The first woman to run

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Paul Oppenheim

Back in 1967, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. Last month she was guest speaker at Concordia University's Community Business Leaders Breakfast. The Concordia folks were kind enough to invite members of the Oak Park Runners Club to hear her speak.

Switzer is a true pioneer of women's running. She is an Emmy Award winning TV commentator for running events, and has appeared on all the major networks. She has covered the Olympics, major marathons and national championships. Her own running credentials include winning the New York City Marathon. Switzer is also founder and director of the Avon series of international women's races, and has established a rewarding career from the opportunity presented by her Boston run. But it was certainly not her intent at the time.

Switzer has undoubtedly told her Boston story a thousand times, but it's a good one. Entering high school, her father urged that she run for fitness, rather than try out for cheerleader, because she should have people cheering for her. And she was a field hockey star, since she was in far better shape than the other girls. Then at Syracuse University she asked if she could work out with the men's cross-country squad (no women's teams in those days), and the coach agreed. But the guys were much faster, so her running partner was an "old" guy (maybe 50, she recalls) who hung around with the cross country team. He was a veteran of numerous Boston Marathons, and he often talked of Boston during their runs. As her endurance and speed improved, she began to wonder if she could run Boston, mentioning it to her running friend.

He was appalled – women couldn't run marathons – it was simply out of the question. But she persisted, and he eventually agreed that maybe she could. He got an entry form, and she filled it out as K. Switzer, which she commonly used due to the unusual spelling of her first name (lacking the middle "e"). There was no mention of gender since, of course, only men ran marathons. Her boyfriend, a football star and hammer thrower on the track team, decided if a girl could run Boston, so could he, even though he had never run more than a mile at one time.

A few miles into the race, the news media truck moved toward the leaders when the reporters noticed a woman in the pack. Jock Semple, the crusty race director, jumped off the truck, ordered Switzer out of "his" race, and tried to rip the race number from her shirt. Switzer's boyfriend jolted Semple with a football block that sent him sprawling onto the curb. Switzer finished the race, and was an instant celebrity.

After college graduation she used the experience to promote women's distance running all over the world. In 1984, the Marathon was added to the Olympic Games where, of course, Joan Benoit was the first champion.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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