Stand among the throngs of runners at any race in the United States, and you’ll be surrounded by women. Indeed, according to Running USA’s State of the Sport report, 56 percent of all U.S. race finishers in 2012 were female.
Outside of North America, however, the scene changes. While women’s running has made big strides, especially in parts of Europe and South America, racing remains largely a men’s sport globally. Worldwide statistics are hard to come by, but in Spain, for example, in 2013, women made up only 13 to 18 percent of the field in the country’s three largest half-marathons (compared with 60 percent in the same distance in the United States). And female participants made up only eight to nine percent of the field in three big-city Spanish marathons.
Kathrine Switzer hopes to remedy that. The American women’s running pioneer has a new mission: to bolster female participation in road races throughout the world. And if history is any indication, Switzer is just the woman for the job.
Back in 1967, when women were outliers in the then-fringe sport of distance running, Switzer famously challenged the Boston Marathon’s all-male tradition. She registered as K.V. Switzer, pinned on number 261, and lined up at the start. After race director Jock Semple tried to yank her off the course at mile two, photographs of the scuffle made headlines, and in an instant, Switzer became the poster girl for women’s running. “By the end of the race, I knew I was going to work for change for women,” she says.