Katherine Switzer: ...that we all have much more ability than we think we do
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. We're very honored to have Kathrine Switzer as our guest on this episode. Kathrine is one of the most iconic figures in all of running. She was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, and she was the women's winner of the New York City Marathon in 1974. Kathrine is the author of several books including her autobiography, Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports.
Jan: Kathrine was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running. In 2015, Kathrine launched her global nonprofit, 261 Fearless, which uses running as the means to empower women to overcome life obstacles and embrace healthy living. Kathrine, thank you so much for joining us.
Kathrine: Great. It's wonderful to be here, Jan and Laura. I'm really excited about talking to you today.
Jan: Tell us why you first started running, and how old you were when you started.
Kathrine: I love telling this story. I was 12 years old, and my dream was to be a high school cheerleader at the time because I thought they were pretty and popular, and that was kind of a passport for success. It was my father who said, "You don't want to cheer for other people, you want people to cheer for you. Your school has something new, it's called a field hockey team. You want to go out and play and have people cheer for you." I said, "I don't know anything about that." He said, "Neither do I, but I know it involves running. If you ran a mile a day, you'd be one of the best players." He was very motivational. I started running this mile a day to make the field hockey team. I did make the team, and I really was one of the best players.
But the point is, it was the running I loved the most, just going out by myself and running. I remember that so distinctly because a little 12-year-old girl growing up, pre-pubescent, heading to high school and feeling empowered in that I could do anything, was overwhelming and very, very, very, very strong feelings. I wanted to pass that on to everybody I knew. That's what I've devoted my life to doing, I know that's what we're going to be talking about. It was that early start that made so much difference in my life.
Laura: After that, where did the dream come from to go to Boston?
Kathrine: I went to Syracuse University to study journalism, and they didn't have any women's sports at all, but I wanted to study journalism. This is kind of what I expected, that once you got to university-level, nobody took women's sports seriously. I didn't know any women sports, maybe except some that I saw on the Olympic Games, none of them that resonated with me because I like to go out and run long.
I went out and asked the men's track coach if I could run on the men's team. He said, "No, you can't run on the men's team, but you can come out and train with us. We don't mind that." I said, "That's great." Since I was studying journalism, I started covering the team and gave them a lot of publicity in the local paper and in our school paper. I thought if I could be a sports journalist, at least I could stay close to sports. But out there on the cross-country course, a very amazing thing happened, the guys were really wonderful and very welcoming to me, and one volunteer coach who was really old, he was 50, I laugh about that now.
Kathrine: He was an ex-marathoner. I was so slow, he started jogging with me every day and telling me about the Boston Marathon, which was his great day every year of his life, he'd run it 15, 16 times. He would tell me these wonderful stories about this race, totally unaware of the fact that he was inspired me to run it. As the days, and weeks, and months went on, and we were running daily, I got stronger and stronger. We were running longer, and longer, and longer, we were getting up to 14, 15 miles. I said to him, "You know, I'd like to run the Boston Marathon one day because you've inspired me so much." He said, "A woman can't run it." I said, "Why?" He said, "Women are too weak and too fragile." I said, "If I'm running 14 or 15 miles, why can't I run 26.2?" He said, "Oh, no, no. Women can't do it. It gets harder as it gets longer." I said, "No kidding. But I've read about other women who've done arduous things, including a woman named Roberta Gibb, who jumped out of the bushes at Boston the year before." He just got furious, he said, "No woman ever ran a marathon." He said, "I don't believe that." I said, "You're crazy, it was in all the newspapers." He said, "I'll tell you what, if you prove to me in practice that you can do the distance, I'll take you to Boston."
I had my challenge. That was the thing, it wasn't really Boston so much as it was proving to my coach that I could do it, that a woman could do it. When I did it in practice, this is really quite prophetic; I said, "Please, let's run another five miles, I really want to make sure we can get through the Boston Marathon." And we ran 31 miles. At the end of the workout, he passed out. When he came to, he said, "Women have hidden potential, endurance, and stamina."
