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Celebrating Women Runners: How They Broke Barriers and Crossed Finish Lines

A Personal Perspective: Women marathoners paved the way for current generations.

A great way to celebrate Women’s History Month is to honor female athletes who paved the way for generations of girls to freely participate in sports. There are countless ways that women were trailblazers; in this post, I highlight women runners.

In the past, people believed that women were too fragile to engage in intense sports and physical activity. Women were also discriminated against and prohibited from joining recreational activities and sports teams.

This changed with Title IX of the Educational Amendments in 1972, which prohibited gender discrimination in educational and activity settings by institutions that received federal aid.

Nowadays, little girls couldn’t imagine a time when they would be told that they cannot participate in fun activities, including marathons, because of their gender.

Kathrine’s Story

I loved wandering around the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon expo each year. Browsing the booths, stocking up on Nuun, checking out the latest running shoes, and feeling the energy of excited runners was exhilarating. One thing that always stood out, seeing a lady who has a book booth each year. There tended to be too many people around the booth, and there didn’t seem to be room for me to look at the book or to meet the author.

One year, I walked by quickly and noticed the title, Marathon Woman. That’s pretty cool, I wonder what it’s about, I thought to myself.

The next year, I noticed the Marathon Woman book booth again, and it was empty except for a few ladies who were behind the author’s table. I went up to the booth and introduced myself.

“I see your booth every year and haven’t stopped by. What is Marathon Woman? Are you the authors?” I asked. The lovely silver-haired ladies looked at each other and giggled a bit. It was the kind of giggle that held excitement in what they were about to tell me.

“You don’t know Kathrine’s story?” One of them said.

“No, I don’t. Are you Kathrine?”

“No. I am part of 261 Fearless, Kathrine’s international running club. Do you recognize this picture?”

She showed me a black and white photo from 1967 in which a man in a suit was behind the only woman running in an official race. The man seemed to be pushing the woman while other runners protected her.

Kathrine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon / Boston Globe Source: With Permission from Kathrine Switzer

“I do know that photo! She’s the first lady to run the Boston Marathon! What was that man doing to her?”

The woman mentioned that the race director was furious that Kathrine, a woman, had the audacity to enter a man’s race, his race, the prestigious Boston Marathon. In reality, it wasn’t a man’s race.

Kathrine had studied the entry form, and it did not have a gender-specified category. She completed the entry form, which is the only way runners can have their races officially counted. She registered with her initials K.V. Switzer. Kathrine had heard that another woman, Roberta Bingay GibbWhen, completed the race in 1966 without an official bib (race number).

The race director saw Kathrine on the course; he ran toward her and attempted to assault her. Kathrine’s boyfriend at the time, a large former college football linebacker, intercepted the assault and pushed the man out of the way. This happened early on in the race, so Kathrine had to quickly regain her focus.

I later found out Katherine’s perspective on this famous photo:

“It was very bad timing for the official, but it was very good timing for women’s rights. The photo of the incident was flashed around the world and is now in Time-Life’s book, 100 Photos that Changed the World.”

Source: Thomas Wolter / Pixabay

According to Runners World, the day after the 1896 Olympics, a men’s only event, a Greek woman named Stamata Revathi, successfully ran the same course. Then, in 1926, Englishwoman Violet Piercy set the first women’s record recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federation and completed the distance in 3:40:22. In 1928, false claims of women fainting after running were reported to Olympic officials who banned distances over 200 meters for women. It wasn’t until 1967, when Kathrine Switzer participated in the Boston Marathon, that a woman officially ran a marathon. Her conviction to run that year had changed women’s running forever.

Fast forward to the present, when Runner Click analyzed 3.5 million marathon records and found that nearly 50 percent of American marathoners are, women, and the world average for women is nearly 35 percent. The highest number of female runners are found in the U.S. and Canada, and Ukraine had the highest growth of women runners (a massive 383 percent). What a difference between 1896 and 1967. What We Can Learn from Women Marathoners:

Never give up. Our goals might seem farfetched and impossible, gather a supportive group to help you take small steps to reach your big goals.

Patience and perseverance prevail. It takes patience and determination to plan how to overcome roadblocks, there are always multiple ways to solve a problem. Brainstorm with your support group to find ways to keep moving forward. Your drive inspires others. People are social beings, and we watch each other, people you know, watch your way of facing life’s challenges. As they see you patiently accomplishing your goals, they become motivated to reach for their goals, too (see Brittany Runs a Marathon).

Women get it. We form close-knit groups to help each other through the good times and the bad. We use sports and exercise as a way to share culture with each other and encourage healthy lifestyles. It’s never too late to start. In fact, the age group 90-99 had the highest growth rate of participating in marathons, almost 40 percent. Let’s continue to celebrate the women in your life.

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