Why Kathrine Switzer Forgave the Man Who Attacked Her at the Boston Marathon

Fitness

No matter how fast she’s going, Kathrine Switzer always gets the job done. As the first American woman to officially finish the Boston Marathon in 1967, Switzer has dedicated her life to carving out space for female athletes, encouraging women to defy limitations and live more fearlessly. She originally caught international attention after a race official for the Boston Marathon, Jock Semple, attacked her mid-marathon, attempting to rip off her running bib and disqualify her from the race. Newspapers published the photos of a distraught Semple storming up behind Switzer with his teeth bared, providing a jarring visual for the state of women’s rights.

Now, at 77 years old, Switzer is still running marathons, gearing up for the Every Woman’s Marathon taking place in Savannah, Georgia on Nov. 16. Having come so far, she looks back on the photos that fired up the world with gratitude, explaining why she’s still thankful for the spark that accidentally inspired her lifetime advocacy for women in sports.

Trainer Jock Semple -- in street clothes -- enters the field of runners (left) to try to pull Kathy Switzer (261) out of the race. Male runners move in to form a protective curtain around female track hopeful until the protesting trainer is finally wedged out of the raceImage Source: Getty / Bettmann / Contributor

As a 19-year-old college student in the ’60s, Switzer made a fateful decision. “I want to run the Boston Marathon this year,” she said while training with the men’s cross country team at Syracuse University. Her running coach, Arnie Briggs, wasn’t convinced a woman could run the full distance. “He said, ‘If any woman could, it would be you, but you’d have to prove it to me,'” she tells POPSUGAR. A marathon is 26.2 miles. Switzer ran 31 miles alongside Briggs just to prove she could go the distance.

“[Briggs] fainted at the end of the workout,” Switzers remembers. “He was then a total believer in women’s capabilities, especially endurance and stamina.”

At the time, marathons were male-only due to similar misconceptions about women’s endurance. Still, Switzer found no mention of sex in the official Boston Marathon rules. That said, she knew that Boston Marathon official Will Cloney had previously denied an application for female runner Roberta Gibb, arguing that women were physiologically incapable of running marathons. Because of this decision, Gibb ran the 1966 marathon as an unregistered racer, hiding in the bushes at the starting line. Hoping to run as an official participant, Switzer registered for the 1967 Boston Marathon under the name “KV Switzer,” although she notes this was primarily due to a misspelling on her birth certificate, and not intended to fool officials. Fortunately for Switzer, the day of the Boston Marathon was nothing but sleet and snow, allowing her to approach the starting line undetected. It wasn’t until a press truck passed by mid-race that anyone even noticed Switzer was there.

A journalist initially spotted Switzer running the marathon and Semple, an official with a reportedly short fuse for runners he didn’t perceive to be serious, jumped right off the press truck. “He came running right behind me, and I was totally blindsided,” Switzer says. “[He] grabbed me and spun me around and tried to rip my bib numbers off and screamed, ‘Get the hell out of my race.'”

Photos from the incident made international news, eliciting outrage and eventually leading the Boston Marathon to create an official women’s race in 1972.

“It was really headline stuff in the newspapers,” Switzer remembers. “The problem is, [my participation in the race] was polarizing. Either people loved it, or they really hated me, and I got a lot of hate mail.” But Switzer tried to take it in stride. “I just gave it to my roommates, we read how outrageous it was, and we threw it away, and we kept all the good mail,” she says.

In the face of so much criticism and vitriol, Switzer responded with grace, forgiving Semple for the attack, and eventually becoming close friends. “I forgave [Semple] in the Boston Marathon because I knew he was a product of his time and he thought that that’s the way you have to treat women — that women really aren’t serious,” she says. “I visited him just a few hours before he died [in March of 1988]. People say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of forgiveness.’ And I say, ‘How can you not love somebody who changed your life so completely and gave you such a great direction, no matter how bad it was at the first?'”

Even after the 1967 Boston Marathon chatter began to quell, Switzer kept advocating for female athletes, winning the New York City Marathon in 1974, directing The Avon International Running Circuit (a program of 400 women’s-only races), and co-founding 261 Fearless (named after her Boston Marathon bib number) in 2015 to support more female runners.

“Don’t worry about going fast. Just go.”

For Switzer, running goes much deeper than physical activity — it’s about empowerment and taking charge of your life. For women looking to use running as a way to tap into their own power, Switzer’s advice is to stay focused and cut the BS. “My first thing is to pick a goal. Have a goal, make it your focus,” she says. Even if it’s as simple as getting outside for 10 minutes each day. “Don’t worry about going fast. Just go,” she continues. Another good way to hold yourself accountable and stay motivated is to run with a friend — especially one that won’t leave you waiting. Finally, Switzer recommends writing down your progress as a way to hold yourself accountable. “We all bullshit ourselves,” she says. “Keep a log. It keeps you honest.”

As for her own running journey, Switzer is already getting excited for the Every Woman’s Marathon — a race specifically catered towards women. She notes that we haven’t had a women’s-only marathon in the US for 20 years (although all adults 18+ can register to race, per the Every Woman’s Marathon website). Having fought for everything from a marathon for women in the Olympics, to women’s rights in the Boston Marathon, Switzer says it’s gratifying to take a step back and enjoy how far we’ve come. “Each of those was an empowerment experience also, but it was more like, ‘Watch us. We’re great. We can do this. We deserve this.’ Now it’s like a celebration and an understanding of what we can do,” Switzer says. “[The Every Woman’s Marathon] is going to be a big bonding experience, and the vibe is going to be phenomenal.”

As she looks back on her work some 57 years later, Switzer still admires the 20-year-old young woman she was in those photos. “I look at her and I say, ‘You were amazing. You were amazing that you did that,'” says Switzer. After her attack, Switzer says she briefly debated dropping out of the marathon. But at the same time, she understood that — with so many eyes on her — she had to push forward . . . even if it meant crossing the finish line on her hands and knees.

“Sometimes you have to suck it up and just put your head down and do the job,” she says. “People say, ‘What is the secret of your success?’ And I say, ‘I finish the job.'”

Image Source: Courtesy of Kathrine Switzer / Hagen Hopkins

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