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Women at the Start Line

Bath’s half-marathon is getting closer and closer, its runners ready to receive cheers and encouragements from friends and organisers. Yet, this was not the case back in the 1960s. Women were forbidden to run marathons, or even any distance longer than 1,500 metres in sanctioned races, as they were considered as too “fragile” for this exercise.

In Boston, however, the rules did not explicitly forbid women to take part in the competition and in 1966 Bobbi Gibb decided to run it. She could not register officially as the race director opposed her participation but she was still part of the top third quickest finishers, with 3 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds.

On the 19th of April 1967, Kathrine Virginia Switzer was on the starting line, registered as the gender-neutral “K. V. Switzer” and wearing the bib number 261. She was accompanied by her boyfriend, a hammer throwing athlete, and her trainer, who already saw her running much further in training. At first, her make-up, including lipstick, and headband did not gather much hostility from the other runners. However, as soon as it started the run official Jock Semple noticed that she was a woman and tried to drag her away, screaming “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”. Arnie Briggs, her trainer, tried to convince him to let her run, telling Semple that he trained her himself, but Semple refused to listen. Kathrine’s boyfriend, Tom Miller, who weighed about 105 kilos, violently pushed Semple aside to allow her to continue her race. She finished it in about 4 hours and 20 minutes.  

Kathrine was afterwards disqualified from the run and expelled from the athletic federation. From there the Amateur Athletic Union banned women from races. Yet, in 1972, the Boston marathon was opened to all, and Switzer was the second woman to cross the finishing line that year. Her motion for women to be allowed to run marathons in the Olympic Games paid off in 1984. She also scored the best women’s time at the New York 1974 marathon.

So far, Kathrine Virginia Switzer has run 42 marathons, including her ninth Boston marathon in 2017 which she completed in 4 hours, 44 minutes, 31 seconds, again in her bib 261. Last year in London, at the age of 71, she finished in 4 hours, 44 minutes and 49 seconds. Today, 58% of marathon runners in the United States are women, all because of one.

Well, who’s ready for those 21k?

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