That's something we're discovering now that's changing the face of sports. We're seeing that women may not be as fast and as powerful as men, but they have more endurance and stamina. It doesn't mean women are better than men, or men are better than women, it means we're different. I was so excited to discover this, and he was too. He was extremely proud of me.
It was my coach, Arnie Briggs, who said, "Okay now, if we're going to go to Boston, you got to officially sign up and run this race." I said, "Is it against the rules because other women haven't done that." He said, "No, nobody believes a woman can do it, that's why it's not even in the rulebook." There was nothing about gender on the entry form, so he said, "It's got to be okay." I filled out the entry form and I sent in my $2 entry fee, and so did he and a couple of guys from our cross-country team, and off to Boston we went.
I wasn't going to Boston to prove anything, to be a pioneer, but I was really proud of myself, I was really proud of being a woman and that I'd run 31 miles. I was very confident about doing the distance. I was just nervous as everybody is before a marathon, thinking what could go wrong. Am I going to feel well that day? Am I going to get a side stitch, or diarrhea, or something? Am I going to be able to manage? And of course, you know the story; what happened in Boston is that all the men were wonderful to me. The officials couldn't tell that I was a woman, the men could because it was so snowing, so sleeting that we had on these baggy, gray sweat suits, from a distance I look like anybody else.
During the race, when I was running at about a mile and a half, the press truck came by and saw this girl in the race wearing bib numbers and they went crazy. The race director was on the bus and got furious seeing a girl in the race. Feeling he had been defrauded, that I was wearing numbers, he said it was against the rules, jumped off the press bus and went after me, attacked me, grabbed me, and screamed at me to get the hell out of his race and tried to rip off my bib numbers. Of course he did this in front of the press truck and the press are going crazy taking pictures of this whole incident. I was trying to get away from him, I was scared to death. My coach was screaming at him, "Leave her alone." My boyfriend, who was only running the Boston Marathon because if his girlfriend could do it, he could do it, and he was an ex-All American football player, he just bopped him and knocked him out of the race, the official. My coach said, "Run like hell."
It's hilarious in the retelling; but just imagine you're a 20-year-old girl and you're running your first race, it's the Boston Marathon, it's a really big deal, and this whole thing happens, you feel so awful, afraid, and humiliated. But I got angry and I said to my coach, "I'm going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to. I don't care who's going to try to pull me out, I am going on to finish this race." That was the smartest thing, and the most courageous decision I think I've ever made in my life because it was hard. The press truck stayed with us and were berating me for miles. They were so desperate for me not to finish because they just couldn't face the fact that a woman deserved to be in the race and could do it.
That changed everything. It took a long time, when I finished the race, the press still tried to say that it didn't count, that it was just a jogging time because it took me 4 hours and 20 minutes, but I wasn't last by far. 4 hours and 20 minutes is a perfectly good time now. But I really put my nose to the grindstone and then became a better athlete as you know, won New York, wound up second at Boston with a world-class time, improved from 4:20 to 2:51. The 2:51 performance was one of the best in the world at the time. I figured if I could do that, millions of women can, but they just are too afraid to try. Too afraid because people kept saying, "You're a girl, you can't do it, you're not good enough." It became, really, the whole reason of my life, which included writing books, broadcasting, setting up my foundation. Just giving women the glimpse into themselves, of their own capability, that was the most important driving force for me.
Jan: There are famous photos of the official attacking you. One of those photos was flashed around the world and is now in Time's LIFE book, 100 Photos that Changed the World. How awesome is that for you?
Kathrine: It was amazing because that proved everything I had always said. I wasn't just the reason, I was just the spark. That photo ignited the imagination of millions of people, not just women, but men, but especially women. I've received hundreds of letters and emails from people saying that they've had that picture on their wall for years and it's always inspiring them. It resonates with people so much because everybody has been told, even you guys, you've been told, "Hey, you shouldn't start this radio program."
