“No woman can run the Boston Marathon!”
– Arnie Briggs (coach) to Kathrine Switzer, when she announced her intention to run in Boston
When Kathrine Switzer decided to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 she knew there would be many who disagreed. People had been telling her women should not, indeed could not run that far for years. This had much to do with the fact that when she began running it was widely believed terrible things would happen to women who attempted to be athletic: their chests would grow hairy, their legs would become thick and mannish. Their uterus would fall out.
Switzer’s memoirs are full of instances of this misguided desire to ‘protect’ her – now more appropriately labeled discrimination. Yet she also recounts how, upon arriving at the race, the male runners there were mostly welcoming towards the woman in their midst. Certainly she was a novelty, but this was not taken to be a bad thing. It was this welcome at the start line which made what happened mid-race so very surprising.
Boston Marathon history was made that day. Sadly its immediate effect would be to see women officially banned from the race. Where the rules had previously only been ambiguous about gender, within a year that ambiguity was resolved: no women allowed. The BAA would not be persuaded to change its rules until 1972.
In her memoir Switzer recounts how that race went on to define her life. Having unintentionally become the face of the women’s running movement, she went on to champion the cause: she organized races around the world through the Avon International Running Circuit and spearheaded the movement to see a women’s marathon event entered into the Olympics. The Olympic dream became a reality in Los Angeles in 1984, and today women regularly show up in equal if not greater numbers to men in races of all distances.
I bought my copy of this book the same day I had the honour of meeting Kathrine Switzer in person – the day I went to pick up my numbers for my own very first half marathon. She is one of the most inspiring women I have had the opportunity to meet, and this book is one of the most inspiring books I have had the pleasure to read. I would recommend it to runners (obviously) and non-runners alike. It is as much a story about gender equality and the world becoming a better place as it is a story about a marathon.
I meant to write about this book a few weeks ago, just as I meant to write about the Boston Marathon itself. Unfortunately law school exams happened and so any posting on my blog did not. You have heard my thoughts on the memoir. Here is what I have to say about the marathon:
In her book, Switzer refers to running as her ‘secret weapon’ – it became the thing she did every day that gave her the confidence. Running was where she found her strength and her joy in life, as has been the case for many a runner before and since. Speaking for myself, I often think of running as my safe place. It is a place I go when life is going well, and also when it’s not.
I think this is part of the reason why the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon hit me, and so many others, as hard as it did. Our safe place had been bombed, our secret weapon apparently destroyed. Worse still, the attack did the most damage not to runners but to spectators – the people who hug us (or catch us) when we stumble across the finish line, who encourage us in our crazy running addiction, and who support us throughout our lives.
I was briefly worried that we would not get our safe place back. I feared races would become bogged down with tension and security measures as race officials attempted the impossible task of completely securing a 26.2 mile cordon in the heart of a city. Thankfully, time has proven those fears unfounded.
Within 24 hours of the bombing, runners around the world had organized solidarity run to show their support for Boston. For my own part I found my instincts unchanged: as the fear and anxiety of the attack became too much to bear the day after the bombing, I laced on my shoes and went for a run. I found my safe place was still safe for me after all. A few weeks later when I ran my first-ever marathon in Vancouver, all the runners were given yellow ribbons to wear in support of Boston. Many wore blue and yellow items of their own for the same reason. Our community was as strong as it had ever been, if not stronger than before.
Last year a terrible blow struck the Boston Marathon and the running community. This year, both came back to reclaim their race and showed themselves to be more beautiful and more dedicated than ever before. If anything, the community has grown since the attack. Given how important the running community has been to me in the years since I first started running, I couldn’t be happier for it.
Our safe place and our secret weapon – it will never be taken away, and we will always return to it.
We are Boston Strong. Long may we run.
If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.
– Kathrine Switzer