Running as a Feminist Expression

Today’s running of the Boston Marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer’s historic effort to defy expectations about what women could and could not do. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to finish the Boston race with an official number, having been given entry because her registration under the name K.V. Switzer allowed her to pass as a man.

Those familiar with Switzer’s story know the iconic image of that race. A marathon official, Jock Semple, was riding on the press truck, saw Switzer in early miles on the course, jumped into the crowd of runners, and tried to push her from the field while also attempting to rip off her race bib. Switzer’s then-boyfriend, running alongside her, pushed back, and Switzer continued running, finishing the race in four hours, 20 minutes.

In other words, after being assaulted by a powerful man, after being yelled at by members of the press, after other runners on the course shouted obscenities at her because she had entered a male-only space: after all these things, she persisted. And in doing so, she opened the door for countless other women to experience the wonders of running.

Including me, of course. But when I started running in 1982, not even twenty years after a woman finished the Boston marathon for the first time, I knew nothing about Switzer’s amazing courage nor about the limitations placed on female athletes. (Nor did I know, in 1984, that Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Olympic marathon win was also ground-breaking, the first time women had run longer than 800 meters in an Olympics.)

On a run this weekend, I listened to an interview with Switzer on my favorite podcast, Another Mother Runner. There, Switzer talked about what running has given her over the last fifty years, how it has been a source of empowerment for her and for countless other women, who have discovered that the simple act of running can transform them completely.

I thought about the ways running has enriched my life: it has made me feel strong and capable; it has given me a sense of accomplishment; it has carried me through the loneliness of graduate school and the stress of being a new mother; it has sustained me as my kids have grown into teenagers, which has introduced all kinds of new stressors. But most significantly, my 35 years of running has given me my best friends and confidantes, a tribe of like-minded women whose strength, courage, humor, good-will, and downright bad-assness makes me want to be a better person, too.

In a lot of ways, running is a selfish endeavor. (Maybe in all ways.) I run for my own enjoyment, for the social time with friends, because I know it makes me healthy and strong. I have spent countless dollars on this hobby of mine, and countless hours. I am generally more tired, more grumpy, and also more gimpy because of running.

And, I have never run for a charity, and don’t plan to, because I don’t want to obfuscate the real reason I run: for me. Admitting this is hard, especially because Christian woman are so often told that self-sacrifice is the highest, best goal to which we should aspire. So much so, in fact, that we often sublimate our own needs for the good of everyone else.

Perhaps this is why I think running can be a feminist expression, an acknowledgment that women have agency over their bodies, their time, their resources—or should have agency, at any rate—and that running can be one way we push back against those expectations that say we don’t matter quite as much. That more women than men now finish races in the U.S. (9.7 million women to 7.3 million men in 2016) suggests that running, at least, is one place where women are finding power and strength.

While this kind of feminist expression might seem privileged, something only wealthy westerners can do, Switzer’s new endeavor, 261Fearless, is hoping to foster multi-cultural running communities for women of all abilities, across the globe, so that women can discover their own strength as well as their own tribes. Named after the number she wore at the 1967 Boston Marathon, 261Fearless seems like a promising next step to giving the women’s running boom even more traction.

Of course, when I’m out running with my best running friend, I’m not really thinking about time on the road as a feminist expression or about my own agency as a woman. Not all the time, at least. Much more often, I feel immense gratitude for how this amazing sport has connected me with so many amazing women. And today, I’m especially grateful for Kathrine Switzer, whose entry in the 1967 Boston Marathon defied the expectations of men, like Jock Semple, who said woman couldn’t do what men could. Her successful finish that year—as well as the 9.7 million women who raced in 2016—offers an important rejoinder: Hell yes, we can.

My favorite running picture ever, because it shows my strength and joy, even though I was running alone.