Gardner — The annual spring fundraiser for the nonprofit House of Peace & Education will showcase the power of self-confidence and persistence with its trailblazing keynote speaker.
The Gardner-based organization, known as HOPE, runs afterschool programs and summer camp for youth as well as a job readiness program that primarily serves women but also some men.
Kathrine Switzer, best known for being the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon in 1967, will speak at the HOPE fundraiser scheduled for Thursday, May 17, beginning at 6 p.m. at the Great Wolf Lodge New England, 150 Great Wolf Drive, Fitchburg.
Now 71 years old, Switzer still runs actively, having recently competed in the London Marathon. Over the course of her life, she has promoted gender equality largely through initiatives aimed at expanding opportunities for women to run, which she said has created “nothing less than social revolution.”
“That’s my biggest contribution, to empower many millions of women,” Switzer said.
The simple act of getting outside and being active was a driving force in Switzer’s life from an early age.
“Running always made me feel very, very empowered and like I could overcome anything in my life as long as I ran,” she said.
Having spent time training as a student at Syracuse University,Switzer decided at age 20 she wanted to run the 1967 Boston Marathon.
In society at that time, the notion of a woman running for such a long distance of 26.2 miles was either dismissed or the possibility not even thought of.
Women were considered too frail to achieve such a thing. Switzer said people did not even think it was “socially appropriate for women to sweat” the way men did.
Signing her name as “K.V. Switzer,” she was able to register for the Boston Marathon as runner number 261. It was her understanding she was not doing anything technically illegal under the rules.
But on race day, she said, she was attacked by a race official “simply because I was a woman wearing a bib number.”
The image of the official trying to rip off her race number was captured by the press and has become one of the most remembered images in American sports history. Switzer’s boyfriend at the time, who was running with her, defended her from the attack.
Switzer described the moment as a “very, very traumatic experience” and said she went from a “girl to a woman in the course of a marathon.”
She said she entered the race just wanting to run and was not trying to make a political statement. But the encounter with the official made her realize the social significance of what she was doing.
“I felt very strongly to finish the race because if I didn’t, nobody would believe women could do it,” she said.
After completing the race, Switzer would go on to achieve continued success as a runner, including winning the 1974 New York City Marathon.
Her larger legacy has been her social advocacy, which all stems from that incident at the Boston Marathon which she said “served to radicalize me.”
In the 1970s, Switzer spearheaded a global series of races across 27 countries for women that had the backing of corporate sponsorship.
That exposure helped lead to the women’s marathon being included in the Olympics for the first time in 1984.
In 2017 at the age of 70, Switzer ran the Boston Marathon again, 50 years after the historic race in 1967. For many years, she has served as a commentator for the Boston Marathon for WBZ-TV.
Currently, Switzer works as the founder of 261 Fearless, an organization that provides local opportunities for women to run around the world.