My Interview with Kathrine Switzer

I had the pleasure of speaking with Marathon Woman, Kathrine Switzer a couple of weeks ago. She was kind and truly inspirational.  Her is a little bit of her background from her website:

Kathrine Switzer will always be best known as the woman who challenged the all-male tradition of the Boston Marathon and became the first woman to officially enter and run the event. Her entry created an uproar and worldwide notoriety when a race official tried to forcibly remove her from the competition.

Three decades later, the incident continues to capture the public imagination and is, in part, the reason Switzer has dedicated her multi-faceted career to creating opportunities and equal sport status for women.

That career has included creating programs in 27 countries for over 1 million women that led to the inclusion of the women’s marathon as an official event in the Olympic Games, changing forever the face of sports, health and opportunities for women around the world.

The “Boston Incident” also inspired Kathrine to become a good athlete: She has run 35 marathons, won the 1974 New York City Marathon, and ran her personal best of 2:51.33 by finishing 2nd in the 1975 Boston Marathon. At the time, this was the 6th best women’s marathon time in the world, and 3rd in the U.S.A.”

She wrote a memior about here experices called Marathon Woman. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. 

Marathon Woman

She is speaking at the Maine Coast Half Marathon that I am running in November and I hope to have the opportunity to meet her.

Here is our interview – enjoy!

Pam: Back in 1967, when was the moment you realized you wanted to run the marathon and was there anyone that stood in your way?   

 Kathrine:Well the race was in April of 1967, so it was 1966 that I wanted to run. Nobody stood in my way except for the guy that was coaching me didn’t believe a woman could do it. So we had a big argument on the run and we were out running in a blizzard, we were running about 10 miles that night. I got really angry with him and said “Get real of course a woman can do it” He said “no, no. no women are too week and too fragile.” I said, “Yeah right, like I’m running 10 miles in a blizzard and I’m too weak and too fragile.” He said, “No, no just a woman can’t go 26 miles.” She informed him that Roberta Gibb had run in 1966. He just exploded and replied “No dame has ever run the Boston Marathon.”  He couldn’t believe it. He was a swell, wonderful man and he said “If any woman could do it, you could do it but even you would have to prove it to me. In fact, if you could do it in practice, I would be the first person to take you.” I said Yay! Great, I have a goal, a buddy, and a coach. That was the beginning of our training. When I showed him I could do it, true to his word he got the entry form and had me send it in.

 Pam: When you were running the marathon did you realize you were going to change the sport for women? If so, did you feel pressured?

 Kathrine: Not at first, at first we were all just kids running our first marathon. Arnie, our coach was there guiding us. It was really fun; I knew I could do it because I did 31 miles in practice so I was high as a kite. There really wasn’t anything to prove because I knew a woman already run it. I was just there to prove to myself that I could do it and that is was my first big Boston Marathon. It wasn’t until the race director attacked me, did it because something else. Up until that point, I was just a 20 year old kid having fun, and then when he attacked me it scared and angered me and also inspired me so much that I decided that I really had to do as much as I could to change the situation for women in the sport.

 Pam: Since then you have introduced women’s running all around the world. Where there any major barriers trying to introduce it?

 Kathrine: INCREDIBLE. Every country. It was like reinventing the wheel. There were some countries that were better than others. For example, Canada was even easier than the US. England was easy, Germany was reluctant but begrudgingly accepted it. But you go to a country like Japan, Oh my, they were just awful, they gave me a hard time. I was very lucky because by that time I had a 5 billion dollar corporation behind me (Avon). I realized that, that was going to be the turning factor [corporate sponsorship]. I went to the Munich Olympics in 1972 and I went there as a journalist for the daily news but I really went there to try to get the women’s marathon in the Olympics games. The women’s 1500 meters had just been introduces to the 72 games like it was a really big deal. I thought “at this rate it’s going to be 2012 before we get the women’s marathon in the games.” I said that’s a little too late. When I got there what struck me, in addition to everything else that happened in that Olympics. Which was unbelievable bad, and good, and horrible. I was struck by the big corporate sponsors. I suddenly thought “The drivers in this sport is not in the committee meetings and us sending letters and trying to make it happen. The drivers are Coca Cola, BWM, and IBM. So I said I am going to go back and write a proposal for a big sponsor. When it worked I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying it was very serendipitous but when I was finally cleaning my house I found boxes and boxes of hundreds of proposals of things that I have written. It probably wasn’t serendipitous, people probably got really tired of me banging on their door.

Woody Allen is one of my great heroes because he said “the secret of success is that he showed up” and I think that is absolutely true. If you show up often enough you are going to get there. The difficulty was the prejudges against women and the inherent belief that it [running] was going to turn women into men and recently we still have this issue. It’s terrifying of this happening. They think the sport will make it happen. Then it’s inappropriate, socially inappropriate for women to do something like that.

Pam: What do you think the biggest piece of advice you would give someone who is just beginning running?

 Kathrine: Get a good pair of shoes. Really, that’s all you are going to need. Price is not the indicator, it’s fit. Go to a place that will fit you, go to a place where the people themselves run. The second piece of advice is to get a running buddy. It’s very very hard for beginning runners to get out alone, especially in the dark, the cold, and the rain. If you have a buddy that is waiting for you, you will get out there. Let’s say you only walk/jog for a mile the first few weeks, at least you are getting out there and getting used to it. If you have a friend it’s more fun, time passes quickly. I’ve done most of my training all by myself but that’s because I got a terrific base in with Arnie and my friends in the beginning. I got to the point then that I can go out and run 3 or 4 hours alone even now with no problem and enjoy that experience.  A lot of people can’t do that as beginners, it’s just too lonely for them. You can work out on your own 5 days a week but when you are doing a long run it’s really great to have a buddy, even if it is someone on a bike.

