Everyone knows someone who’s run the marathon. Today’s big-city races—in places like Boston, New York, Berlin, and London—draw Olympic hopefuls competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars and hordes of weekend warriors raising money for their favorite charities or just hoping to check off “complete a marathon” on their bucket lists. Marathoning has birthed an industry of energy supplements and performance gear, training manuals and glossy magazines, corporate sponsorships and fitness expos. And nearly half of marathon entrants are women.
It’s an incredible change from 50 years ago. The very few marathons that did exist – even Boston’s, the oldest continuously run marathon in the world – attracted less than one thousand runners. The entrants were all amateurs; finishers at Boston were rewarded with a bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew. Oh, and the runners were all male. Women were banned from running marathons.
Even in the heart of the women’s liberation movement, the governing body of amateur sport, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), did not sanction the participation of women in distance running. The longest race for female runners at the Olympics was 800 meters – or less than half a mile. The universal thinking among sports’ male powerbrokers was that women were not physically equipped to endure the rigors of the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. They claimed that the strain would cause women’s uteri to fall out or that they would become musclebound and grow hair on their chests.
In the wake of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a small band of women runners began to chip away at these absurd notions. In December of 1963, Merry Lepper and Lyn Carman hid in the bushes near the starting line of the Western Hemisphere Marathon, in Culver City, Calif., before jumping into the field. Carman dropped out midway through, but Lepper managed to complete the race in the unofficial time of 3:37:07. In 1966, Bobbi Gibb employed the same strategy at the Boston Marathon and unofficially finished in 3:21:40.
Lepper received only local media coverage for her pioneering marathon. Gibb’s effort was written about extensively because it had occurred at storied Boston. “Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon,” was the headline of the Record American. Sports Illustrated described Gibb as “tidy-looking,” and noted that her “remarkable feat” and “personal triumph” may “do much to phase out the old-fashioned notion that a female is too frail for distance running.”
A bandit is born
Kathrine Switzer, a field hockey player at Lynchburg College in Virginia, noticed Gibb’s historic endeavor. Later that year, after Switzer had transferred to Syracuse University, she started working out with the men’s cross-country team. Arnie Briggs, a mailman at the school and a running devotee, took her under his wing, and soon Switzer was running upwards of 10 miles per training session, albeit at a slow pace.
Briggs was a veteran of many Boston Marathons, and he liked to regale Switzer with its lore. She was intrigued and, after working her way up to a run of 25-plus miles, persuaded Briggs that she was ready for the marathon. He agreed to accompany her, but insisted that as card-carrying members of the AAU, they had to enter the race properly. All that required was getting a medical certificate, paying the entry fee of $2, and filling out an application form. She did so using the non-gender specific name of “K.V. Switzer.”
As Switzer recently told me (via Skype from her home in New Zealand), “I wasn’t trying to prove anything, but I knew that I could do it. I ran 31 miles in practice with Arnie. I had read about Bobbi Gibb from 1966. I knew that she had run and run really well.”
Switzer’s boyfriend at the time was Tom Miller, a husky hammer thrower who was training for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. When he heard that Switzer was planning to run Boston, he decided to enter too. Another runner from Syracuse, John Leonard, also signed up.
Snow, sleet, and bitter temperatures greeted Switzer and the 740 other entrants who lined up at Hopkinton, Mass. on April 19, 1967. (Compare that to the 2014 total of 35,755 participants.) One runner who did not have a bib number was Bobbi Gibb, who again decided to run unofficially at Boston.
Switzer had trained during the winter in upstate New York, so she was unfazed by the cold. Her concession to the weather was not to wear shorts and “a really cute top,” as she was prepared to do. She stayed bundled up in grey sweats and pinned her bib – number 261 — on her sweatshirt.
“Hey, Jock, you’ve got a broad on your hands today.”
She was most concerned about being discovered at the start, when longtime Boston Marathon race directors Will Cloney and Jock Semple ushered the runners into the starting area and checked off their bib numbers. But she was fortunate: perhaps because of the frigid conditions or perhaps because she was dressed in oversized sweat clothes, she passed undetected. Now she was part of the field. The plan was that the Syracuse foursome would run together. They started slowly at the gun, well back of the leaders.
In Ashland, at about the two-mile mark, the press and officials’ bus began making its way toward the frontrunners. As it passed the back of the pack, a reporter spotted Switzer, her dark hair swirling in the rain, and yelped to Semple, “Hey, Jock, you’ve got a broad on your hands today.”
Switzer said that what happened next was her nightmare. The bus halted, and out charged Cloney and Semple to defend the sanctity of their race. First Cloney, outfitted in a fedora and overcoat, physically tried to stop Switzer, but she avoided his clutches.
