There was a time, not all that long ago, when women were denied entry into many things – we fought for our right to vote, we fought for our right to work (and are still fighting for our right to equal pay), we fought (and are still, inexplicably, fighting) for our rights to birth control and reproductive health.
But did you know that women had to fight to be allowed to run in sanctioned marathons as well? And in one case, a fight pretty much did happen so that the first female numbered entrant in the Boston Marathon could finish the race, so intent a man was on stopping her progress.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer, then a college student, entered and completed the Boston Marathon five years before women were officially allowed to compete. Think about that. Today, we can sign up to run a race every weekend if we want! But just 49 years ago women were banned from sanctioned races.
She had trained for the marathon against the wishes of her coach at Syracuse University, who insisted that 26.2 miles was way too far for a “fragile woman” to run. Kathrine didn’t listen to her coach. She ran under the gender neutral name K.V. Switzer with bib number 261 and finished in about 4 hours and 20 minutes.
Race organizer Jock Semple was so incensed at the idea of a woman running “his” race that he tried to physically remove Kathrine from the race. He put his hands on her and tried to drag her off the course. He reportedly said “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.”
Kathrine Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller, was running with her and pushed Semple away, sending him flying, so that Kathrine could run on.
After Kathrine finished, Will Cloney, the director of the Boston Athletic Association, the governing body of the Boston Marathon was asked what he thought about a woman participating in the race. Cloney said:
“Women can’t run in the Marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don’t make the rules but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the Marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I’d spank her.”
For what it’s worth, Kathrine wasn’t the only woman to run the 1967 Boston Marathon, she is just the only one who ran under an official entry. Bobbi Gibb ran the marathon that year as well and finished about an hour faster than Kathrine. Gibb, however, ran as a bandit– someone who does not have an entry or bib and does not appear on any list of participants.
As a result of Kathrine’s run, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from ALL competition with male runners because they believed women would mar the competition between the men.
It wasn’t until 1972 that women were welcome to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer went on to become the women’s winner of the 1974 New York Marathon, with a time of 3:07:29 (59th overall). Her personal best time for the marathon distance is 2:51:37, at Boston in 1975.
The U.S. wasn’t the only country that had issues with women competing at the Marathon level. In ancient Greece, women were forbidden to compete in the Olympic Games. In fact, married women were forbidden even from being spectators at the Olympics. To do so brought them the penalty of death.
The first women’s Olympic marathon didn’t happen until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. American John Benoit Samuelson won the gold, blowing away the field after she broke away from the pack at the 4 mile marker. She sailed across the finish line alone, competitors far behind. A new era for female distance runners was born.
But why did it take until the 1980s for women to gain mainstream acceptance in the arena of long distance running?
Today it is easy for women to take running for granted but the truth is, every time we lace up our shoes and go out for a run it is a privilege that our gender hasn’t always been afforded.
Some men lose sight of the larger picture or perhaps don’t know the history of running as it applies to women. I’ve heard several men comment that there are “too many woman themed races”. Whoa. Calm down there, guys.
Unlike in the past, when women were barred from competing, today’s Diva, Nike Women’s, Tinker Bell, and Princess half marathons do not deny men entry. That’s a huge difference from how women were treated in the sport of running just 40 or so years ago.
All of this is not to prompt us to burn our bras (going braless would be painful on a run!) or put down men. Men are wonderful training partners and friends.
Ladies, the fact is that lacing up your shoes to go for a run is a privilege, no matter how fast or slow you are (or feel). Running is a freedom to be cherished and appreciated, even on days when we have bad runs. It wasn’t all that long ago that we were banned from the sport at the professional and recreational levels. Today, women outnumber men in many sanctioned races.
Check out any half marathon and the field tips heavily towards women. Today, 61% of all half marathon finishers in the United States are women. Nearly 1.2 million women crossed finish lines from coast to coast with 13.1 miles under their sneakers in 2013.
At the marathon distance, that number of female finishers drops to 43%, however, women are running 26.2 miles in greater numbers than ever before. An impressive 232,600 women crossed marathon finish lines according to the latest Marathon report from Running USA. That’s a new record for percentage and sheer number of women that can call themselves marathoners. And nowadays we don’t have to worry about race directors chasing us down and trying to throw us out of the race!