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Katherine Switzer

Still Running Through Obstacles

Published February 9, 1998, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

When Katherine Switzer joined Syracuse University to study journalism, there were no women's athletics available.

She obtained coach Bob Grieve's permission to train with the men's cross country team. Shortly afterward, she caught the eye of Arnie Briggs. Briggs was in his fifties, a mailman and a good runner who spent his free time assisting the cross country team. Switzer and Briggs made a good team: She wanted to go where no one had gone, and he was willing to show her the way.

In the winter of 1967, Briggs and Switzer trained for the Boston Marathon on the hills of Syracuse. They often started from Christian Brothers Academy on Randall Road, and ran through the Drumlins. On occasion, they would even run from CBA all the way to Cazenovia.

After completing a 31-mile training run, both were confident of Switzer's ability to finish a marathon.

But there was a problem: The Boston Marathon was a men's only race. A few women had run the race as bandits in the mid-'60s, but no woman had ever entered it officially. Switzer signed her entry form as K.V. Switzer. On race day, she ran with Briggs and Tom Miller, a hammer thrower for SU who was her boyfriend. When the race director spotted her at four miles and tried to pull her out of the race, Miller tackled him in view of a press truck. Switzer went on to finish Boston, and the rest is history.

When Switzer speaks to business and running audiences, she talks about defining moments. It is up to us whether we let them shape our lives, she says. That incident in Boston was a defining moment in Switzer's life. Instead of walking away from the finish line and forgetting that day, or worse yet dropping out of the race, she transformed that defining moment into a crusade for women's athletics.

I met Switzer during her recent visit to Syracuse and had an opportunity to run with her. It was an unusual sunny and warm January day. We started from Archbold Gymnasium and ran toward Drumlins, retracing a route that Switzer had run many times. During the run, she recalled the late '60s and early '70s - the defining years in Syracuse running.

Switzer recognized the lack of running opportunities for women. Few universities had women's teams or offered scholarships, many races disallowed women competitors, and the Olympics provided no women's distance events. Upon their return from Boston, Switzer and Briggs started the original Syracuse Track Club, which became the Syracuse Chargers Track Club in 1972. Switzer organized a series of weekly summer runs out of CBA and published their results in the club's newsletter.

After graduating from Syracuse, Switzer expanded her lobbying for women's athletics to the global level. She convinced Avon, the world's largest cosmetics corporation, to sponsor a series of women's races. As director of Avon's running series from 1978 through 1985, and through her journalistic training, she succeeded in bringing equality on several fronts.

Switzer's most recent celebration of women's running came with Avon's return to running after a 13-year absence. Starting this year, Avon will sponsor a global women's running circuit, including low-key 5K races in all 50 states, and competitive 10K races in eleven cities in the United States and 16 countries.

A portion of the proceeds from these races will go to the Road Runners Club of America's Roads Scholar grant program, to support post-collegiate elite runners in the United States. For masters, Switzer has written a book, "Running and Walking For Women Over 40: On The Road To Sanity and Vanity," which she expects to release in April.

Under normal circumstances, a 5-mile run with Katherine Switzer would have been the highlight of my day. However, on a sunny day filled with highlights, the exhilaration of the run faded in the shadow of another surprise. A Syracuse Charger runner and a Syracuse University alum, Switzer pledged a significant donation of historic documents on women's running to the newly created Ed Stabler Syracuse Chargers Running Collection at the Syracuse University Library. It is noteworthy that Ed Stabler ran the 1967 Boston Marathon, far ahead of Switzer and oblivious to history in the making behind him.

Kamal Jabbour's run with Katherine Switzer was a dream come true in many ways. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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