When one woman fought a different marathon injustice

It’s fairly safe to assume that if Kathy Switzer was running her first Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, she would have been held back from finishing, with thousands of others.

I wasn’t the only one to suddenly think of the 20th century athletic icon when the full horror of Boylston Street began to unravel but, although I was nowhere near the city and watched it on social media and CNN like everyone else, Switzer offered reassurance to many people like me who felt helpless and confused.

Hers was a simpler but equally far-reaching clash with injustice: in 1967, she defied the age-old ban on women in the famous old race and completed it in four hours and 20 minutes despite the infamous attempts of Jock Semple, the Glaswegian whose role as race co-director had often turned comically violent over the years.

Switzer was inspired by a general yearning for equality as well as the pioneering mischief of another woman, Bobbi Gibb, who snuck into the race in 1966 and 1967 after both events had started rendering her relatively quick finishes unofficial and therefore less historically significant.

“I was very impressed with that,” Switzer would say later.

According to her autobiography, Marathon Woman, the would-be journalist transferred to Syracuse University in 1966 and became increasingly perturbed that she wasn’t allowed to run in meets with the men’s team despite training with them in the absence of a women’s team.

An assistant track coach called Arnie Briggs was initially reluctant to nurture the student’s burning ambition to run in Boston (“A woman can’t do it,” he’d say to her. “No dame’s ever run a marathon. Women are too weak and too fragile”) but soon relented and a regime was put in place that included one accidental 31-miler which ultimately proved to Briggs that Switzer’s ambition was both realistic and achievable.

Still though, she had to keep her entry vague, using KV Switzer on forms to avoid the attention of officials. But she didn’t make any effort to disguise her appearance, happy to let her fellow competitors, most of whom were supportive, in on the conspiracy while starting the race safe in their vast numbers.

The rest is history and all the more so thanks to the sequence of photographs which chronicled the frenzied Semple attacking her once it became clear that she had safely begun her mission.

He tried to rip her numbers off while yelling “Get the hell out of my race!”, the almost inevitable cry of a man for whom this feminist audacity was a personal slight against him above and beyond any damage that would be suffered by the event itself.

It’s difficult not to enjoy the perfect tackle thrown in by Switzer’s boyfriend, Syracuse University hammer thrower Tom Miller, whose role it was to protect her. Semple was cleared out and Miller told Switzer to “run like hell”.

Although Gibb finished way ahead of her, Switzer could be forgiven for her cautious 4:20 and not long after her battle was won and women were permitted to run the race, she was finishing second in 1975 with a time of 2:51 having won the New York City Marathon in 1974.

“While I was running, I had been kind of blaming women for not knowing how wonderful running and sports could be,” she would say of that first breakthrough. “And then I realised it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t have opportunities. I’d been really lucky. It was kind of this ‘Eureka’ moment.

“When I finished, I felt fabulous. I felt like I had a whole life plan ahead of me, a whole goal. I wanted to be a better athlete. I wanted other women to be in the race. And I wanted women who wouldn’t be afraid. And women who would have scholarships and have opportunities.”

As she has been for just over three decades, Switzer was working on a live broadcast for local television in Boston on Monday, standing on the Boylston Street photo bridge just above the finish line. She had left her position before the fateful moment but immediately became a symbol of reassurance in the struggle to understand.

It’s not easy to write about hope when the full horror is still being pieced together but Switzer’s example is unavoidable. Dave Zirin picked out her best quote when writing in The Nation on Monday: “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by — you can’t run and stay mad.”

She plans to run the race in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the incredible day she shared with Gibb. And Boston will run again next year on the city’s favourite day.

*john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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