I hardly did any training on a treadmill because it was sorta after my time but some people find them extremely useful. I wouldn’t advise it for a beginner but a lot of people find it useful.

Enjoy the process. If it starts to take over your life and you start saying “I have to go do my run instead of I want to go do my run” Then it becomes not fun, then you begrudge it and you shouldn’t begrudge something that so wonderful.

 Pam:What do you think the biggest challenges are for woman runners today? Or do you think we have completely leveled the playing field?

 Kathrine: No, we haven’t. There are several but the biggest one is that even though we have made huge progress, there is still a lot of global work that needs to be done. For all of these beautiful Ethiopians, Kenyans, and a huge portion of Africa and the Mideast were women aren’t even allow to go out on the street alone much less so go out and run. That is a huge area of concern. My book ends on this… Women aren’t even allowed to uncover their faces or get an education. It’s just appalling because running is so freeing and strength building. That is our biggest challenge, as the running sisterhood we should be addressing that more and if I were 30 I would be probably doing a lot of stuff in the Mideast but I’m not 30 anymore.

The other thing I think that needs to happen is women’s running is so new (relatively), there are now more women runners (officially) than men. It’s 51% to 49% and that’s happened in my lifetime so it’s exciting to see what’s going to be happening in the next 40 years, your lifetime. I think what the next step is, is that many women who began running and they are full of the euphoria of running and going out and doing it, there is going to be a proportion of them who will want to start to thinking of getting faster and better, and more competitive. I think that’s a really good thing. The reason being, not for everybody, but one of the most exciting things is to give something, not necessarily your all but a lot and see what you can do.

 Pam: Test your limits?

 Kathrine:Absolutely, test your limits. Then when you get to 40 or 50 you can look back and not have any regrets about not trying. It’s never too late to get a university education but it is too late to get an Olympic gold medal. You have this finite period of about 18-38 to do it in. There are many people who get to their 40’s and 50’s and they look back and say “Geez I really could have been a good athlete if I had only tried harder.” Women I’m seeing now, one of the most exciting groups, are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s even who are taking up running for the first time. I have women in their 50’s who come in me and say I am in better shape now than I have ever been in my whole life. Some of them are REALLY good and they say, “What could I have been?” They are products of their time where those things were simply not available to them. But I think what we should do is make all kinds of things available to people so that they can experience and test their limits. They are really reinventing themselves and that is really exciting for me to see. It’s absolutely amazing.

 Pam: What was your favorite marathon to run?

 Kathrine: It’s always been Boston. The reason being it’s a knowledge crowd, it’s a thick crowd, and the streets are narrow so you feel that you are right inside the crowd the whole way. It’s very exciting.

 Pam: What was your most memorable marathon?

 Katherine: It has to be the first one. I must say though, that I had a very memorable experience this June. I ran a half marathon in Kenya, it was the first time I had been to Africa and I ran on a game reserve and they close the game reserve for only one day a year for this marathon. They have a helicopter that buzzes off the lions and the rhinos before the race.

 Pam: What is your favorite food after a marathon?

 Kathrine: Champagne for sure. Always, always, it has been one of my rules before a marathon. If I am in a hotel, I fill the trash can with ice and put a bottle of champagne in it for after. No matter what, win, loose, tank, or whatever – I come back and drink that champagne.

 Pam: Do you think there is a big difference between male and female marathoners in terms or training and preparation for the race?

 Kathrine: Yeah, not a big difference. Not a difference in the training but I think there is a difference in the physiology. I think women have inherent capability for endurance, where as mean will often approach marathon training with too much speed.  Women are not as shy at doing the base, slower work and they are often a lot better over the distance than the men are. Women, I think can approach the distance with a lot less drama than the men have. In my experience, the men never really like long runs and the women love the long runs. On the other hand, women never really liked the speed work and the men did. That’s another thing; women should do more speed work than they do. They just like to go out with their friends and run and occasionally you should do some speed work if you want to get better.

 Pam: What do you think is the biggest change in marathons since you first ran in 1967?

 Kathrine: It is night and day. Let’s just take the Boston marathon. In 1967 there were no toilets, there were cardboard numbers, the split times were given at places like 6.78, 10.4 miles, 12.63 miles. The road was not marked in miles. There were no timers at the splits – well except the marked splits but they didn’t make any sense. They were the old railway stops so people would always compare times from previous runs but you couldn’t calculate them. They were no running watches, timing clocks, at the finish line they had clip board with yellow sheets, no announcer, the medals were given to the first 36 guys and trophies to the first 10.

 Fascinating, huh? Let me know if you have any questions! I really am excited to read her book to get the full story. She is really inspirational!

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2 Responses

  1. what an awesome interview! That is so cool and such an amazing story.

  2. Pam, that was an awesome interview you did! Great Q& A’s! I had trouble with finding someone to commit to running wth me at first, but now the boyfriend goes with me. I do believe in a buddy for motivation and a great pair of running shoes. I need to retire mine and invest in new ones!

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