There’s a scene in the 1986 movie “Wildcats” in which Goldie Hawn is faced with a high school football team that refuses to respect her as a coach because she’s a woman, and what do women know about football? She throws down a gauntlet – if anyone on the team can outlast her while running around the race track, she’ll quit. The dudes take her up, thinking that she’s just made a sucker’s bet.
Much later, rain is soaking the track, and most of the guys have given up. Goldie’s still running strong, though, like it ain’t no thing to run for hours in the rain. One of the players catches up to her and says, what the hell? She says, “I ran the Boston Marathon…twice.”
I remember turning to my mom – I was about seven at the time, and honestly, I have no idea why I was watching this movie because it’s totally not appropriate for little kids – and asking, “What’s the Boston Marathon?” When Mom explained that it was a 26.2-mile race that was really hard and very famous, my head pretty much exploded.
Ever since then, I’d thought of the Boston Marathon as one of the few super-hard athletic events where women could be just as good than men. I mean, Goldie may not have been able to tackle Woody Harrelson, but she could sure as shit outrun him.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that there was once a time when the Boston Marathon actually did not allow women to run. Actually, imagine my surprise when I learned that it was once considered unseemly for women to run any distance longer than a half-mile. Considering that these days, more than half of all half-marathon finishers are women, running blogs with words like “diva” and “mom” and “girl” in their names are plentiful and even an entire magazine has been dedicated to the sport, it’s so hard to imagine there was ever once a time when the whole world was certain that a woman who ran would be rendered infertile and undesirable and pretty much worthless as a human being.
This was the world Kathrine Switzer grew up in. Switzer is probably most famous now for being the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, and maybe the only person who ever was tackled by a race director who bristled at the idea of women running in his race. She wasn’t the first woman to actually run it – that honor goes to Roberta Gibbs, who ran as a bandit – but she was the first one to actually have a number.
Switzer’s memoir, “Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports,” would have been fascinating even if it only stuck to that epoch in her life. Fortunately for us, her passion for running meant she was involved in much of the behind-the-scenes agitating and organizing and lobbying that laid the groundwork for women’s distance running today.
For instance, Switzer was one of the main organizers of the first women’s-only road races. Women-only road races are fairly commonplace these days, but back in the 1970s, the sight of thousands of women racing through the streets of the world’s major cities was nothing short of revelatory. She also helped lobby for an end to the exclusionary racing policy of not just the Boston Marathon, but also the Olympics (which did not have a women’s marathon event until 1984 – for some perspective, I was five when this happened).
As much as I enjoyed reading about all of the work that went into paving the way for me as a female road-racer, and also all of the history of those early women’s running pioneers (I find women like Grete Waitz and Jacqueline Hansen almost unbearably glamorous), I thrilled at Switzer’s recounting of her life as an actual runner. Switzer was not an outsider agitating for change in order to promote a women’s lib agenda; she was a passionate runner and had been since she was young.
Switzer was also very accomplished, which is something I was not aware of. She once won the New York City Marathon, and her personal best in the marathon is a 2:51:37, which she ran at Boston in 1975. She writes about putting in hours upon hours, and hundreds of miles, in order to achieve those goals.
There’s a lot of great stuff contained in this book, which was a compelling read, thanks to Switzer’s breezy, engaging writing style. (Like me, Switzer attended j-school and worked as a journalist – holla!) Sometimes memoirs written by people who have led fascinating lives can be tedious to read, and I’m happy to report that this was not the case with “Marathon Woman.” I blew through this book in two or three days, staying up late one night to finish it. And when I was done, I wanted nothing more than to put on my Asics and head out for a long run.
Now, when I run, I do so with a better understanding of what women runners used to face, and with appreciation of their hard work and sacrifices. It can still be difficult for me to fathom a world in which this thing that I love to do so much, this thing that I felt as though I was born to do, was once considered off-limits to me simply because I am a woman. I suppose that is the greatest measure of the success of pioneers like Switzer, that the world they were raised in has been left so far behind that women like me cannot even imagine how such things were ever possible.