The Marathon Women Who Defied Convention

It’s almost a year since I broke my foot – and started writing this blog.

In overcoming injury, it’s as much about people who say “Screw You!” to other barriers.

Like why women weren’t allowed to take part in marathons until relatively late in the 20th Century.0415_marathon-switzer

“I came home one day and I told my father I was going to be a cheerleader and I was practicing with things and he said ‘No, no you don’t want to be a cheerleader honey’.

“And I said ‘Why?’

“And he said ‘Cheerleaders are cheering on the side-lines for other people. You want to be in the game’.

“He said ‘Life is to participate, not to spectate'”.

Kathrine Switzer

The woman who became the world’s first female to complete a marathon “officially” (ie with a number) added – “What a thing to tell your little girl!”

Switzer gets into her stride with her coach Arnie Briggs (wearing number 490)

What a thing indeed – given the fact that, as Switzer made history by running the Boston Marathon in 1967 aged 20, this paternal advice would’ve been given her in the 50’s, a period more associated with women belonging in the home rather than enjoying the same challenges as the men.

The Boston event is renowned for being tough – “It has humbled the greatest of runners,” according to the Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World, Bart Yasso.

With more then a hint of sarcasm, in a later interview, Switzer challenged the assumptions made in the 60’s – by people less broad-minded than her father:

“The idea of running long distance was always considered, very questionable for women, because any arduous activity would mean that you’re going to get big legs, grow a moustache and hair on your chest – and your uterus was going to fall out!”

Bobbi Gibb after the 1966 Boston Marathon (photo courtesy of Yarrow Kraner)

In 1966 Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb hid in bushes at the start of the same event then merely joined in with the other runners – going on to complete the full distance.

Her application had been rejected by the race director mainly on the grounds that females were, supposedly, simply not physiologically capable of going that distance – yet the crowds cheered and cheered once they saw a woman running.

The following year, K V Switzer signed off her entry form using just her initials for her first names – thus giving no indication she wasn’t a guy.

At first it all went well, as the journalism student from Syracuse University pounded along with her coach Arnie Briggs and boyfriend “Big Tom” Miller, attracting cheerful surprise from the other runners when they realised she was a female.

But then the race organisers riding on the press bus spotted her.

“One of them was this feisty character by the name of Jock Semple. He just stopped the bus, jumped off and ran after me.

“Suddenly I turned and he just grabbed me and screamed at me ‘Get the Hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’

“And then he started clawing at me, started trying to rip my numbers off – and I was so surprised.

“He had the fiercest face of any guy I’d ever seen, and out of control, really. I was terrified!”


As you can see in the pictures above, Switzer’s boyfriend, a hammer thrower, reacted arguably a little over zealously!

Anyway, if you’ve read as far as down here, you’ll want to know her finishing time – which was approximately 4 hours 20 minutes.

Switzer’s marathon glory days were only just beginning – she went on to win the women’s section of the 1974 New York City Marathon with a time of 3:07:29.

The following year she returned to the Boston Marathon – this time finishing second behind the German Liane Winter, whose win created a new world record at 2:42:24.

If any of the information in this post is factually inaccurate – and I sincerely hope it isn’t – please feel free to comment below.