Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Cultivating a will to run

Marathon pioneer Kathrine Switzer urges women to take the first step toward exercise

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Kathrine Switzer became famous when the director of the Boston Marathon tried to stop her from running in 1967.

        Now Ms. Switzer, 54, is on a mission. She's using her fame to draw women onto the track — or the sidewalk or treadmill or anyplace else they can put one foot in front of the other to become more fit.

        Ms. Switzer recently visited Cincinnati to help motivate women to get ready for the Avon Running 10K Run, 5K Fitness Walk and Children's Fun Run Oct. 15. Some 2,000 women are expected to participate.

        It's hard for many women to find time for fitness as they juggle the demands of family and work, Ms. Switzer says. But the path to fitness, like any journey, starts with a single step.

        “The first step is getting out the door, making an appointment with themselves, a commitment to do it three or four times a week,” she says.

        Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women. “It's so huge, and 40 percent of the cases of cardiovascular disease could be eliminated with exercise,” Ms. Switzer says.

        Starting is the hard part. Ms. Switzer remembers her mother throwing a newspaper down in disgust one day, complaining that the media are always telling women they need to exercise, but never explaining how.

        Ms. Switzer was dumbfounded by her mother's statement; she had been running for so long it was automatic. But then she realized that for many women, the practicalities of exercise are a mystery: They don't know where to run or walk or what shoes to wear or how often to go or for how long. So in 1998, she wrote Running and Walking for Women Over 40, (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95) a primer for women who are ready to get off the couch and on their feet.
       @SubHed:Pioneering moves

        Ms. Switzer is an icon of women's athletics now, but she didn't become famous for finishing the Boston Marathon in 1967, she says: her fame came because she almost got pushed out.

        “It was not only an epiphany for me, but it really brought to public attention the inequality that existed in women's athletics,” she says.

        Earle Reed, co-director of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y., calls Ms. Switzer “a pioneer in women's running.”

        She is best known for the Boston Marathon incident, Mr. Reed says, but her real contribution might be in motivating women to excel by pointing out how hard it was for women to get their foot in the door — or, more accurately, on the starting line — of the distance running world.

        For years, women weren't allowed to compete in distance events because they supposedly weren't strong enough, Mr. Reed says, though recent studies show women might be better suited for long-distance runs than men.

        He recalls a talk Ms. Switzer gave to a group of women runners during a visit to the Utica area, when she mentioned her experience in Boston and the problems she had finding a forum for competition. “It was like future shock for these young female runners because they had no idea what these women had to go through. They just take it for granted that they can compete and run. They have no idea what it was like for women like Kathrine,” he says.

        Ms. Switzer says she was “a baby” at the Boston Marathon, but she grew up fast. “I didn't even know what feminism was, but I became one because I realized women so drastically needed opportunities.”

        Now the program director of the Avon Running Global Women's Circuit, an international series of women-only runs and walks, Ms. Switzer remembers when her passion for running earned her a lot of strange looks. But she reminded herself she was in training and kept at it. While a journalism student at Syracuse University, she trained with the men's track team.

        She got more than looks in 1967. The previous year, Roberta Gibb ran the Boston Marathon, but never registered for the race — she slipped into the pack of runners at the starting line.

        But Ms. Switzer, then 20, slipped around the gender barrier and registered as K.V. Switzer. She wore bulky clothes to disguise her gender and when the starting gun sounded, she took off.

        But about four miles into the race, the cat ran out of the bag. The race director spotted her, jumped off the press truck and began screaming at her to leave the race. He tried to tear her registration number off, but her coach and the man she was dating intervened — in fact her boyfriend, who also played football, headed him off and forced him out of the field.

        Ms. Switzer completed the marathon in about four hours and 20 minutes - about an hour longer than it had taken Ms. Gibb.

        As she crossed the finish line, she knew two things: She had to improve her time, and she had to do her part to make premium competitive events like the Boston Marathon — which wouldn't officially admit women until 1972 — more accessible to women.
       @SubHed:Today's women

        When Ms. Switzer looks at women's athletics today, from World Cup Soccer championships to Olympic medal winners to the WNBA, she's thrilled.

        “It's phenomenal,” she says, adding her Boston run came during the “dark ages” of women's sports.

        Since 1967, Ms. Switzer has run 35 marathons. She won the 1974 New York City Marathon, and in 1975 she was ranked sixth in the world and third in the United States among women marathoners. She helped found Avon Sports Programs in 1977 and worked as a sports broadcaster and promoter for 11 years. In 1984, she pushed for — and won — recognition of the women's marathon as an official Olympics event. She was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1998.

        Cincinnati's running hero, Julie Isphording, is local chair of the Oct. 15 Avon Run. And she hopes she'll be among the participants this year. Ms. Isphording represented the U.S. in that first Olympic women's marathon, but back problems and surgeries have kept her on the sidelines for the last five years. After three years of intensive physical therapy, she thinks she might be ready to run again next month.

        But the beauty of the Avon Running events — there are 10 in the U.S., plus the global championship that takes place in Budapest this year — is that they're open to women at all levels of running and walking, not just serious marathoners.For most of the participants, crossing the finish line will be victory enough.

        “This isn't about how fast we can get to the finish line,” Ms. Isphording says. “It's about finishing, and it's about having the courage to begin. It takes a lot of courage to stand at the starting line.”

               The Avon 10K Run, 5K Fitness Walk and Children's Fun Run begins at 9 a.m. Oct. 15 at Fountain Square and winds up and down Columbia Parkway.

        Some 2,000 runners and walkers of all ages and abilities are expected to participate in the women-only event, one of 10 around the country. U.S. National championships will be held Dec. 10 in Phoenix.

        Registration can be handled in advance by calling the race hotline, 345-3057, or online at (www.avonrunning.com), or the day of the race. Registration is $15, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Bethany House, a shelter for homeless women and children.

               Regular, moderate exercise is good for you. Among the benefits:

        • Strengthening bone, muscles and joints

        • Weight loss or maintenance

        • Reducing or maintaining blood pressure

        • Reducing stress and/or depression

        • Improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of stroke and/or heart disease

        • Reduced risk of diabetes

        @tag:Sources: American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, National Women's Health Information Center


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