Unless you are familiar with American running history, the name Kathrine Switzer may be unfamiliar. But if you are a woman who has ever entered and run a 5K, half marathon or full, you can thank Switzer.
Switzer was the first woman to officially compete in a marathon, at the time it was only legal for male participants to enter. She was assigned a bib for the 1967 Boston Marathon under the name K.V. Switzer. When officials discovered a woman was competing, they tried to literally pull her off the course. Her boyfriend intervened and she went on to finish the race.
In the time since, Switzer became a tireless advocate for women and girls in the sport. In 1972, women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon, and Switzer went on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974. She was also instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to add women’s marathon as a sport in 1984, paving the way for American Joan Benoit to win that first race.
Switzer was in Milwaukee Wednesday to speak at the breakfast for the Girls on the Run organization, and said that the joy found in running since she was a young is constant reminder and motivator to share and encourage in everyone, especially young girls.
"I had this sort of magic weapon, this secret thing that nobody could take away from me; a victory. And it made me really powerful and strong. So for a prepubescent kid going into high school, it was astonishing how self-possessed I felt and what a great moral compass I had," Switzer said. "And that sense of magic actually has stayed with me for 55 years of running. It's like a day I don't run is just like the day I don't have a bonus, and the day I do run is the day I've got the magic and I want to pass that on to everybody."
Fitness is still a key component to Switzer's life, and she will be running in the upcoming Boston Marathon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her barrier breaking race in 1967. When she isn't running or competing, Switzer travels to advocate change in sports and social spheres.
The best aspect of Switzer's work, she says, is the inspiration she can give girls and women around the world to stay active and pursue any path.
"They love the story of a girl who wanted to run and was told she couldn't run, and in fact, was attacked in a race because I was a girl," explained Switzer. "They love that story because I went ahead and did it anyway and showed that I was fearless. And they want to be like that. They want to say 'I can do anything,' and that's the message I want them to have."