On Miles and Marathons, Might and Meaning: Why—to Female Marathoners—the 26.2 Is So Much More Than a Medal
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Katherine Switzer made history in 1967, becoming the first woman to complete a marathon as an officially registered runner. Such an unprecedented moment would have surely been memorialized as one of the most victorious moments in women’s sports, right? Think again.
Prior to 1972, the Amateur Athletic Union barred women from competing in races longer than 1.5 miles—much less 26.2 miles. In fact, many people at the time believed that running marathons would result in women’s uteruses falling out.
Switzer, however, was unfazed. The defiant 20-year-old registered for the 1967 Boston Marathon under the gender-ambiguous name “K.V. Switzer,” an action she later defended as legal because it was the name on her birth certificate.
Despite initial confusion among the race day crowds, Switzer’s bold plan was met with relatively good reception. On race day, passersby cheered loudly as she ran alongside her coach, Arnie Briggs, and boyfriend, Tom Miller. At one point, Switzer even had to stop, because so many people were taking photos. That is, however, until a truck stopped right in front of her.
Race director Jock Semple, after seeing the commotion Switzer had caused among the crowd, came out of the truck and immediately grabbed her torso, screaming at her to get off the course. “A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce,” Swizter remarked in a documentary. “Before I could react, he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’”
After a few fruitless attempts to get Semple off of her body, her boyfriend, Miller, an All-American football player, picked him up and flung him into the side of the course, further arousing the already-enlivened audience.
When the scene finally subsided, Switzer said to Briggs: “I’ve gotten you into a lot of mess here. I don’t know where you stand in this, but I’m going to finish this on my hands and knees if I have to.”
And that she did. Switzer finished the marathon in four hours and 20 minutes, accomplishing what no one believed she could.
That moment came to define the rest of Switzer’s career. Emboldened by a newfound sense of confidence, she became an active advocate for women’s representation in sports. As a result of her efforts, women were officially allowed to compete in marathons in 1972, and the women’s marathon was successfully added as an Olympic event in 1984.
Since then, women’s marathon culture has exploded, with millions of women competing worldwide each year. In fact, more women participated in marathons than did men in 2018.
But Switzer’s impact extends far beyond the statistics. To get a better idea of how significant Switzer’s feat truly is, I talked to Assistant Principal of World Languages, Art, and Music, Francesa McAuliffe, a lifelong runner who ran the 2019 New York City Marathon.
McAuliffe was an avid athlete growing up. She began running her freshman year of high school when she joined her school’s cross country and track and field teams. “I really enjoyed long distances and running in the woods, like at Van Cortlandt or Cloves Lake,” McAuliffe explained. She continued running after she graduated from high school, citing that the sport made her feel “energetic and positive.”
McAuliffe celebrates how inclusive the marathon community has become for people of all genders, which she highly credits Swizter for catalyzing. “I really appreciate her [Swizter] for being a trailblazer and really going out there to register. I want to thank her for going out there and doing what she did because when I was running the course, the athletes and supporters didn’t seem more heavily male or female. Everyone was so supportive of everyone.”
In fact, McAuliffe notes that the vibrant marathon community is one of her favorite things about running: “A marathon is not a sprint, so every networking opportunity you get along the way is really worth it.” She recalled one experience she had meeting a couple during the New York City marathon. “At mile one, there was a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary together. They really inspired me, so I cheered them on, shouting, ‘you can do it!’ I saw them again at mile 23, where they shouted, ‘you cheered for us, so we’re going to cheer for you!’ It was a moment that I really can’t compare to anything else. I think the last time I smiled that hard was during my wedding.”
Having been the only female coach of a boys’ varsity soccer division, McAuliffe knows that there is still more work to be done to ensure equal female representation in sports. “It’s important to be inclusive, especially when it’s about something that so many people are passionate about and allows people to live healthier, happier lives,” McAuliffe explained. “We need to continue to enroll girls in different sports and athletic programs, and we need to see more female coaches.”
But McAuliffe is optimistic that as long as female athletes continue to draw upon pioneers of female sports, like Switzer, as inspiration to accomplish their goals, the sports community will be one step closer to becoming the more supportive, inclusive environment she knows it has the potential to become. “I want to see females represented in every sport. We must continue to advocate, to participate, and to support one another.”
That’s not all. She has some advice to all the female athletes out there: “Keep on being awesome. Keep on inspiring. Keep on uplifting. And if anyone needs a running buddy, I’m open.”