Kathrine Switzer wants to be part of history again.
She was in 1967 when she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry. And she hopes to be again next weekend when she comes to Seneca Falls for its inaugural Right to Run 19K/5K.
“I think it’s going to grow to become a powerful and a traditional event,” Switzer said in a Friday phone interview. “It’s always wonderful to be there for the first. You’re part of a cohort, a class of exceptional legacies.”
Switzer is the spokesperson for the race, which takes its length from the 19th Amendment that granted all U.S. women the right to vote in 1920. In that role, she’ll appear at book signings, a panel talk and other related events Thursday, May 5, through race day Saturday, May 7.
The author and Syracuse University alumna will also be representing her Reebok-sponsored nonprofit, 261 fearless, which seeks to empower women worldwide through running. It takes its name from Switzer’s bib number in her history-making Boston race.
I spoke to Switzer about her involvement in the Right to Run 19K/5K, her recollection of the 1967 Boston Marathon and her training to run the marathon again next year, 50 years later, when she will be 70:
Q. I know that since you were inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011, you’ve wanted to come back and give back to Seneca Falls. Given that, as well as your history in the Boston Marathon and what you do now through 261 fearless, when you heard about the Right to Run 19K/5K was there an element of, “I have to be a part of this”?
A. Indeed, when I was inducted into the hall of fame, it was overwhelmingly important for me and gratifying. I guess the next highest award or recognition an American woman can get is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I don’t know of anything else that big for women. So to be inducted was really very special for me. Having said that, it’s an organization that needs funding and they’re building a wonderful center at the knitting mill. Many women who’ve been inducted can contribute thousands — I can’t, I’m just not in that category. But I do have great name recognition and a following in terms of running. So when they came up with the idea of the race and making it a 19K, it was just out there and quirky enough and resonating at a time when the world is really getting on alert for the anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. I thought, “This is terrific. I can’t make a major contribution to the hall, but I can give you three days of my time.” If I can make a speech every day, that would be substantial. I said, “I’m at your service.” And they’ve really taken that and run with it. As it turns out, my foundation, 261 fearless, ties in very neatly with it, which is great. So that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to pay back the hall, but also anything to do with running. A 19K is a distance that involves training, but then there’s a 5K, which is accessible to everybody. I love that there’s also an emphasis on women’s equality, but we’re also welcoming men, which is terrific because men have always been helpful, although not always enough.
Q. What is it about running that you think makes it such a great vehicle for empowering people?
A. There are emotional reasons and then there are real chemical reasons. When you run, your brain does all kinds of creative things, determination things, compassionate things, persistence. All these things are a part of brain secretions like oxytocin and serotonin, brain synapses connecting. The bottom line is: You feel good when you run. The endorphins, in women more than men, is amazing. Everybody runs and feels empowered, but women especially so. It could be that women don’t have as many opportunities to feel as empowered as men through sports, or getting together with the gang. Also, running is cheap and accessible. So if you have three kids, two dogs and a husband, you can go out for 20 minutes and get a dose of empowerment that’s going to last for the day. That moment of peace and meditation and that sense of “I can do it and overcome and blast through this day” is really very potent for women. That’s why a run is very important in celebrating the suffrage movement: We can take a long-term challenge and overcome it and make it happen. That’s why longer distances are very appealing to women: It doesn’t require power and strength, it requires endurance and persistence.