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Inspirational and fearless

How a radical incident changed Kathrine Switzer's life.

The Boston Marathon, an event widely regarded as the Holy Grail for runners and a unique reflection of community spirit, was marred by tragedy this year when two bombs struck near its finish line. Deaths, countless injuries and deep emotional scarring were an unforeseen result that will be forever etched on the history of the marathon, first run in 1897.

In 1967, another Boston Marathon incident captured the world’s attention, this time for very different reasons. An American woman named Kathrine Switzer registered to compete in what was then considered to be a men’s-only race, signing up as K.V. Switzer. Five miles into her run a race official spotted her and tried to physically force her off the course. Surrounding race participants, including Kathrine’s boyfriend, called out and blocked him, allowing her to complete the run. Photos of the incident went around the world and became one of Time-Life’s ‘100 Photos that Changed the World.’ Kathrine became an icon for women’s running and successfully campaigned to allow women to officially participate in the Boston Marathon in 1972.

In 2011 Kathrine was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the United States and continues to run marathons at 66 years of age. She is involved in the upcoming Medibank Melbourne Marathon and shares training tips, running advice and a bit more about that landmark 1967 incident.

How did the 1967 Boston Marathon change your life?

It changed my life totally, as it radicalised me. We all have ‘awakenings’ and this was an awakening that begged a resolution and I felt responsible to make positive change from that incident when the official attacked me in the race. The important goal here was to get women’s marathon into the Olympic Games so the world could see and applaud women’s capability, have their notions changed about so-called female limitation and so women themselves could aspire to the highest level and know they were entitled to do so.

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of your win in the 1974 New York Marathon. What do you remember about the race?

Everything! That it was over 90 degrees F temp, that I had trained very very hard to break three hours and this was going to be the race that I wanted to do it in but the high temperature and humidity was going to prevent that. That there was a terrible thunderstorm in the last 8km and I finished the race after running through ankle deep water in places, and being utterly exhausted. It was my hardest victory and my time of 3:07 does not reflect how good the performance was. Now it remains as the biggest margin of victory – 27 minutes – in the history of the NYC marathon.

The theme for this year’s Medibank Melbourne Marathon is ‘anything is possible’ – what do you think it takes to run a marathon?

It takes a lot of training, but training works. Anybody really can run a marathon if they are willing to do the work, the more you do, the more you can do. It takes an element of fearlessness, but you don’t need to worry about not having that, you attain that more and more as you run, it comes naturally.

In 2012, 1764 females completed the Medibank Melbourne Marathon. How does it make you feel to know that you are a big part of that?

It makes me feel very validated and like a proud mama. It also reminds me that we have a long way to go in getting running to women in other parts of the world, and I want to nudge them all and say come on, get on board.

What lies ahead for you with regard to women and distance running?

Running is not just about running, it is about changing lives. We are beginning a project called 261 Fearless where we use running as the vehicle of communication in helping women in restricted or fearful situations know they have someone out there to communicate with. 216 was my bib number in the first famous Boston Marathon and has come to mean fearless among women.

Image credit: CORBIS and AP Images

For more information on the upcoming Medibank Melbourne Marathon, visit melbournemarathon.com.au.

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