Laura: Right. Yeah.
Jan: Sure, sure. Yeah.
Kathrine: "You shouldn't do that, it'll never be successful. What are you wasting your time for? You're not good enough. You're the wrong color, or the wrong race, or the wrong religion. Or you're not cool, little girls especially are bad about, 'You're not cool.'" We go ahead and do something, like run, and we prove that we can be fearless and overcome those feelings.
That's why my Foundation, which is called 261 Fearless, was named after the bib number that the official tried to rip off of me in that famous picture. People also were saying that when they saw that picture, they were saying, "261, those numbers," which were for years to me just three digits, "makes me feel fearless." That's really exciting when many, many people were saying that number made them feel fearless. We turned it into a non-profit that is igniting women around the world to just take that first step.
Laura: Now, it's so interesting, there are more female runners than there are male runners in the United States. I'm wondering what you think is behind that. I would think it would be in large part due to the path that you forged.
Kathrine: Yes. And it's not just in the US anymore, it's also in Canada, I believe in France and in Japan, it's going global. Here's the reason. It's because when a woman starts to run, she has that same sense of empowerment and destiny that I had when I was 12. It's sounds really dumb, but if you put one foot in front of the other, you come back in after 10 minutes, or 20, or an hour, or two hours, and you say, “I can do it. I can do anything. I feel great about myself.”
Women who often have either not many opportunities in their lives, or not much self-esteem, or are really, really busy in their lives with everybody else, their work, the house, the kids, the dog, hubby, all these millions of things you're doing for everybody, but you're not taking any time for yourself. They take that 20 minutes at five o'clock in the morning while the kids are still asleep, they go out, they run, and they say, “Right, no matter how crappy this day is going to be, I have accomplished something for me.” They feel really great. They pass the word on to other women, they get together and they find that these women will meet them in the dark, in the snow, in the slush, and they go out on a run together and they feel very, very bonded. They feel, “Hey, you know what? I can overcome this issue," whatever it is.
Furthermore, it is actually a very creative process. We all know that any kind of exercise, walking, dancing, movement, brings in extra oxygen into the brain and creates wonderful thought and fast thought processes that can really give us an insight into what's ailing you, or into a new idea. Many, many women have told me that the run has really helped them in their careers, in their work, and in their family relationships because they feel good, they feel confident about making decisions, and they feel good about themselves. When you feel good about yourself, you can start feeling pretty good about other people too, and take a different look and a different viewpoint.
Many times, you can go out and run and you almost have a sense of spirituality. You can have the courage to maybe leave a bad relationship. You can solve a problem that's been nagging at you. You say, “If I can run for an hour, or if I can run for 10 minutes, if I can fit this in my life, I can get that solved.” It’s amazing this transformation. That's what's happened. And therefore, it’s become a social revolution because these women are changing their lives in every respect. It is amazing just putting one foot in front of the other, and it's changing the world.
We look at women, for instance, in Kenya and Ethiopia right now who are very, very good runners naturally because they've been living at altitude for thousands of years. Suddenly, they're beginning to run and some of them being very good, hit the running circuit, won prize money, and they take it back to their villages. They're building schools, sanitizing water, inoculating the kids. For the first time in thousands of years, these women are not second-class citizens. They're really taking the decision-making and changing their society for the better. This is when a social revolution happens, and it's happening everywhere. It's amazing.
Jan: You worked to get the Women's Marathon into the Olympic Games, why was that important to you?
Kathrine: You know why it was important? It’s important, just like giving women the right to vote. People don't take themselves seriously until something is often mandated. They somehow go into the mindset, “Oh, well, if I don't have the vote, there must be a reason for it.” Rather than saying, “Wait a minute, I have an equal partnership here in this society.”
In the Olympic Games, women were denied the longer distance events. When I first ran the Boston Marathon, the 800-meters, two laps around the track, had just been added to the Olympic program. They felt that anything more than that was too arduous for women, that you would turn into a man, or that your uterus would fall out.
