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Kathrine Switzer, first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a competitor, speaks at Mount Holyoke about empowerment

KATHRINE SWITZER
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SOUTH HADLEY — Kathrine Switzer knows a lot about resilience. Switzer, the first woman ever to run in the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor, not only bounced back from an assault during the race, but made it her mission to provide other women worldwide with the opportunity to run and compete.

Switzer, a lifelong runner as well as a prolific writer and speaker, spoke for about an hour to about 250 people at Mount Holyoke College on Thursday about the power of resilience and the importance of opportunity.

By the end of the 1967 Boston Marathon — the event that started her journey so that her name is now known worldwide — Switzer said she came up with two goals. “One was to become a better athlete, and the second was to create the opportunities for other women, because I knew they’d be there if they only had the opportunity,”she said.

Switzer, who was 20 in 1967, registered to run the Boston Marathon under the gender-neutral K. V. Switzer, a version of her name that she said she had been using since reading J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and liked the initialed version of the author’s name.

While Switzer was running alongside trainer Arnie Briggs and then-boyfriend Tom Miller, race director Jock Semple arrived on a truck and attempted to physically stop her from running. She recalls him telling her, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.” Miller, a football player and hammer thrower, knocked Semple out of the way. “He decked Jock Semple, took him out beautifully,” remembers Switzer.

“That’s when I had that epiphany, and I said to my coach I’m going to have to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to,” Switzer said. “We have to show that women can do this.”

Switzer ended up finishing the marathon with a time of 4 hours, 20 minutes. During her career, she brought her personal best time down to 2:51 at the 1975 Boston Marathon, and won the 1974 New York City Marathon.

During that 1967 race, Switzer said she wondered why other women weren’t at the marathon. After having some time to think, she realized that she had been lucky to have a supportive family and coach, and that not every woman was so fortunate.

“You get to be about 12 or 13, and someone tells you that you have to stop climbing trees and you’ve got to stop running and you’ve got to do ladylike things,” Switzer said.

Switzer recounted the process of realizing one of her bigger goals — securing the women’s marathon as an Olympic event. During her work as a journalist covering the 1972 Olympics in Germany, Switzer realized that sponsors were the key. She wrote a proposal for a program to create races for women, brought it to Avon cosmetics, and was hired.

As a result of the program, Switzer said 400 races were created in 27 countries.

“It’s not about running, it’s about empowerment. It’s about changing our lives,” Switzer said, using the example of women from countries such as Kenya who have taken up running. “Some of these women left Kenya and now of course dominate the running scene,” she added. “They don’t stay in the U.S. and drive a Mercedes, they go back to their village and they’re sanitizing water, they’re inoculating kids, they’re building schools.”

“If you remember nothing else from this talk tonight, I hope you remember this,” Switzer said. “Talent is everywhere.”

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