Kathrine Switzer defied authorities to run the Boston Marathon when it was a men-only event, triggering a revolution in women’s sport. Now, at 70, she is about to run it again together with women she has inspired, including Rachel Smalley.

It was the word "incident" that jumped out at me.

It was May 2013 and I was hosting TV3's morning news programme, Firstline, and scanning my Twitter feed during a commercial break when news broke of an incident at the Boston Marathon.

I felt a surge of adrenalin followed almost immediately by a sense of foreboding. I knew what "incident" meant. It meant trauma. It's a term news agencies often use when they're still trying to determine the facts in a major, developing news story.

Was it a shooting? Or a bomb? I snatched another glance at Twitter and saw a tweet from the Boston Globe saying there had been two explosions.


For the next three hours we covered the story. The footage from the finish line was grim. Two bombs. Three fatalities. Hundreds injured. Many had lost limbs. Charred metal. Blood. Clothing strewn across the road. It was clear this was a terrorist attack but those responsible were still at large.

I interviewed emergency workers, race officials, politicians, eye-witnesses and runners, and many with less than a minute's notice. Then, as we entered our third hour of broadcasting, my earpiece crackled into life again.

"Got her!" my boss said. "We've got Kathrine Switzer. She's coming to you in 30 seconds."

Switzer. Who was Switzer? I rolled the name around in my head. I couldn't place it.

I typed her name into the search engine. Of course. Kathrine Switzer had run the Boston Marathon in 1967 when it was a men-only event. Officials tried to drag her from the course and Boston, on some level, had been linked with Switzer's name ever since.

In this 1980 file photo, pioneer woman marathoner Switzer stands in her New York office. Photo / AP
In this 1980 file photo, pioneer woman marathoner Switzer stands in her New York office. Photo / AP

On-air, Switzer was professional. She had been part of the race commentary team for five hours and had just returned to her hotel room when the bombs went off. She saw the aftermath of the attack and it showed in her face. She was ashen and struggled at times to find context in what she'd seen unfold around her.

"I saw it go from a scene of pure joy and people wearing medals and taking selfies ... to a scene of complete and utter bewilderment and panic."

She spoke of heavily-armed Swat teams arriving by truck and men leaping on to the street, clasping M4s. That was four years ago, and as I speak to Switzer today, she is still struggling to accept what happened in 2013.


"It was as if the city was being hi-jacked . . . which I guess it was really."

What Switzer could never have known was that in 2017, at the age of 70, she would again run the Boston Marathon. And as I sat in the Auckland studio interviewing her that day, what I could never have foreseen was that six months later I would buy my first pair of running shoes, and I too would be lining up alongside her.

Kathrine Switzer was 19 and studying journalism at Syracuse University in New York. There was no women's running team so she tagged along with the men and their coach, Arnie Briggs. Briggs was 50 and a veteran of 15 Boston Marathons.

"He used to cajole me through tough evening sessions by telling me stories of famous Bostons. I loved listening to them until this one night when I snapped and said, 'Let's quit talking about the Boston Marathon and run the damn thing'."

"No." Briggs said. "No woman can run the Boston Marathon."

"Why not?" Switzer asked. "I'm already running 10 miles a night."

Briggs said it was a widely accepted theory that women were too frail to run such a long distance.

"If any woman can do it, you can," he said. "But you'll have to prove it to me first. If you run the distance in practise, I'll take you to Boston."

It was a no-brainer. Three weeks before the Boston Marathon, Switzer ran the distance alongside her coach. In fact, she suggested the 26 mile distance was too easy, and insisted Briggs run another five miles with her. He did, and then passed out at the finish.

The next day, Briggs turned up at Switzer's dorm and told her to sign up for Boston. The only problem was that technically Switzer couldn't enter. It was 1967 and marathons were men-only events. Switzer devised a plan. She would enter under the gender-neutral name "K.V Switzer" and Briggs would collect her race number.

"I didn't really see myself as a trail-blazer. I just wanted to run the Boston Marathon. I always say that capability and talent is everywhere. You just need an opportunity. And I wanted that opportunity."