Laura: Oh, my gosh. So crazy to think about it now.
Kathrine: I know, but look around the world, these myths still prevail. I was in southern Spain and in South America this year, and honestly women would come up to me and would say, "I'm worried if I run that I'll somehow lose my femininity." I thought, "Oh, my God, these women, they can't get by." Sometimes it's very hard to get by how you were raised and the examples that you have to think out of the box. I said, "Quite the opposite will be the case. You're going to be strong, fit, happy, and glowing."
But anyways, the Olympic Games was very important because I knew there was a lot of talent out there and women wouldn't believe they had the talent and wouldn't achieve, go for the ultimate goal, unless the event was in the Olympic Games. Also, it was a real strike for equality because the toughest event in the Olympic Games for men is the marathon. We needed to prove that women could do it and do it well, that they were entitled to be there, they were entitled to be in the Olympic Games. It's the same thing with Title IX, by the way.
But anyway, when the Women's Marathon was voted into the Olympic Games, it changed the landscape for elite athletes, for these athlete women. They looked at that and they said, "Ok, if it's in the Olympic Games, I can go for it." There were many, many women, like Grete Waitz, the great Grete Waitz from Norway, who had been running 800-meters, then 1500-meters, and then doing 3000-meters; really, she was a born marathoner but she didn't think that she was a marathoner because it wasn't really in the Olympic Games, so it didn't count. When it was in the Olympic Games, she went on to become the Silver Medalist. It was really quite amazing to see the women emerge. It's about leveling the playing field, whether it's the right to vote, getting the Women's Marathon in the Olympic Games, or mandating Title IX and changing, totally, our educational system and our public sports systems in the United States.
Laura: One of my favorite things about your story is how you ended up running the Boston Marathon 50 years after you first ran it. You ran it in 2017 at the age of 70. In what ways was it different training for that, being in the race, and what kind of challenges do you face as an older athlete?
Kathrine: I'm so glad you asked that question. Honestly, running the Boston Marathon in 2017, 50 years after I first did, it was the happiest day of my life. It was one of those moments where you come across the finish line, and you say, “Okay, God, take me now, I can go.” I felt like I had passed the torch. I spent 50 years of my life campaigning for women's equality. Here's a way of looking at it. In 1967, I stood at the start line with people looking at me. The men were appreciative, but I was an oddity. I was the only woman in that starting line with a bib on. 50 years later, I stood side-by-side with 13,000 women with a bib on, that is an amazing sensation. These women, most of them really knew what that meant because Boston is a big race, and it's a tough race to get into, so they were very appreciative.
It was phenomenal also because it was, essentially, the global launch of my Foundation, 261 Fearless. We had 125 women who ran to raise money for the Foundation. They were around me so we ran as a team, at least we started as a team and then, of course, we all ran different paces. But all along the route, people were holding up signs saying, “Go 261”, “Go Kathrine”, “Equality for Women”. The crowds were going berserk on a perfect spring day, it was just amazing.
Actually, the run went extremely well for me. I was very nervous about it because I had trained hard. The training was really good, the training was in the bank, I'll talk about that in a minute. But I was exhausted by the time I got to the start line because of all the media pressure. People were saying, “My God, you're 70 years old and you're running a marathon?” I said, “Look, that's not unusual. There are lots of 70, 80, there's even 90-year-old women, mid-90's, who have run marathons.” I said, “That's not unusual.” They said, “Yes, but you're the first to do it 50 years after you first did.” I said, “Yes, I'm grateful for my health." But also, that's just testimony to how few women ran 50 years ago, that's the story, and to see that in my lifetime was phenomenal. Anyway, that was really great.