When that attempt failed, she found herself charged by John Duncan Semple, an irascible, 63-year-old Scotsman who had retained his thick burr after arriving in America in 1923. Semple was a celebrity in Boston’s tightknit sports circles: he was a physical trainer who massaged and tweaked the muscles and limbs of Celtics and Bruins players (as well as those on visiting teams and Olympic athletes) in an office in the annex of the Boston Garden that Sports Illustrated reporter Myron Cope described as the “Salon de Slobs.” Cope noted that Semple was “one of the nation’s few remaining great masseurs, an expert practitioner of the dying art of hand manipulation.”
His “other” job was caretaker of the Boston Marathon. Semple had a long love affair with the race: as a competitor, he had recorded numerous top-10 finishes in Boston; by the 1940s, he was the Boston Athletic Association’s point person for the marathon (and the coach of the BAA’s running club); beginning in 1963, he served as co-director of the race.
On Patriots’ Day 1967, “Mr. Boston Marathon” was a very angry man. Runner No. 261 had violated the sacred code of the institution that was his baby. She deserved to be punished – and if Cloney couldn’t do the job, then Jock Semple would. “This wasn’t just about me being a girl,” Switzer said. “Jock probably would have left me alone if I was just running along like Bobbi. It was the number that got him. I had made him look like a fool.”
Semple evaded Briggs and lunged at Switzer, grabbing at the cardboard bib pinned to her sweatshirt. “He was pulling at me and screaming, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me that number,’” Switzer recalled. “Arnie was screaming at Jock, and then Tom smashed Jock out of the way.”
As reporters scribbled on their notepads, the photographers perched on the accompanying photo truck also captured the contretemps (including Sports Illustrated’s legendary lens-man Walter Iooss Jr.). But only one photojournalist jumped off the truck to get a better angle.
Trask, at rear with cigar and beret, on the photo truck before the race. (Courtesy Kathrine Switzer)
Harry Trask had graduated from high school at 16 and, with his family needing him to earn money, took a job in the mailroom at the Boston Traveler newspaper. He was a self-taught photographer who worked himself up to a staff position at the paper by the early 1950s. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his images of the Andrea Doria ocean liner sinking after it collided with another ship off the coast of Massachusetts. Trask got the pictures by getting into an airplane and directing the pilot to fly over the water at a height of 75 feet, capturing the sequence only nine minutes before the ship sank.
Trask was upset on the morning of the marathon. He was resigned to sitting in the open photo truck for over two hours in the bitter cold, which he later described as “not a great assignment.” And, when he went to pick up his equipment in the pressroom that morning, the state-of-the-art gear – the cameras equipped with motor drives — was taken by other staffers shooting the Red Sox at Fenway Park. (The game was canceled due to the weather.) Trask was stuck with a 35-millimeter camera that he had to manually wind to advance the film.
In retrospect, this may have been an advantage. Because Trask did not have a camera with a motor drive, he had to rely on dexterity and instinct, and decided to get closer to the confrontation. He also was well acquainted with Jock Semple and his furies. “Wherever Jock was, there was going to be action,” Trask later said. “It was worth the risk.”
Trask left the truck and, on foot, snapped pictures of the incident as fast as he could. He abandoned the course, took a taxi to the newspaper offices, and immediately headed to the darkroom. He was excited, but in the days before digital cameras, he didn’t know for sure if he’d gotten the shots on film. “I might have some pretty good pictures. I’ll see when it comes out of the soup,” was his line before his pictures were developed.
Trask’s three-photo sequence of Semple trying—and failing—to stop Switzer. (AP Photo)
What emerged from the wetting agent was a three-part drama in black and white. The first image showed Semple angrily pawing at Switzer as Briggs (wearing bib No. 490) tried vainly to intervene, while the second featured the strapping Miller (390) shoving Semple away with a perfectly timed body block. In the finale, Switzer is regaining her balance and striding forward, her bib intact, while Semple stumbles toward oblivion.
Despite the cold and the manual camera and the movement of his subjects, Trask had nailed it. The contrast between Semple, wearing a dark suit and a snarling expression, and Switzer, in light-colored sweats and looking completely shocked, couldn’t have been more pronounced.
In the aftermath, Semple climbed back onto the press bus, met by absolute silence. Switzer regrouped and carried on, shaken and angered, but unbowed. She also had to deal with an enraged boyfriend.
“Tom said, ‘You’re getting me in all kinds of trouble. I’m never going to make the Olympic team,’” she recalled. Miller abandoned his companions, only to be passed by them later. Switzer managed to complete the race in 4:20, with Briggs and Leonard alongside.
