. Over the next decade, Switzer made good on the promise she forged to herself during the late miles of the 1967 Boston Marathon, to create running opportunities for women.

It's a body of work that today's top marathoners say made their careers possible.

"I met her when I ran Boston the first time in 2009," said Kara Goucher, a 2:24 marathoner who will represent the United States at the Olympics in London this summer. "It is fair to say that her courage to run the Boston Marathon paved the way for me to live the life that I do. Thanks to her bravery, I am living my dreams and running professionally."

The Olympic dream

The 1967 Boston skirmish helped put women runners on the map, but it was Switzer's years of legwork afterward that led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to add a women's marathon to the Games' program.

After women were granted official status at the Boston Marathon in 1972, the wheels in Switzer's head began to turn.

"A lot of us began talking about, 'Well, maybe we should get the event in the Olympic Games,'" Switzer said. "Of course it seemed, again, like we were the lunatic fringe."

Switzer went to the Olympics in 1972 as a journalist. Seeing the power of sponsorship and money at the Games, she began to grasp the sort of backing the sport would need to advance.

Back in New York, working in public relations and promoting women's tennis and running, Switzer also continued training. Running twice a day and as many as 110 miles per week, Switzer won the 1974 New York City Marathon and ultimately ran a personal best of 2:51 at Boston in 1975. She believed the performance validated her as a serious athlete and advocate. It gave her clout.

A couple of years later, a top Avon executive who'd read about Switzer and her running invited her to look over a proposal for a women-only marathon in Atlanta. Switzer blew it out, rewriting it into a 40-page report, proposing a multicity (and eventually international) road racing series for women. The Avon International Running Circuit was born. Women came out by the thousands to compete. Switzer was involved in every detail, from the cut of the T-shirts and finishers' medals to the road closings and postrace news conferences.

The series was crucial to getting the marathon into the Games, because a sport has to be contested in 25 countries and on three continents before it can be considered. Beyond the races, Switzer was an indefatigable lobbyist -- meeting with officials from running's worldwide governing body, IOC members and organizers from the Los Angeles Olympic Committee. In 1981, with the success of the Avon circuit as proof of the sport's viability, the IOC voted to include a women's marathon in the 1984 Games.

"I have always been a Kathrine fan, because she was a serious runner who kept at it for many years until running that 2:51 PR," said Amby Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon and went on to edit Runner's World magazine. "And also, of course, for having the corporate smarts and organizational tools to make the Avon Running Circuit into more than just an Avon marketing tool.

"It was a necessary precursor to the acceptance of the women's marathon by the IOC. Then she continued promoting running through her TV work and writing, so she's made contributions to the sport in every imaginable arena."

Switzer was part of the broadcast team for that first Olympic race in Los Angeles in 1984. She watched from a small control room as American Joan Benoit took the lead at Mile 3 and won by more than a minute. After her years of work led to that moment, "it was hard to keep it together toward the end," Switzer said.

The most emotional moment was 20 minutes after Benoit's finish, when Switzerland's Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss staggered into the Olympic Stadium, suffering from heat exhaustion and struggling to finish. It took her six minutes to run the final lap of the track, and ABC's cameras followed her every step.

"I really almost lost it," Switzer said. "First of all, I thought it was sensationalist journalism, and I felt scared to death that they would see that and pull the event. They would say women can't handle the marathon."

Andersen-Scheiss recovered a few hours later and was hailed as a hero.

A runner's life

Switzer's internal clock is still geared around major marathons. These days, she lives in New Paltz, N.Y., from the Boston Marathon in April until the New York City Marathon in November. Then she and her husband, Roger Robinson, head to New Zealand for the winter. Switzer continues to give speeches, work for TV and write.

"Kathrine's tenacity proved that women would not lose their insides from running a marathon, but I equally admire how she continues to stay involved in the sport," said Deena Kastor, a bronze medalist at the 2004 Games in Athens and the American record-holder in the marathon (2:19). "She is a pioneer, a feisty competitor, and she adds insightful commentary to television coverage."

Switzer, now 65, still runs, too. Last fall, she ran the Berlin Marathon in 4:36.

"I was happy to finish," she said. "I wanted a 4:20, but who cares? After four hours, nobody cares. But here's the irony of it. Last week, for some reason, I looked up Boston qualifiers and I came hollering out of my study. I was like, 'You won't believe it. I still qualify for Boston!'"

Switzer plans to run the race again in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the year Semple tried to push her out of the marathon. Every year since, Switzer has pushed back, and women distance runners will be forever grateful.