Forty years ago today, Title IX was enacted, enabling new generations of women to participate in education and sports. But the athletic opportunities and popularity of women’s sports also owe thanks to pioneering women like Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, and one of the women responsible for creating organized women’s races and bringing the women’s Marathon to the Olympic Games.
To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, we interviewed Switzer about her own struggles to get involved in sports as a young woman before Title IX existed, and
You’re probably best known for being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Why was it so important for you to run back then?
First of all, I was transferred to Syracuse University and there weren’t any sports. If I’d arrived at Syracuse University and they’d had a really full program of field hockey and lacrosse I probably never would have chosen running. In fact, if field hockey had been in the olympics and I had something to aspire to like that, even beyond university, I probably would have stayed with field hockey.
But I was also in love with running, so I asked the men’s team if I could run with them. The coach said no, I couldn’t run officially, but I could come to their practices. The assistant coach was really excited about seeing me out there and he really encouraged me—and he happened to have been an ex-marathon runner and had run the Boston Marathon 15 times. So it was his excitement about the marathon that really turned me on to it.
Were you always involved in sports even before you got to Syracuse?
I played sports all throughout high school, but running was the thing that got me started. I was a year younger than everybody and very skinny and immature, so my dad encouraged me to run a mile a day to get in shape for this new field hockey that we had in our high school. I was really lucky to have a school that even had some girl’s sports; that had to be about 1960, and to have a field hockey team then was really pretty amazing. We had really great high schools in Northern Virginia then, and obviously there was plenty of money because they were building them like crazy, and we had a lot of things for girls that were there for boys.
So I was shocked when I got to Syracuse and there weren’t any women’s sports. The whole emphasis was on men’s. Girls had play days and intramurals [laughs]. This was at a college that was a really big powerhouse for sports back then.
Why did you persist even though there wasn’t a team for you, when most women would probably drop it?
I had been running a mile every day in high school even though I played those sports, and before I went to Syracuse I started running three miles a day. I thought that I would have something for a sport after graduation, something I could do by myself. And after I got to Syracuse and there were no opportunities and I thought well maybe I could run on the men’s team.
Running is unusual: It really makes you feel very powerful and fearless and I felt really like I could do anything. I felt really like if I could run three miles a day, there wasn’t anybody who could run that far. I was quite surprised when I got to Syracuse and found that these men were running like eight and ten miles a day [laughs].
The photos of you getting chased by a race official in the boston marathon are really moving. What did it feel like to run against such odds?
Well it was terrifying, because it was out of the blue.
My coach was with me, and the reason I was running the Boston Marathon in the first place was because he’d been telling me so many stories about it. I really wanted to run it, but he didn’t believe a woman could do the distance—even though there was plenty of evidence that women had run the marathon distance before, including at Boston, nobody had done it officially. So he said if I showed him that I could do it in practice, he’d be the first person to take me to Boston, thinking that that was a sure bet.
When we did the distance in practice together—in fact, we did 31 miles because I wanted to absolutely make sure we could cover the 26-mile distance—he passed out at the end of the workout. And when he came to, he said: “Women have hidden potential in endurance and stamina.” [laughs] I mean, we really had discovered something, which was that the longer I ran the better I got.
So he helped me sign up for the Boston Marathon. We went through the rule book and there was nothing about gender, etc. We knew I was going to be noticed; we knew it was going to be unusual. But he was very proud of me and I was very proud of myself. I wasn’t going to prove anything, because I knew other women had run the distance. I was just going for my reward, for Arnie, and for finally realizing my first really big race. And it was Boston! It was heroic…
So when the official jumped off the bus, there were press trucks in front of us, and I didn’t hear him come up behind me or see him until the last minute. When he grabbed me I was just terrified, you know, because he was just screaming at me, and pulling at my shirt, and spun me around by my shoulders.
It was a terrifying moment, it really was. And very embarrassing also because hey, I knew I was going to be unusual in the Boston Marathon, but I didn’t think there was anything illegal about it. And I thought, “God, maybe I’ve done some kind of federal offense or something!” And I was also angry because I wanted to show that women could do the distance and deserved to be in the race.
It was one of those moments that really changes your life.