Footage of the 1967 race. Kathrine Switzer, “a leggy lady,” can be seen at 0:13.
The winner of the 1967 Boston Marathon was New Zealander Dave McKenzie, who set a new course record in 2:15:45. Bobbi Gibb, meanwhile, unofficially finished well in front of Switzer in 3:27:17.
But McKenzie and Gibb’s heroics were immediately overshadowed by Switzer and Trask’s indelible photographs. Switzer remembers first seeing the three-photo sequence later that night. They were driving back to Syracuse on the New York State Thruway when they stopped for coffee. “This guy was sitting across the counter holding a newspaper and we could see our pictures front and center,” she said. “I ran over to him and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s us! That’s us! This is going to change my life.’”
The dam breaks
Her run, and the photos, changed the lives of all female runners. The AAU suspended Switzer (as well as Miller), but the uproar over the incident turned her into an international icon and transformed women’s distance running into a cause célèbre. As Julia Chase-Brand, herself a pioneering runner, recently observed in Marathon & Beyond magazine, “The iconic photos of this encounter clinched it: American women were not going to be pushed off the roads, and now a sports issue became a feminist issue—which of course it always had been.”
A chorus of runner-activists actively lobbied for reform with their feet and with their voices. Slowly, they were heard. In 1970, the Road Runners Club of America held the first women’s marathon championship (won by Sara Mae Berman). In 1971, the Western Hemisphere Marathon in California allowed women entrants, with Cheryl Bridges recording the landmark victory. The following year, Jock Semple opened the Boston Marathon to women, with Nina Kuscsik the winner. Switzer finished third.
On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 into law. One provision, Title IX, mandated more equitable treatment for female student-athletes, and women’s distance-running programs gradually became the norm. Finally, in 1984, the women’s marathon was added to the Olympic program. American Joan Benoit triumphed in Los Angeles, in 2:24:52, as she defeated Norway’s top-ranked Grete Waitz. Yet another all-male bastion had collapsed completely.
By then, Harry Trask had left journalism behind. He taught photography in Boston-area schools for years, then retired to help one of his seven children run a bait and tackle shop. He died in 2002. The Boston Traveler eventually folded; the Associated Press acquired the newspaper’s photo archives, including Trask’s pictures from the marathon. (Joan Trask was kind enough to provide details about her husband’s life.)
The Boston Marathon sequence did not earn Trask another Pulitzer, but the galvanizing images were featured in 100 Photographs That Changed The World, published by Life Books in 2003. (Interestingly, of the 10 sports photographs reprinted in the book, four involve track and field. The three others: Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954; and Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.)
Kathrine Switzer and Tom Miller were married in 1968. Switzer described it as a “very competitive marriage,” and they divorced in 1972. (Miller died of a heart attack in 1992.) Switzer and Jock Semple reconciled and became friends. She helped him promote his book, Just Call Me Jock (1981), and visited him in the hospital just before he passed away in 1988.
As she had predicted, what she now calls the “great shoving incident” changed the direction of her life. She pursued competitive distance running for years, winning the New York City Marathon in 1974, and also worked for Avon, helping to organize races and running programs for women. She used her journalism degree from Syracuse to write books on running and exercise and to become a television commentator.
Switzer will be broadcasting at the 119 th Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day this year, as she has for the past 37 years. She has witnessed the rise of the African marathoners, both male and female, not to mention the bombing at the 2013 race. She is training to run it again in 2017, which will mark the 50th anniversary of her breakthrough. She will be 70 then; her ambition is to beat her time from 1967.
Thanks to Harry Trask, she is as irrevocably linked to the Boston Marathon as Jock Semple once was. Her bib number is now at the center of a campaign that she has launched to empower women to “find solace, strength and freedom in running or walking.” She recently returned from Spain, where she helped to organize the second annual 261 Women’s Marathon.
I asked Switzer whether she wished she’d gotten bib number 262 in 1967, to be in sync with the 26.2-mile distance of the marathon. “It is what it is,” she replied. “It’s a random number. But someone told me that 261 is a really important number because 26.1 in a marathon is the moment you know you can finish. That’s when you know you’re going to do it.”
For Switzer, in 1967, that moment occurred when she, Arnie Briggs, and John Leonard ran down Hereford Street and then rounded the corner onto Boylston. The finish line was in sight. Strides later, hours after she had outrun the grasping arms of retrograde history, her race was complete.
“These moments change your life and change the sport,” Switzer said. “Everybody’s belief in their own capability changed in that one moment, and a negative incident turned into one of the most positive.”
David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, coming this fall from the University of Nebraska Press.