Leisa: Hello. I’m Leisa Holland-Nelson and welcome to another edition of Women Mean Business. This is a special edition today coming to you from the Greater Houston Women’s Conference for Women. This year our theme is no limits and my guest today is Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Kathrine, welcome. I am overwhelmed and thrilled to have you here today.
Kathrine: Oh Leisa, I am so glad to be here today, ya’ know. Being the first woman to actually officially run the Boston Marathon, which is part of the story, I’m delighted to tell people about how they have no limits and how they can take sometimes the most inconsequential things in their lives or the most bizarre things in their lives and change it into a major business opportunity and also changing people’s lives maybe more importantly.
Leisa: Well that’s exactly what I wanna ask you about. We’re gonna start with what made you run the Boston Marathon in the first place? I mean, you were 20 years old. What made you even think about entering that race?
Kathrine: Leisa, I was a 20-year old student at Syracuse University.
Kathrine: I was training with the men’s’ cross country team because there were no women’s sports in those days. Ya’ know, this is way pre-Title 9. We’re talking 1966 here and my coach, who wasn’t really an official coach, he was the university mailman, but that’s beside the point. He was a marathon runner and he enticed me with these stories about the marathon and I really wanted to run it and when I said I would like to run it he said, “But it’s too long for a woman. Women are too weak, too fragile. They can’t do it.” And I really got angry and I said, “I’m going to run the Boston Marathon. I can do it.” And he said, “Listen, if you’d prove to me in practice, I’d be the first person to take you to Boston.” ‘Cause he just didn’t believe. So we trained together. We ran the distance. In fact, we ran 31 miles; not 26. My coach passed out at the end of the workout and he said, “Women have hidden potential and endurance and stamina.”
So that’s how it began. It was really going to Boston, I was so proud of myself. He was so proud of me, but it really was a gift from my coach to prove to him that I could do it.
Leisa: So I know you ran officially or unofficially before you ran officially. Tell me about the first race.
Kathrine: Well, this is really important because other women had run marathons. Not many. About six and they had just sort of jumped off the roadway into the race and ran. Some of them very, very well, but my coach said, “Listen, this is a serious race and you’ve gotta sign up for it.” And there were no rules written about this. Everybody just believed the marathon was a man’s event. The great bastion of arduousness and difficulty. And also there was nothing about gender on the entry form. It was just a tradition. So, I signed the entry form. The trick is here I signed my name K.V. Switzer. So the officials thought it must be from a man.
Kathrine: But I signed my name that way because, ya’ know, I was a journalist. I wanted to be J.D. Salinger, E.E. Cummings, ya’ know. And my name has a weird spelling so it was easier. Anyway, sent in the application and they accepted it. Then the morning of the race it was snowing and sleeting. So in a heavy sweat suit you probably couldn’t tell much difference from me and a guy and two miles into the race then, the race director, seeing a woman in his race, wearing numbers, lost his temper, jumped off the press bus and attacked me and then screamed at me, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.” And tried to pull my bib number off. And all of a sudden my life changed, ya’ know.
My boyfriend hit the official, sent him out of the race instead and I went onto finish, but that moment of determination of finishing the race, it made all the difference because I then spent the rest of the race, 24 miles, thinking about what changes need to be made in the sport and it changed my life completely.
Leisa: Was that moment what really defined what you were gonna do with the rest of your life?
Kathrine: Well, you can’t be too specific when those moments happen about what you’re going to do, but by the time I finished the race I had resolution. I think resolution is the big awakening and that is that I knew by the time I finished the race I was gonna try to become a better athlete and to create opportunities for women in sports, particularly in running because that’s what I knew. I knew how wonderful it made me feel, how it had changed my life. I knew it could change women’s lives everywhere, but to say that was such an off the wall thing in those days. I just then began very carefully, like you run a marathon, put one foot in front of the other and began putting my thoughts together. And to cut a long story short, realized the talent is everywhere.
It only needs an opportunity and if I could create events for women to come to, they would rise to the occasion and we could convince officials, even the International Olympic Committee that women deserve these opportunities and would participate because we would have the numbers in the participation. And indeed, what I did is I used my journalistic skills to write proposal after proposal. One of them I took to Avon Cosmetics, the biggest cosmetics company in the world at the time and we organized eventually 400 races in 27 countries for over a million women, used those to leverage the International Olympic Committee to get the women’s marathon event into the Olympic Games and once it was on broadcast television around the world, the world notions changed about women’s limitations. Now we don’t think twice about a woman running. There are more women running in North America now than men and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s utterly fantastic how it’s changed their lives and it’s changed all of us.
Leisa: What specific business did you create in order to accomplish what you accomplished?
Kathrine: Well that’s really an interesting point because I was employed by a major corporation as a director of public relations.
Kathrine: But within that scope, within that job framework, I essentially built a sports marketing company. I could have shopped it out into a sports marketing firm, but we knew in-house the women that were working with me knew their stuff. We knew running better than anybody and we could cut costs by so much. We could do it for a fraction in-house and we did and therefore the events were very, very good. So we surrounded a team that were great at operations and great at public relations and we went out to every different city or town or location we went to. We trained the people there. It was like being a pony express rider. It was a lot of work because sometimes these countries, you’re talking about the Philippines or Brazil or Japan even, they had never had a women’s sports event much less a women’s road race. Some of them never even had a road race. So I mean, time, toilets, tents, scaffolding, all of that kind of stuff had to be taught.
Leisa: Wow. What an experience. So, I know that what we’ve got here, which is really exciting, is your second book. So you’re a published author. Is this what you’re doing for a living now? Writing?
Kathrine: Ya’ know, mostly I don’t do sports events anymore. I advise on them, but mostly I’m authoring books. This is my second book authored with my husband, Roger Robinson. My latest book is Marathon Woman, which is really the story of what I’ve just told you and also my life. It’s autobiographical and, ya’ know, there’s plenty of beer, sex and rock and roll to keep anybody happy.
Leisa: Oh my goodness.
Kathrine: Ya’ know, when you’re 60 you can tell the truth. But I also do a tremendous amount of speaking because the whole concept of running with women resonates in terms of the sense of empowerment, self-esteem and fearlessness that women feel from this experience. The simple act, amazingly enough, of putting one foot in front of the other has transformed not only our lives in terms of self-esteem, but also many lives around the world. If you look, for instance, at Kenyan women who were the most third class of third class citizens you can imagine in the whole world. The women who are running from there are winning prize money and taking it back to their villages and sanitizing water and building schools and inoculating kids. So you know they’re changing the whole social fabric. It’s a wonderful thing.
Leisa: It is a wonderful thing and Kathrine, you absolutely embody today’s theme of no limits. I have one last question for you and that is what would you tell the next generation of women who actually aren’t as limited as we might have been in our quest for success, but what advice would you give someone who wanted to achieve the success that you’ve achieved in the field that you love?
Kathrine: Yes, and it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as like, ya’ know, running, but running is a very good example because really it’s a very simple, little thing. I mean, who would ever think it would grow into a big business. So my advice to them would be to look around and find in your life the thing that is lacking or take some of the negatives that have happened to you because negatives often are an opportunity. It’s a positive if you turn it the other way because it needs correcting and if you take something that’s gone wrong, make it right, it can be not only a business, but it can also be a great legacy for you.
Leisa: Thank you very much. There you have it. Another really extraordinary woman doing extraordinary things. I’m Leisa Holland-Nelson, President and Co-Founder of Content Active, Houston’s leading web and mobile design company. You can find me at ContentActive.com or follow me on Twitter @LHNelson. We’ll be back again next week with another edition of Women Mean Business.
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