It’s been almost 50 years since Kathrine Switzer defied convention and tradition to become the first woman to officially enter and complete the Boston Marathon.
And guess what? At age 69, she’s still speaking out on behalf of girls and women; she’s still running (sometimes quite a long way); and she’s still sharing the story of the snowy, sleety April afternoon when – under the name “K.V. Switzer” – she was famously photographed while being accosted by an angry race director (who was thwarted in his attempt to physically remove her from the course at Mile 2) before going on to complete the race.
Switzer will visit Charlotte this week to do all of those things, as a guest of Girls On The Run Charlotte.
First, on Thursday morning, the author of the 2007 memoir “Marathon Woman” will share the compelling story of how her experience changed sports history forever as the keynote speaker for Girls On The Run’s “Limitless Potential Breakfast” at the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel on the edge of uptown.
Then on Friday morning, Switzer will mingle with GOTR donors during a four-mile run along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, after which she’ll sign copies of her book at Midtown Park.
Both events are fundraisers for the empowerment-focused running program for third- through eighth-graders, founded in Charlotte by Molly Barker 20 years ago. There are now 225 councils nationwide.
(Switzer, in fact, recently founded her own non-profit: 261 Fearless, which she calls “kind of like Girls On The Run for grown-up women.” Its goal is to empower and connect women through running, and its name was inspired by the bib number she fiercely defended at the 1967 Boston Marathon.)
Here’s a tease of the message Switzer plans to deliver during her speech on Thursday:
“It’s a real simple one,” she said in a phone interview earlier this week, “which is that my dad started me running when I was age 12 because he saw a little insecure kid who wanted to make the field hockey team at her high school. When I started running, it was the sense of empowerment that really gave me the courage to do so much in my life. So that’s the message I share: That the running experience and the community experience of these girls together is transformational, and applies to everything in their lives.
“And of course then I’ll tell the Boston Marathon story, and how I helped get the women’s marathon in the Olympics and helped organize 400 races in 27 countries. From that simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, huge things can grow. But you have to take the first step. And sometimes you don’t have the vision or the courage to take the first step alone. Would I have run a mile a day if my dad hadn’t said, ‘Honey, you should go out and run a mile a day’? I don’t know. Sometimes kids need to get the idea. They need to have the opportunity. Actually, not sometimes – always. One of the things I always say is that talent is everywhere. It truly is. Talent and capability are everywhere. They just need an opportunity.”
As for her own running, it’s going to be kicking back up into high gear in the new year: Next April, Switzer will return to the starting line of the Boston Marathon, which she’ll run with a large contingent of 261 Fearless supporters to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her historic achievement. It’ll be her first 26.2-mile race since Berlin in 2011; her last of eight career Boston Marathon finishes was in 1976. (Since 1979, she’s done television commentary at the finish line.)
Remarkably, Switzer said that her long run is currently around three hours, and that she does regular speedwork – “I do repeat 800s. I’m up to eight of those, pretty fast, at about an 8:15 pace.”
Here, she talks about her goals for her upcoming return to the marathon distance:
“Well, they’ve changed. Originally when I decided I was going to run on my 50th anniversary, I said, ‘OK, what I’d really love to do is get in really good shape and see if I can’t run faster than I did the first year I ran it,’ which was a 4:20. And I think I could do that. But it changed because there’s been so much interest and excitement about my running it. We’ve been awarded a number of bibs, charity bibs, from the Boston Athletic Association, and there are going to be about 100 women who are gonna be wanting to run with me and raise money for my charity.
“So it’s going to be a very, very big celebration, and a very, very big media event for the Boston Athletic Association. They want to make this 50th anniversary one of their showcase media stories. (Several TV) crews will be waiting for me at the 2-mile mark, which is where the incident roughly happened. There are also gonna be some other stops along the way, high-fiving, waves, quick interviews and such. Anyway, I’m doing this one for the experience.”
After Boston, though, she’s considering entering a race in which she can see what she’s really got left in the tank – perhaps the London Marathon, or a return to New York, a race she won in 1974 in 3:07:29. Switzer even mentioned interest in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, a roughly 56-mile that takes even the fastest women six-plus hours to complete.
She may not realize how crazy she is (though, in fairness, she’s no crazier than most hardcore long-distance runners). But she absolutely realizes how fortunate she is.
“I look at my legs and I say, ‘Why are you going so slowly?’ They’re not as springy. It’s not as easy. I feel it a little more. But some days when the moon is in the seventh house, I’m running along and it’s like it always used to be. And I do feel blessed. All around me people are getting hip replacements and knee replacements and having stents put in, and I’m just very, very, very lucky.”
Kathrine Switzer and Girls On The Run
She’ll be the keynote speaker for the organization’s Limitless Potential Breakfast, scheduled for 8-9 a.m. Thursday at the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel, 555 S. McDowell St. Details: www.gotrcharlotte.org/Limitless-Potential-Breakfast.
Then at 8:30 a.m. Friday, she’ll be a part of a four-mile run starting at Metropolitan, 1111 Metropolitan Ave., and traversing the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Refreshments and a book signing will follow at Midtown Park (at South Kings Drive and Pearl Park Way). All participants in the run must raise or donate at least $262 to Girls On The Run. Register: www.bit.ly/RunWithKS. Switzer said she’ll only lead the group at the start, at roughly a 9-minute-per-mile pace, “and then drop back through the crowd and probably run in with the last person.”
In its own words, Girls On The Run “inspires girls in third through eighth grades to recognize their inner strength and celebrate what makes them one of a kind. Trained coaches lead small teams through a 10-week curriculum that includes dynamic discussions, activities and fun running games. The program culminates with girls positively impacting their communities through a service project and being physically and emotionally prepared to complete a celebratory 5k event.”
Charlotte’s council is always looking for volunteer coaches: www.gotrcharlotte.org/Coach.