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Empowerment in a pair of running shoes: First woman to run the Boston Marathon shares her story

AP Images, Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer is attacked during her run in the 1967 Boston Marathon. She was the first woman to run the marathon.

The first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon, in 1967, did so under the gender-neutral entry “K.V. Switzer.” When race officials found out she was a woman, one race director physically attacked her for wearing an official bib number in the race. That moment was caught on camera and made headlines around the world, later becoming one of Time-Life’s “100 Photos that Changed the World.” Her full name is Kathrine Switzer.

It was amazing, the empowerment, the self-esteem and sense-of-self that I got from this. And it translated to every area of my life.

“My dad said ‘Honey, you should run a mile a day,’ when I was 12-years-old,” Switzer told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “He was hoping I would make my high school field hockey team. He had no idea that he gave me a victory under my belt that no one could ever take away from me. It was amazing, the empowerment, the self-esteem and sense-of-self that I got from this. And it translated to every area of my life.”

Switzer said that it is her life’s mission to share that with other young women. She is in St. Louis today to give a speech at Maryville University on behalf of Girls on the Run St. Louis. The organization is a non-profit for girls in grades 3-8 with a mission to inspire them to be empowered and confident, while using a running curriculum. Since 2002, 35,000 girls have been served in the St. Louis area. 

Credit Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Kathrine Switzer and Courtney Berg.

Courtney Berg, the executive director of Girls on the Run St. Louis, also joined Switzer on “St. Louis on the Air.” She said that 2500 girls are participating in the program this season from eastern Missouri and western Illinois.

“The beauty of running, and Girls on the Run, is that you can do it anywhere,” Berg said. “That’s part of the empowerment. We want our girls to feel that they have the confidence in their own body, their own skin and in their own communities. … It might be that beautiful groomed track or trail, or it might be the alley that runs between their school and another parking lot. It’s their own space, and that’s very empowering.”

“Talent is everywhere, it just needs an opportunity,” Switzer said. “The other thing about running that’s amazing is that it’s not like golf or skiing, where you need to have money and a venue and lessons. It’s like anyone can do it, you don’t even need a pair of shoes. It’s cheap, convenient and totally accessible.”

At the end of 10 weeks of training, the girls participating in the program joined in a 5K in downtown St. Louis.

Switzer said that running is different for women and different from other sports, in terms of empowering women. She said that men find it an enlightening experience, although a competitive one, whereas women find it a community empowering experience.

There's a reason why today, 58 percent of runners in the United States are now women.

“There’s a reason why today, 58 percent of runners in the United States are now women,” Switzer said. “It is a social revolution. It’s happened in my own lifetime. It’s because, somehow, whether it is covering the distance, adding the miles, the motion, the movement, the endorphins, it is very transformational.”

Switzer, it should be noted, campaigned so that women could officially compete in the Boston Marathon after she was attacked for her participation. The women’s road race was created in 1972. She also went on to run 39 marathons and won the New York City Marathon in 1974. She was inducted into the U.S.A. National Women’s Hall of Fame last year.

Listen here to hear how Switzer entered the race, the judgment she experienced from officials and other women, the attack and her work to get women into running everywhere:

“It was an event that changed my life, because at that moment I knew I had to finish the race, I did finish the race, I kept those numbers,” Switzer said.  “You could say the rest is history, except that the rest is a lot of hard work in taking that passion and radicalization, if you will, out to creating those very opportunities I knew women should have. They would have been in the race themselves if they had the same dad I had, who told me to go out and run at age 12.”

Related Event

What: Girls on the Run Presents Kathrine Switzer "MARATHON WOMAN: My Story, Your Story (and not for women only)”
When: Monday, Oct. 19 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Maryville University Auditorium, 650 Maryville University Dr., St. Louis, MO 63141
More information

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.