Boston Marathon celebrates 50 years of female participation

By Dolores Chang, Taylor Donnelly, Jake Gross, Ariadna Sandoval, Shana Singh
Boston University News Service

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to cross the Boston Marathon finish line, having officially entered at a time when women could not run. Another woman, Bobbi Gibb, unofficially ran the entire marathon in 1966 by jumping into the race after it had already started.

While the women’s division was not officially included in the marathon, Switzer completed the race in four hours and 20 minutes, according to press materials. She also initiated the inclusion of women in the Boston Marathon a few years later and in other marathons like at the Olympics.

Entering under the initials K.V. Switzer, she obtained a bib number and remained unnoticed. It wasn’t until the 1.5-mile mark when an official realized Switzer was a woman and attacked her. 

“I was very frightened and was just trying to get away from him,” said Switzer in a fact sheet.

Luckily, Switzer’s boyfriend managed to remove the official and she continued the historic run. 

“For a while, it was difficult because I was very worried and nervous, and had lost a lot of energy,” said Switzer. “The adrenaline rush that comes from a shock flows out of you afterward and leaves you drained. But energy slowly returned and by the end, I was feeling pretty good.”

Switzer’s achievement led to the official women’s division in the Boston Marathon in 1972. 

Boston Marathon 3-part photo. Credit: Boston Herald

During the first year of the women’s division, eight women started in Hopkinton and crossed the finish line on Ring Road’s pavement 50 years ago. This year, over 14,000 women signed up for the run —including Val Rogosheske, one of the original eight women. 

The B.A.A. registration data shows that nearly half of people running the Boston Marathon in 2021 were women, but there were significantly more male runners in age groups over 45.

Female runners face challenges in training and racing today, despite the tremendous growth of women’s participation in marathon races.  

The world average of women running in marathons is 31.36%, according to statistics published by Runbeat in 2019. 

According to the BAA, there has been a steady growth in female participants over time. There was a spike in 1996 of both genders due to the 100th anniversary of the marathon.

Source: Boston Athletic Association

Female runners receive less coverage in news articles, television and social media. A study conducted at Youngstown State University finds that media coverage of female athletes tends to focus on their physical appearance, femininity and heterosexuality, instead of athletic abilities. 

But some women are tackling those challenges during this year’s Boston Marathon by proving that gender is no measure of athleticism. 

One of those women is Verna Volker, who is running the Boston Marathon for the first time.

“Having other genders participate is slowly […] getting better,” said Volker. “Especially in Boston and recognizing women this year, I feel really honored to be a part of that.”

Like Volker, other female runners are redefining what it means to be a marathon runner by showing how age is not a limiting factor.

Susan “Sue” Foster, 55, ran her first marathon in October 2021. She had doubts about running the Boston Marathon and explained how training is “demanding of mind, body, and time.”

Nevertheless, Foster decided she could not pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run.

“My coaches and club members were not sure of my age,” said Foster.  “But after letting [K.V. Switzer story’s] settle in, I thought to myself […] How could you possibly explain to her that it was too much for you?”

Not all women face the same challenges, Volker explained how your ethnic background also influences representation. 

“Oftentimes when people think of runners, they think of the white blonde fast runner,” said Volker. “And so, I wanted to create a space where native women were featured.”

“I started older. I was a mother. I wasn’t as fast. And I didn’t grow up running,” continued Volker, who founded Native Women Running. Volker started running 13 years ago after she gave birth to three kids. 

Throughout the journey, Volker has seen few indigenous women featured in the media. Volker founded an Instagram account in 2018 and grew it to about 30,000 followers today. She said the gender balance and diversity in marathon races have become better, but “still not enough.”

Since Switzer, marathons have come a long way in gender inclusion. At the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the women’s marathon was introduced and included 50 participants. 

The legacy of female defiance and achievement will remain strong at this year’s marathon.

“To run on this 50th anniversary in my first Boston, qualifying in my first marathon, suggests that all the cosmic strings are somehow aligned,” said Foster. “It all makes sense to come together in this way. I am beyond excited to have an experience and honor K.V. Switzer and those first women who competed.”

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