Running for Change
By Katie Schleeter
A grainy, black and white photo sits on my nightstand, an image simultaneously terrifying and inspiring. The photograph shows a young female runner in baggy, grey sweats and sneakers, with the number 261 pinned to her chest. She is turning toward a figure dressed in all black, a balding attacker whose face is twisted with rage. A burly male athlete next to her shoves the aggressor away as the woman’s eyes flash a powerful mix of fear and determination.
This scene was captured four miles into the 1967 Boston Marathon—a 26.2-mile challenge that every runner dreams about but which, at the time, excluded female competitors. The woman, Katherine Switzer, gained entry into the event by registering as “K. Switzer.” The man in black was Jock Semple, the marathon’s organizer, who became furious when he learned that a “girl” was running in his race. He tracked Katherine down on the course, jumped off a press truck right in front of her, and lunged at her, screaming: “Get the hell out of my race, and give me that number!” Without the quick reaction of Switzer’s boyfriend, who was running beside her, Semple might well have succeeded in attacking and harming Katherine. Visibly shaken and in tears, the 20-year-old Switzer fought on and completed the distance in four hours, twenty minutes.
Switzer’s story is just one example of the long history of discrimination against women in sports. Just one year earlier, in 1966, Roberta Gibb Welch hid in the bushes near the start of the Boston Marathon and stepped unnoticed into the hoard of runners. Welch finished with an unofficial time better than two-thirds of her male competitors. Her spectacular achievement gained her no prize money or medals, but represented another determined step for women as they marched forward to achieve athletic equality. Not until the 1970 New York City Marathon were women officially allowed to run in any marathon. Title IX, the precedent-setting federal legislation that guarantees gender equality in access to sports, was not enacted until 1972. Internationally, discrimination persisted long after that date; until 1984, the longest women’s Olympic race was just 1,500 meters, less than a mile. Olympic organizers feared that greater exertion would harm women’s reproductive organs and health.
Athletics and exercise are simply the human body in its most pure form: moving, changing, being. Excluding women from using their bodies and expressing power through their natural form is a significant marker of discrimination and injustice. Thankfully, today, in road races and marathons across the country and around the world, a different story is unfolding. The number of women running in major American marathons is growing steadily, as more and more women sign on to accept the marathon’s challenge with open arms and broad smiles. In the 2004 LaSalle Bank Chicago marathon, for instance, 30 percent more women finished the race than men did—a total of 1,200 women runners. Gigantic strides have been made in women’s athletics over the last few decades, and I anticipate more achievements in the future.
Why are women taking on one of the most arduous athletic challenges there is? What factors have contributed to the boom in female competitors in this, and all other, arenas of physical activity? For me, love of athletics has many features. When I toe the start line of a race, I am proving to myself and everyone around me that I am absolutely unstoppable. I am demonstrating a woman’s power when she sets her mind to achieving something. And, most importantly, I am rewarded by the tangible and instantaneous empowerment that comes from engaging in such a feat.
While training for and completing my first marathon, I discovered that the hours upon hours of running are like journaling on-the-go, allowing me to think broadly and reconnect with my body and mind. As I wound my way through the roads and trails of Northern Virginia, my thoughts traveled widely. I thought about Katherine Switzer refusing to say “No” and quit, as Semple so vehemently desired. I thought of Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first Olympic women’s marathon, as she surged across the finish line in August, 1984. I thought of all of the women who have made a difference in creating a level playing field for women’s athletics.
I imagine that these women may have shared my belief that, if I can focus my passion and determination for great results on the road and through my body, I can harness that same, unceasing drive to accomplish anything. I truly believe that it is this mental strength, not my legs, that powered me cross the 2003 Marine Corps Marathon finish line. This is the stuff of feminism.
Exercise is more than just a boon to your health; it benefits your soul as well. Think about the last time you went for a jog, took a swim, had a brisk walk or finished a yoga class. Didn’t you leave feeling invigorated? Didn’t a certain sort of energy—immediate, tangible and empowering—course through your veins? Engaging in physical activity is one way for women to feel, immediately and in the present, that we are on top of the world and can do anything.
Each time I begin a jog, a race, or a run, I think about Switzer’s ferocity and that outrageous picture. It gives me the kick I need to lace up my shoes and get out the door…and to keep on running. I’ll see you on the road.
Katie Schleeter recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a B.S. in Biology and Chemistry. She is applying to joint graduate degree programs in law and public health, ultimately hoping to continue women’s health activism through a career in public health policy. She completed the New York City Marathon in November, 2004.