By Gloria Serpe
“This is an AAU Men’s Division race only. Women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.” – Race Director Will Cloney
The Boston Marathon was established over 120 years ago by US Olympic Team Manager John Graham. A member of the Boston Athletic Associated (B.A.A.), Graham was moved by seeing the marathon in the 1896 Olympics and wanted to create the same excitement and energy back home in Boston. The B.A.A. marathon is now the world’s oldest annual marathon and with its strict qualifying times and limited field of entrants it is the holy grail of races for runners around the world.
Growing up in the age of Title IX (the law that banned gender discrimination in, among other things, school athletics) I don’t remember a time when women weren’t allowed to run in any race – from the local Turkey Trot to the Olympic marathon. When I moved to Boston almost twenty-five years ago I was eager to make new friends and learn about my new hometown, so in the Spring when my health club started a learn-to-run program I was enthusiastic to join. What better way to meet new people and see the city? Within a few months of training, I could run a 5K and it wasn’t long before I set my sights on running a marathon. On the weekends and before work I would log long runs with other female runners from the area who would regale me with stories of the legendary Boston Marathon and even more stories about the women that made history running it. When you train for a marathon, I soon found, there is lots of time for stories.
When I look at pictures of Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb my first impression is of a free-spirit. With her long, flowing hair and tan skin, she looks like she could walk out of a documentary for Woodstock.
The daughter of an MIT professor, Bobbi Gibb was a born tomboy. Growing up playing sports she naturally took to running, logging in dozens of miles at a stretch without tiring. After watching the Boston Marathon Bobbi became determined to push her body to the limit by running the marathon. In 1966 at the age of 23 she applied to the B.A.A. to run but was rejected. The letter from the director explained that women were not physically capable to compete. So, like most women, when you were told that you couldn’t do something you naturally had to prove that you could. Without a trainer, coach or any real plan Bobbi set out to do just that.
The day of the race Bobbi laced up a brand-new pair of boy’s athletic shoes (they didn’t make woman’s athletic shoes in 1966 so she trained in nurse’s shoes), a one-piece bathing suit, her brother’s shorts and a hooded sweatshirt and hid in the bushes near the start. When the gun sounded and the race began Bobbi jumped in with the rest of the runners. Although she was uncomfortably hot, she kept the sweatshirt for fear that she could be arrested. It didn’t take long for the other runners to realize there was a woman among them and they began to cheer her. After several miles, Bobbi felt comfortable enough to take off her top. News of her running spread quickly and soon she had spectators cheering for her as well as she passed. She finished the race in under 3 hours and 22 minutes – 13 minutes under the men’s qualifying for her age group. She became an instant sensation, receiving a handshake from the governor and inspiring women around the globe. When asked how she broke in the Boston Marathon and became the first woman to complete the race she replied, “I don’t know….I just ran.”
A little less than a year after Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, a 19-year old journalism major at Syracuse University was out for a run with her coach. As I mentioned previously, when you are out running there’s a lot of time for stories and this time was no exception. Because there was no women’s cross-country team, young Katherine Switzer ran with the men’s team and to pass the time her old coach would spin tales about Boston. It was during one of those outings that Katherine decided that she would run Boston… but she would have to prove the merit of her idea to her coach first.
Having run Boston many times, Arnie Briggs wasn’t convinced Katherine could do it. It was a tough race AND she was a woman. After a bit of squabbling, Arnie agreed to train her and if she put in the miles, worked hard, and convinced him she had the mettle he would take her to Boston and run with her.
After logging in many miles of training, Arnie agreed that Katherine was strong enough to run Boston, so he told her to officially sign up. The entry information didn’t include any details concerning gender and when she signed her application she used her initials K.V. Switzer – her normal way of signing for anything. When the number arrived in the mail it didn’t dawn on her that she wasn’t permitted to run because she was a woman.
On April 19th, 1967 Katherine, Arnie Briggs, her boyfriend Tom Miller, and another member of the cross-country team, John Leonard, were at the starting line. All around her runners showed their support so when the race began they all felt comfortable. A few miles into the race the press picked up on the fact there was a woman in the race with a number and started taking pictures. News of the woman in the race travelled fast and it wasn’t too long before trouble started brewing… and brew it did. When race director Jock Semple found out that a woman was running in his race he decided to take matters into his own hands. He drove out to mile 4 and waited for Katherine. When she and fellow team members passed, Jock pounced. Jock took a swipe at Katherine’s bibs but quickly felt what it was like to be hit by her boyfriend, Big Tom Miller, a former all-American football player.
In this tryptic photo we see, race director, Jock Semple trying to swipe Katherine Switzer’s bib while her coach, Arnie Briggs, attempts to intervene. As you can see, Big Tom Miller’s approach was more convincing for Jock. Photo: Boston Herald
With Jock out of the way (he made a soft landing in some nearby bushes) the team from Syracuse forged on to the finish. Katherine finished the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes and became the first woman to officially run in the Boston marathon.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Switzer Incident” and to commemorate the event Katherine Switzer, now aged 73, will be running Boston. I’m excited to say that I will be part of this reunion because after over 20 years, thousands of miles, countless stories and a dozen marathons I finally qualified for Boston. If you ask me why I’m running it. The answer is simple – because I can.