When marathons were 'for men only'

This year's Boston Marathon marked the 15th anniversary of the day an entrant listed as K. Switzer threw race officials into a tizzy when they discovered that the ''K'' stood for Kathy, and that for the first time ever a woman had crashed their cherished male bastion as an official competitor.

The photos appeared the next day in papers all over the world -- shots of stuffy race officials breaking in among the runners in an unsuccessful attempt to pull the number off her shirt. The pictures said it all as far as the absurdity of the situation was concerned -- and surely they helped crystalize public opinion against such restrictions.

Indeed, the 1 1/2 decades that have passed since then seem like a millenium in terms of the public perception of women's athletics. And no better example could be found than the Boston Marathon itself, with its hundreds of female competitors and full-scale media attention heaped upon the women's winner.

It's the same in all big races now, and there are also many events just for women -- some attracting thousands of runners. The trend has even reached the Olympics, with women's competition scheduled for the first time at both 3,000 meters and the 26-mile, 385-yard marathon distance in 1984.

There were other female long distance runners before Switzer, to be sure -- including some who ran the Boston Marathon by jumping in without a number at the start. But in terms of focusing a spotlight on the battle for women's rights in athletics, her feat will always hold a special place.

Kathrine Switzer (she prefers the formal appelation now) was back in Boston for this year's Marathon as a TV commentator, but of course she was asked about the old days.

''In high school I wanted to be a cheerleader,'' she recalled. ''But my father said if I wanted to be involved in something I should participate, not be a spectator. I think that was the smartest advice I ever got.''

So she went out for field hockey.

''My dad said I should run a mile a day to get in shape,'' she explained. ''A mile a day! It seemed like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.But I did it. And eventually I decided that running was really my sport.''

The big push began at Syracuse University, where she worked out with the men's cross-country team and met Arnie Briggs, a former top runner who became her trainer.

''I was always dead last, of course,'' she said. ''Arnie had knee problems, so he ran along with me. He was in much better condition, so he did most of the talking while I sort of hung on by my fingernails. And what he talked about mostly was the Boston Marathon. I grew up in running hearing about Tarzan Brown, Clarence Demars, Johnny Kelley.

''That winter when the team moved inside we kept on running outdoors.Looking back now, it was crazy -- all the snow, and all the cars. One day near the end of a long run he started telling me another Boston story. I was cold and crabby , and I said, 'Arnie, let's just quit talking about Boston and run it.'

''I was up to eight or nine miles a day by then, and pretty strong, but he just said matter-of-factly, 'Women can't run a marathon.'

''I said, 'Arnie, I can't believe I hear you saying this. You've been running with me. You know Roberta Gibb ran in it last year.'

''He said, 'She jumped in after the start.' But finally he agreed to help me. I ran 10 miles a day plus a long run on Sunday, which eventually got up to the marathon distance.

Switzer's boyfriend in those days was a weight man on the track and field team.

''Tom was the serious athlete,'' she recalled. ''I was the klutz who did a little jogging. When I told him I was going to run the marathon, he collapsed helplessly in laughter, and said if I went, he was going to go too.

''I knew I wasn't going to be welcome,'' she said of the 'K. Switzer' ruse. ''I didn't know it was actually against the rules, but I knew they didn't want women in the race.''

The incident happened about four miles into the race, when director Will Cloney and his right-hand man, Jock Semple, burst in.

''Arnie really got upset,'' Switzer said. ''All his preconceptions from Syracuse were gone, and he was completely turned around. He had witnessed a 'birth,' of sorts, and now he was an all-out believer -- and he couldn't understand it when other men still looked at it the way he had such a short time before.

''When they came after me, he was outraged. How could Semple possibly not take me seriously? I remember him saying, 'Leave her alone, Jock, I've trained her.' ''

Meanwhile Switzer's 225-pound boyfriend threw a well-timed body block or two. Then, as Kathrine recalls it, Tom said, ''You're getting me in trouble; and besides, you're too slow!'' - and took off.

She stuck to her pace, eventually catching Tom, who hadn't trained enough, and was by then walking. ''He wanted me to stop, and he even said, 'I wouldn't leave you here,' '' she laughed. ''He did finish, though.''

Switzer's own finish, of course, became a cause celebre. Opinion was obviously on the side of the women, but it took several more years in which female runners had to jump in before the organizers relented in 1972 and admitted them officially for the first time.

Switzer ran Boston eight times, achieving a personal best of 2:51 in 1975. All-in-all she ran in 35 marathons and was first woman in several, including New York 1974.

By the mid-'70s, though, it was time for other things. She did some promoting of women's running, and is now director of sports programs for the Avon Corporation -- a role involving promoting and organizing events in this country and abroad, and one which she believes offers more opportunity to aid in the development of women's athletics than even her famous breakthrough of 1967 did.

''Most women didn't know much about exercise and such then,'' she said. ''And we still have to break down a lot of those very same barriers -- especially in other countries.

''To me, helping women realize their potential and strive for fitness and performance is more gratifying even than crossing that finish line here in Boston.''

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