The New Culture of Capability, by Kathrine Switzer, New England Runner July/August 2015

As featured in the latest July/August 2015 issue of New England Runner.  Purchase your issue at New England Runner.

The New Culture of Capability

Over the last year, I have sat in on women’s network meetings in some of the world’s largest IT, insurance, and non-profit companies. Without fail, I’ve been extremely impressed with the women’s support systems, their shared stories, and their creative and profitable team work. Such women’s business collaboration almost never existed just 30 years ago. A woman in business was still in a man’s competitive world, and often felt alone.

It’s all changed. Wonderfully. Profitably. Healthily.

There was an interesting common denominator among these woman: almost all of them had some kind of sports experience and a love of running.

I have often said that one of the greatest social revolutions of the last 100 years has been the emergence of women in sports and there is no doubt in my mind that this was led by the women’s running movement. Five years before the passage of Title IX, the equality of education amendment to the Constitution, we women were campaigning actively for official inclusion in the marathon. It’s not so coincidental that women got the right to run in April of 1972 and Title IX was signed into effect in June.

If a woman can run a marathon, she can do anything. I don’t think there is a faster means of empowerment than to run. Its transformative feeling of self-esteem and can-do is almost instantaneous. Now 58% of the runners in the United States are women and they continue to lead an empowerment revolution that is going global.

Key to change are three things: Opportunity, Role Models, and Inspired Community. This spring we experienced three things in running that are already beginning to change the world for women:

Opportunity: Capability is everywhere; you only need to give it an opportunity. In running, you have to feel it to understand its power. Women in Europe are running by the thousands, and there are many big women’s only races. But they are still timid about stepping up to the marathon distance, and that is why the 261 Women’s Marathon in Mallorca was created last year—amazingly, it is the only women’s marathon in Europe.

Designed to be welcoming and encouraging, the event doubled in entries this year. It also brought many return runners from around the world for one simple reason: the spirit. Here every woman knows and shares the family sacrifice, the time constraint, the financial cost of a trip to Mallorca and the fear of failure that the marathon imposes on the ordinary woman.   There is no language barrier as 27 different countries of women share the same universal language of running and this understanding. They are there for each other, and the camaraderie is nothing short of astonishing. There were plenty of tears of joy at both the start and the finish as women who had never even met or spoken to each other embraced.

Other countries are noticing. The 261 Women’s Marathon & 10k will continue to offer the opportunity, and continuing to empower women. Watch this space.

Role Models: After 25 years of hard running, women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe announced her retirement from competitive running when she ran the London Marathon this year. She wisely decided to run in the open peoples’ race, and not with the elite women, so she could share the experience with the thundering multitudes around her. Surrounded by a flotilla of very fit men and another woman not far behind, Paula charged through the London streets with a mile wide grin. Close to a million people watch the London Marathon and it is safe to say almost all of them wanted to see Paula. I confess I was one of them; I’m a huge fan, and to see her was to see the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Paula was our first million-dollar baby, and deserved every hard-earned penny as she trained harder, got injured more and struggled back to fitness more than anyone I knew. She had the guts to interrupt a world-class career twice to have children. She ignited thousands of little girls into running. And she engaged the heart of everyone n the UK with her real-women dramas.

On the damp, chilly streets in London, people kept craning forward out of the crowd to look for her, but they didn’t have to wait long. It only seemed a moment after the elite men flew past that you could hear a crowd roar hailing Paula’s advance. And there she was, all blonde ponytail, grin and long legs flying. And together the crowd screamed the same thing again and again: “Thank You, Paula! “   Yes, thank you for thrilling us for 25 years.

At age 41, she ran a 2:36, making it look easy. She claimed it wasn’t hard, that it was fun. It will be interesting now to see how Paula will continue to resonate. With her grace, language skills and smarts, she could have huge global impact. All over London, whenever a running policy problem was being discussed, someone would say, “Put Paula in charge.”   Watch this space.

Inspired Community: I have written in earlier issues of NER about the sudden and totally organic emergence of the 261 Movement: how my old bib number from the fateful 1967 Boston Marathon—261– has come to mean fearless. Women—and men, too—are using the number to give them heart and courage in a difficult situation, particularly when they run their first event.

The reason is simple: everyone resonates with the story of an official trying to throw someone out of a race because they were not welcome. We relate to being told we are not good enough, we are the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong religion, wrong class. But then we prevail;we go do it anyway. And yes, we’re fearless because of it.

This spring, 261 Fearless became an official movement with the launch of 261 Fearless, Inc., non-profit entity that will reach out to women everywhere giving them an opportunity to be empowered. Using running as the vehicle, 261 Fearless, Inc. is creating a community of women who will use their own sense of self-esteem to reach out and empower others. We will do this through a series of clubs, ambassadors, events, and special training. We also will do this by engaging the business community, as women in global business who are empowered by running will take it with them to their multinational offices.

Already established are the above noted 261 Women’s Marathon & 10K event, next to be held on April 10, (

Additionally, a 261 Fearless running apparel line has been created by Skirt Sports, Inc. in honor of the movement, but also to create another opportunity: many women are restricted from running because of clothing. We discovered this in Malaysia, where there were many Moslem women runners who needed to cover arms and legs before going public. As it turns out, there are many thousands of ordinary women who want to run but are embarrassed about showing bare skin in public. If clothing enables them to get out the door to run and inspires them at the same time, we’ve taken another big leap.

But the real purpose of the 261 Fearless Movement is to take this community of women global. We have learned from our platform in North America and now Europe, and now we need to help women in difficult, dangerous and remote places: those who really run, those who want to start, and those who can only run virtually. We will communicate our stories, support and fearlessness to each other in our universal language: running. Running can do it. It has before, and it will again. Watch this space.