Pioneering Woman Runner and Team Seek to Run for Empowerment

By Kylie Ayal

Boston University News Service

Fifty years after Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon as the first female runner with an official bib, she will run alongside 125 other people from her organization, 261 Fearless, in her last Boston Marathon with the same bib number, 261, and the same goal in mind: empowering women.

The 261 Fearless mission is being highlighted at a timely period when women’s empowerment has become a major issue in politics. The organization provides women a community to share a vision for women’s rights — indeed, the motivation for the 261 Fearless runners in this year’s marathon.

“Women can view running as a way to empower themselves and then go out and change those adversities in their life and take them on with a little more strength and courage,” said Chris Grack, vice president of community outreach for 261 Fearless.

The 261 Fearless organization requires each runner to raise at least $7,261, which will help facilitate a wider global network of support for female runners. The money raised by each member supports the development of a curriculum, training programs and runs around the world. The curriculum 261 Fearless creates is specifically designed for women and includes weekly runs to get the most novice of runners on an equal level as the more experienced runners, said Grack.

The 261 Fearless run comes at a particularly active time for women nationwide, as activist groups around the country are forming to protect women’s rights. Global marches, such as the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., last January, protested for women’s rights and equal opportunities. They share 261 Fearless’ core values to empower women.

Adrian Finch, a Boston resident running with 261 Fearless in her first Boston Marathon, said the organization’s commitment to women’s empowerment was a chief reason she joined. “To be able to line up at the starting line with these women and men who have all united under the common umbrella of empowering women is truly one of the greatest honors of my life,” said Finch, who raised $8,786 this year.

“I really consider myself a feminist. I support other women and believe we should have equal opportunity,” Finch added. “To hear Kathrine’s story how women weren’t allowed to run the Boston Marathon and she finished that race to show everyone that women can do just as much as men can do and we’re just as tough as men. To be a part of the team carrying that message with 261 Fearless means so much to me.”

Switzer, now 70, started 261 Fearless in 2015, nearly five decades after she ran her first marathon in Boston at the age of 20. Women were not officially allowed to participate in the races until 1970. When Switzer ran the Boston Marathon under her bib number 261 in 1967, she ran under the gender-neutral name “K.V. Switzer.”

“We didn’t see the women, and they weren’t covered in the marathon, until of course 1966 when [first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon] Bobbi Gibb ran. That received a lot of coverage and then Kathrine the next year, even more, and those two years were pivotal for women’s running everywhere,” said Amby Burfoot, editor in chief of Runner’s World magazine.

Switzer went on to run 39 marathons, and in 1974 won the New York City marathon. In 1975, she finished second in Boston.

The 261 Fearless Boston Marathon group has been training together for several months, running in groups on the weekends in the Boston area with coaches who are trained to help different levels of runners. The team includes women from several countries, as well as seven men.

According to the Boston Athletic Association, this year 13,709 women entered to run the 121st Boston Marathon, compared to last year’s 14,112 female runners.

“I think at a time where things with the media and politics have really come into questions with things like gender equality, it’s been such an empowering statement to have women coming together, whether it’s the Women’s March or teams like 261 Fearless, made of mostly female runners,” said Jessica Schulman, a California native running the Boston Marathon for the first time after joining 261 Fearless this year. “It’s something extremely positive and can definitely help in terms of equality and inclusion.”