How I'm Skirting the Rules

I Was Almost Pushed Out of a Marathon Because I’m a Woman—But I Finished

A male race official tried to push Kathrine Switzer off the Boston Marathon course in 1967 simply because she is a woman. After becoming the first female to wear a bib number in the race, 50 years later Kathrine is running it again to remind women that showing up can change everything.

Kathrine Switzer, first woman to run the Boston Marathon

Kathrine Switzer overcame obstacles due to her gender to successfully become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.

Today, women can run the Boston Marathon and even participate in the Olympic running competitions in part due to the bravery of one woman. Kathrine Switzer, athlete, activist, and author, was only a student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University when she began training with the boys’ track team—there was no girls’ team yet—and signed up to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. There were no rules saying she couldn’t sign up because of her gender.

Kathrine registered with her initials “K.V. Switzer” and then ran alongside her trainer and boyfriend at the time. It was then that she was attacked by Jock Semple, a race official, who tried to rip her bib number—which race organizers give registered runners to help identify them—when he spotted her on the course. That’s when her boyfriend, wrestler Tom Miller, tackled Semple as Kathrine ran on. After this scary situation, Kathrine knew she had to finish the race to empower women in the running world, and everywhere. Today, she uses her legendary bib number, 261, to inspire women to do something that they thought was impossible through her non-profit organization, 261 Fearless. Fifty years later with 39 marathons under her belt, she’s running the Boston Marathon yet again to celebrate women and what they can achieve if they can put their fears aside.

My company 261 Fearless is Skirting the Rules by creating a community of women who share their fearlessness together and who are helping women find bravery through the vehicle of running. We realize, intuitively and experientially, that running empowers us and helps us feel confident.

A time when I found the possible (a creative solution) within the impossible (against incredible odds) was getting the women’s marathon event within the Olympic games. People said it was impossible, that women couldn’t run and wouldn’t run. The creative solution was to offer women the opportunity in a non-intimidating and welcoming way, such as with women’s-only events so they could experience running with other women. It was offered to them not necessarily to be competitive, but to enjoy the experience. Consequently, what we did was have thousands of women turn up to run, which proved to the International Olympic Committee that women could run, wanted run, and had both the talent and the international representation. At the same time, we offered medical evidence from really forward-thinking doctors to prove that running was very healthy for women, that women were naturally suited for endurance, and that it was mentally empowering. It gave women a lot of self-confidence.

There were two times during this period that were really dramatic: One was in Japan in 1978, when the Running Confederation would not let women run. We put on a wonderful event for them where more than a thousand women showed up. Also in Brazil, where the head of the Federation said that women wouldn’t run, and it wasn’t socially appropriate and it wouldn’t be successful. He said: “Well, maybe you’ll get a 100 women.” We had over 10,000 women, so the evidence was overwhelming. Women themselves spoke up and showed up, and it changed everything.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me was in the Boston Marathon in 1967 when an official attacked me and tried to throw me out of the race. I was terrified and scared. My intuition told me that, no matter what, I had to finish the race to prove that women could do the distance and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon. And the second time this happened was later in the race at about 20 miles, just at the point when your mind goes a little crazy, when I realized that I was not any kind of special woman. Other women would and could run the distance if they were given the opportunity to try. Most women were afraid and if I could spend part of my life giving women the opportunity to run, they too would be there. They only needed to have the opportunity to be fearless themselves.

My secret talent is that I have a pathological ability to perceive a possibility and to see the hope in a negative situation. In an accident, I don’t usually panic. I’m very calm. It’s interesting because I’m a high-energy type of person and, when it comes down to it, I can really narrow my focus and find a solution.

A woman is most powerful when she proves to herself that she can do something that she previously thought was difficult to do.

What I wish I had told myself when I was starting out is to ask for advice. I always thought I had to have all the answers myself.

My favorite skirt (a.k.a life hack or life rule) is that the more you do, the more you can. For example, I may feel overwhelmed if I have a book to write that must be 300 pages long, but you just need to start, to take the first step. The more you do of it, the more you see what you’re capable of, and the more confidence you build.