You asked about the training and being 70. First of all, I also was sort of stunned that people made a big deal about me being 70 because I said, “I'm not 70, I'm 25.” I just absolutely don't feel different, I really don't. I just wonder why I'm going a lot slower. Here's what I did differently. Having run all my life, I felt like I was an expert and really didn't need to get help with training. Then I realized, things have changed so much in the last 50 years. It's time to go out and use the technology. I went out and I went to a couple of really, really good physios, made sure I was in really, really good balance. I gave myself two years to get ready for this moment, which was scary for me because usually I don't put it out there, not that much in advance because anything can happen in two years, anybody can get sick, or hit by a car.
Anyway, I put it out there, I put the pressure on myself, which I didn't want to do, but I thought it was important to build the excitement, for the Foundation in particular. The physio said, “Listen, one thing I'd like you to do, I want you to run every other day, not every day.” I said, “Oh, my God, I'm used to running twice a day when I was an elite athlete.” She said, “Yeah, but you're not 25 anymore, you're 70. You're going to need to recover.”
Recovery was as important as the training. I found that I could really train well, and with quality, and then took the next day off and could recover. I also look forward to it, I never dreaded it. I was like, “Oh, boy. Great, I get to go run.” When sometimes you run every day, you say, “Oh, God, I got to get out there in the rain.” You know what I mean?
Laura: Yeah, I know that feeling myself.
Kathrine: On the opposite days, she said, “This is going to be the hard part for you. You're really going to have to do core work.” I said, “I've got a great core.” She said, “You did have a great core.” People don't do sit ups anymore, they do planks and all these things that I've never heard of. I'd kept up with my stretching and did my own version of Pilates, and yoga, and stuff like that, so I was very flexible.
I went to a gym and, oh, my God, the core work killed me, killed me. The trainer was really great, he was a young man, and he said, “You're having difficulty with this today." This was the first day, he said, “Within a week, you're going to be phenomenal.” And I was. I was so excited about what my body could do. This is the message I'd like to give people is that the body always, at any age, wants to get better. Get some advice, go out, start very gradually, build up, give yourself time, and you can achieve phenomenal things.
The next revolution in our society is going to be the aging revolution. People talk about older people the way they talked about women 50 years ago. They said, “You're too old. You should sit down and take it easy. You're going to have a heart attack if you do that. You might fall down and hurt yourself.” All of those things that they said to women. Why not train yourself? Why not give yourself the opportunity to excel and exercise well and hard? That's the best thing you can do to yourself. We're finding that people who actively age, age actively, keep up their activity, have much longer lifespans, better quality of health, higher optimism, a much better quality of life. That's going to be the thing that's going to make the difference in everybody's age. I want to be 85 and be able to move around, still travel, and do interesting things. I don't want to be in a nursing home, that's my biggest dread. A lot of luck is involved too, because anybody can get sick, but the more active you are, the better and stronger you are. This is going to be, for you guys running this show and a lot of our listeners, the aging revolution is going to be phenomenal, so stay active as long as you can.
I wound up after Boston feeling so phenomenal, probably slightly delusional and hypoxic. I said, "I am in great shape. I can do amazing things." I ran then, four months later, the New York City Marathon, 43 years after I won it, which was phenomenal. Another phenomenal publicity thing. Oh, my God, the crowds were going crazy for me again. It was really wonderful. I had done the broadcast for that race for 28 years and so here I was, had gone on the back of a motorcycle through the streets of New York but I had never run through the streets of New York because when I won the New York City Marathon, it was in Central Park. Very difficult with those hills, but I had never run through the streets. To get off the back of a motorcycle and actually run it myself was wonderful.
Then full of hypoxia and delusion, five months later, I ran the London Marathon in downtown London. I chose it because it was the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in England. It was magic. I was running on the same streets that the suffragettes marched on 100 years before. Here I was with 25,000 women running 26 miles. Those moments will stay with me until my dying day. It is just quite phenomenal. Just amazing. It's been an incredible last couple of years, ladies. What can I tell you?
Jan: What's next for you? You've accomplished so much in your life, what goals do you have now?