On the morning of the marathon it was cold. Switzer had planned to run in shorts and a singlet, but decided to start the race wearing a grey tracksuit.

"In hindsight, I think that helped me. That bulky tracksuit meant I didn't stand out as a woman."

It wasn't until Switzer got to the two mile mark that she was spotted by race official Jock Semple. He charged at Switzer and tried to grab her official number and pull her from the course.

"I really was very afraid. Quite terrified actually. I'd never been assaulted before. And it was so out of the blue and such a surprise."

Switzer says for a split second she wanted to cover her face with her hands and run home. Then her boyfriend blocked Semple, sending him flying off the course. Switzer, feeling humiliated and angry, ran on.

"I can remember turning to my coach and saying 'I've got to finish this race. I don't care if I finish it on my hands and knees, I've got to finish it."

Looking back, Switzer says she wonders how her 20-year-old self made that decision in the heat of the moment and when she felt the world was crowding in on her. "I often say that I started the Boston Marathon as a girl that day, but I finished it as a grown woman. And it was in that moment that the transition took place. It became the victory that no-one could take away from me."

Switzer talks with Ben Beach during a media availability at the Copley Plaza Hotel near the Boston Marathon finish line yesterday, in Boston. Beach will run the marathon 50 times this year. Photo / AP
Switzer talks with Ben Beach during a media availability at the Copley Plaza Hotel near the Boston Marathon finish line yesterday, in Boston. Beach will run the marathon 50 times this year. Photo / AP

Little did Switzer know, that moment would change the course of her life and ultimately trigger a revolution in women's running. The photo ran in the Boston Herald the next day but was picked up by the world's media. It would later be included in Time magazine's "100 Photos that Changed the World".

"The worst things in your life can sometimes become the best things in your life, and that was certainly true for me in Boston. That race gave me a laser-like focus."

Switzer would receive accolades and condemnation in equal measure but it was women who were most critical. The hate mail flooded in.

"I often say that the only people who really tried to drive me off the road in those early days were women. But I knew if they could only experience running, they'd be transformed. I wanted them to have that opportunity."

It was another four years before the Boston Marathon agreed to accept registrations from women. Then, in the 1980s, Switzer's focus switched to the Olympics. The longest distance open to women runners was the 1500m and Switzer wanted the Olympics to include a women's marathon. "People think the women's marathon has always been part of the Olympics. It wasn't, and it didn't happen magically."

Switzer teamed up with Avon, the makeup brand, to create a series of global running events for women.

"There were 400 races in 27 countries on five continents. Women turned out in their thousands to run, and the Olympic Committee couldn't ignore that."

In 1984, off the back of some fierce lobbying, the women's marathon was included in the Los Angeles Olympics.

Switzer, who lives in Wellington several months of the year with her Kiwi husband Roger Robinson, remains a force for women runners.

She recently setting up a non-profit "261 Fearless" that aims to empower women around the world through running. She came up with the idea after women began sending her pictures of her 1967 bib, 261.

"They were wearing it on their backs, inked on their arms, even tattoos. And I began to ask why is this number so important to people? And I realised that everyone in the world can relate to being told they're not welcome, or they don't belong, or they're not good enough, but they do it anyway. And that's the symbolism of 261. It makes women feel fearless."

Switzer will be surrounded by a team of #261Fearless runners when she takes on the Boston Marathon course one last time this week.

"Women are driving the sport now. It's incredible."

Switzer anticipates feeling a "collision of emotions" on Tuesday when she runs the marathon again - as well as an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

"Gratitude for being able to consider running again at the age of 70 and gratitude for a city that has changed my life and therefore changed millions of women's lives. I'm enormously grateful to Boston for that."

And like so many women marathoners, when I toe the line in Boston next week, it will be with a huge sense of gratitude for one K.V Switzer, and what she bravely achieved some 50 years ago.Listen to Rachel Smalley on Newstalk ZB between 5am and 6am every weekday morning.