Trailblazer of women’s distance running

Kathrine Switzer’s uterus did not fall out. Neither did her chest sprout hair.

She is a living, breathing myth-buster, still running the streets of Wellington and proving that women can run without turning into men. It’s so obvious today, but 40 years ago when Switzer unwittingly became a pioneer of women’s distance running such beliefs were common.

She smashed those prejudices with an incident captured in a photograph which became world famous. It shows Switzer’s tall figure in a grey tracksuit bearing the number 261 in the 1967 Boston marathon. She has a look of trepidation as race organiser Jock Semple scrags at her, enraged that a girl – a girl! – would have the temerity to run in his race.

She finished as the first woman to officially enter the marathon and the picture flashed around the world.

Switzer, 61, reveals that although the incident launched a new era of women’s sport, she had not entered to make a feminist stand. “It was definitely not to make some big political statement,” says Switzer, who has written a book about her career as an athlete and promoter of women’s running. In fact, she says, had she known the reaction her entry would draw, she probably would not have run.

The truth is, Switzer had already made her stand months earlier, on a lonely, snow-sludged road miles from home and far from the cameras. Out in a storm one night, Switzer was listening to her running partner and marathon veteran Arnie Briggs tell yet another story about Boston. Fed up, she declared: “Oh, Arnie, let’s quit talking about the Boston Marathon and run the damn thing!”

She may as well have said she wanted to fly to the moon. Back then, there were myths aplenty about what would happen to women who ran long distances.

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