by Kat Thompson
It was Wednesday, April 19, 1967. The weather was gloomy and grey, with sleet, freezing rain, and wind—not the type of conditions that one would typically want running their first Boston Marathon. But 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer, a journalist student at Syracuse, was unfazed: “The weather didn’t concern me; we’d trained five months in weather like this. What was annoying was that I had wanted to look nice and feminine at the start in my just-ironed burgundy shorts and top.”
It seemed like it was going to be a marathon like any other—save for the fact that Switzer was competing, too, as the first registered woman in America to run the Boston Marathon. It was a bit of a fluke, actually. The first woman to run the marathon, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, ran unregistered the year before Switzer—1966—after being denied entry. The reason? It was a man’s race, and women weren’t physically able to do the daunting task of running 26.2 miles. But that didn’t stop Gibb from sneaking in and completing the marathon, and it didn’t prevent Switzer either, who registered under the gender-neutral name K.V. Switzer (her initials).
Switzer had been training for months leading up to the race, running 10 miles easily each evening. Although she was told time and time again that it was impossible for a woman to compete—that women were too fragile, too dainty, too weak—she had her eyes set on one goal: to finish the Boston Marathon. “I had no idea I was going to become part of that history. I wasn’t running to Boston to prove anything; I was just a kid who wanted to run her first marathon,” Switzer stated in her memoir, Marathon Woman.
The start of the race was electric with energy, regardless of the snow piling down. Many runners did double takes when they caught a glance of Switzer—a woman!—among them. But overall, they were warm and welcoming, intrigued more than anything. Switzer’s positive experience among her peers did not foreshadow what was soon to happen in the race; instead, she felt a sense of joy no other woman had yet to experience. “I felt very welcome. I felt special and proud of myself. I knew something other women didn’t know, and I felt downright smug,” Switzer admitted.
The snow fell, the growing crowd quieted, announcements were made, and suddenly the gun went off and the runners sprang forth, Switzer included. “The first few miles of every marathon are fun. The running is easy, the crowd noise is exciting, and your companions are conversational and affable. You know it’s going to hurt later, so you just enjoy this time,” Switzer noted. She jogged along with her coach, Arnie Briggs; her boyfriend, Tom Miller; and college peer, John Leonard, from the university cross-country team. The quad was met with lots of encouragement from the sidelines—it seemed like nothing could dampen their spirits now.
Around mile four, a small commotion snuck up upon our gang of runners. There was a honking of horns and shouting—a press truck was fast approaching. The truck passed by and slowed, snapping photos of the runners, but more importantly, keeping their focus on Switzer. “We all started to laugh and wave, it was our ‘Hi-mom-on-the-nightly-news’ moment, and it was fun,” Switzer wrote of the interaction. As the runners beamed along, enjoying their small moment of fame, they had no idea what they would encounter next—and how historic the moment would be.
The group pranced along, their spirits still high, and grew closer and closer to a man in the middle of the road, dressed in an overcoat and felt hat. The peculiar man had a menacing feeling about him, wagging his fingers at Switzer and trying to grab her hand, pulling one of her gloves off instead. She sidestepped around him, thinking he was nothing but a crazed spectator, but a blue and gold Boston Athletics Association ribbon stated otherwise.
The man, it turns out, was Jock Semple—the Boston Marathon race co-director. He lunged at Switzer, baring his teeth, and grabbed hold of her shoulders while jerking her backwards, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” He then attempted to rip off Switzer’s bib while she leapt backwards, turning to flee.
Cameras went off around them, the whole spectacle memorialized in film. Semple caught hold of Switzer’s shirt and held her firmly, viciously. “The bottom was dropping out of my stomach; I had never felt such embarrassment and fear.” But just as Switzer began coming to terms with the end of her race, Tom—her boyfriend—charged forward, knocking Jock Semple backwards and sending him airborne. Switzer remarked that, “he landed on the roadside like a pile of wrinkled clothes.”
The group, buzzing with pure adrenaline, took off running. The press truck followed eagerly, knowing that a huge story was breaking. Their tone had changed; the excitement was replaced with dismay, maybe even revulsion. Questions were shot at a red-faced Switzer: “What are you trying to prove?” and “When are you going to quit?” The atmosphere had done a complete 180.
“[I was] deeply humiliated, and for a tiny moment, I wondered if I should step off the course. I did not want to mess up this prestigious race. But the thought was only a flicker. I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger,” Switzer said.
Switzer took that anger and let it propel her forward. Any time she felt like giving up, or felt herself weakening, she pushed onwards—for herself, for women, for those who are told that they can’t when they absolutely can.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Our heroine not only finished the race with blistered, bloody heels, she continued to advocate for women athletes, knowing full well we can do it just as good, if not better. In 1972, women were finally invited to officially race in the Boston Marathon, with none other than Jock Semple—the man who had lunged at Switzer—playing a key role in getting this enacted. Perhaps he realized his faulty ways, or felt defeated seeing Switzer cross the finish line, or recognized his own inhumanity seeing the images of him attacking her. Regardless, he isn’t the hero of this story and this isn’t about him. This is about Kathrine Switzer toughening it out, facing controversy head on, acknowledging her unrelenting strength, and running past the bullshit.