Kathrine: A goal is to stay running and to run a few more marathons. I hate to say I have a bucket list, but I really would like to run Tokyo and Chicago, then I've done what's called the Big Six. I don't want to put it out there, but in the back of my mind, I've always wanted to run an Ultramarathon, Comrades in South Africa is something I've kind of wanted to do. Mostly, I want to maintain my health and fitness, and keep active and injury free. I took a big fall in May, right after London, and tore a muscle in my hip. I still trained through it for a while, but then I took a few months off. I'm coming back from that, and that annoys me. This is an aging thing. I tripped over a tree root that I didn't see and I've, in fact, had to have cataract surgery because, obviously, I wasn't seeing well. So that is an aging thing, so keep up with your health that way.
The biggest thing I want to do though is we're working hard on the 261 Fearless Foundation. We're in seven countries already. We're doing amazing things, training coaches all over the world, to get women who are, themselves, transformed by running, know the power of running, and are excited about passing on what they know to other people. To train them to be coaches, coaches is a bit of a strong word, it's to show them how to start a running club or group in their community so that they can be the club leader and bring women together, especially just ordinary women who think they can't put one foot in front of the other. This is not competitive, this is entirely social. We just want you to get out there and experience the empowerment of walking and running together.
This is taking place all over the world. These next two years, three years, are going to be really critical in terms of getting a lot of proliferation of clubs salted around the world, and up and running so that they too can pass on to the further community. The more women who are doing this, the better. We have changed the world with running and we're going to continue to do it. We're getting now into difficult places. We're in Zambia, we're in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we're going into Poland, we're getting into some refugee camps, Syrian refugee camps that are now in Europe, getting those women out moving. This is going to be phenomenal when it gets going. I really got to put my nose to the grindstone, make that happen.
I've got to write another book, Marathon Woman effectively ends in 1984 with the inclusion of the Women's Marathon in the Olympic Games. Who would have imagined that so much of my life would explode after 1984, quite amazing.
Jan: Yeah, yeah.
Laura: Kathrine, on that note, our show is called Nobody Told Me, at the end of each program we ask our guests, “What is your nobody told me lesson?” In your case, what do you wish you'd known before this whole journey began that would have helped you?
Kathrine: I wish somebody would have told me when I was just beginning to run that I could do amazing things. That if I just believed more in myself, that I didn't have to flog myself to death, that I could home in on a specific thing, let's say like running, and I could have been a lot better as an athlete. But if I became a lot better as an athlete, maybe I wouldn't have been as sympathetic as I am for the ordinary woman. I consider myself a very ordinary person who just works very hard and accomplishes extraordinary things simply because I work hard. Actually, we all have much more capability than we believe. I wish somebody would have told me that a long time ago, maybe I would have had to work a little bit less, but accomplished a little bit more. Does that make sense?
Jan: I think you've accomplished an awful lot. You're so impressive, you are so impressive. I know people will want to get in touch with you or connect with you to find out more about your story on social media and on the internet, how can they do that?
Kathrine: The best thing is to go to 261fearless.org. You can contact me through there. Also, look at it and say, “Hey, I'd like to start a club." or "I'd like to be a friend to 261 Fearless and help other women find their fearlessness through running and walking." Just join us and be part of this amazing explosion.
Jan: Also, you have the website, kathrineswitzer.com, correct?
Kathrine: Yes, I do. kathrineswitzer.com and marathonwoman.com, you can also come in there and there's a responder of how to reach me.
Jan: Okay, super. Kathrine, thank you so much for joining us. This has really been a joy to talk with you, inspiring and joy.
Laura: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. I think everyone, whether or not they've been a runner their whole lives or are just trying to pick it up, or considering picking it up, I think everyone can learn from your story.
Kathrine: Thank you so much. It's so easy, just put one foot in front of the other and believe in yourself.
Jan: Good advice. Thank you so much, Kathrine.
Kathrine: Thank you.
Jan: That has been our guest, Kathrine Switzer. Again, you can find out more about her at her website, kathrineswitzer.com. You can also go to 261fearless.org. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.