“The idea of running long distance was considered very questionable for women … it would mean you’d get big legs, a moustache, hair on your chest and your uterus would fall out”. In 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. It had been an all-male event for 70 years.
“I discovered early that running always made me feel powerful, free and fearless. The longer I ran, the stronger I felt so the 26.2-mile distance intrigued me”, she says.
Switzer, who entered using just her initials, became known worldwide when a race official tried and failed to forcibly remove her from the competition. It all happened “at about the 2-mile mark, so I still had 24 miles to run”. Was it difficult? “For a while, it was difficult because I was very worried and nervous, and had lost a lot of energy. The adrenaline rush that comes from a shock flows out of you afterward and leaves you drained. But energy slowly returned and by the end, I was feeling pretty good”.
She was determined to finish the race and in doing so, proved to the world that women could run the 26.2-mile distance, paving the way for every woman who has run a marathon since.
On Sunday 22nd April 2018, Switzer will run the London Marathon for the first time. She has been a tireless campaigner and advocate for women’s distance running since her barrier-breaking run in Boston and her presence in London is fitting in the year when Britain is celebrating the 100th anniversary of women first gaining the right to vote.
She has organised a global series of 400 women’s races in 27 countries, was instrumental in getting the women’s marathon added to the programme of the Olympic Games in 1984, and created a global non-profit movement called ‘261 Fearless’ that empowers women through running. 261 was the number Switzer wore at the 1967 Boston Marathon and has become synonymous with women’s equality in sport. Switzer will wear that iconic number again during the 2018 London Marathon.
It’s a sign of how far women’s marathon running has come in 51 years that the elite women’s race she will start on 22 April will be the first ever to include two women who have run quicker than 2 hours 18 minutes, while four in the line-up have broken the 2:20 barrier and seven have finished inside 2:22.
Among them will be the defending champion, Mary Keitany, who’s aiming to break Paula Radcliffe’s outright world record of 2:15:25, and Ethiopia’s triple Olympic track champion, Tirunesh Dibaba.
There will also be more than 90 para-athletes competing in the fifth World Para Athletics Marathon World Cup, including Britain’s six-times Paralympic champion David Weir, going for an eighth men’s wheelchair victory, and Switzerland’s Manuela Schär, looking to break the women’s wheelchair course record she set 12 months ago.
The men’s elite race includes a trio of distance running greats in Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, going for his third London Marathon victory, Ethiopia’s world record-breaking track legend, Kenenisa Bekele, and Britain’s multi-gold medal-winning star, Sir Mo Farah.
Among those in the mass field alongside Switzer will be 18 firefighters who were among the first responders to the Grenfell Tower blaze in west London last June, and 10 runners from #StephensTeam raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust on the 25th anniversary of his murder in a racist attack.
Watch live coverage of The Virgin Money London Marathon on the DOSE Instagram feed on Sunday 22nd April 2018.
Main image: Hagen Hopkins