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50 years ago, a Syracuse student conquered more than a marathon

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On the anniversary of Kathrine Switzer’s historic run, we look at the lasting impact she’s made for women.

Kathrine Switzer returns to Boston today to mark the 50th anniversary of her historic run.
AP Images

If the Syracuse Orange had a women’s track and field team in 1967, student Kathrine Switzer might not have made history. Without competitions to focus on, Switzer instead set her sights on the Boston Marathon. Now this might not sound too outlandish for today’s runners, but at the time no woman had been allowed to enter the race.

Encouraged by tales of Boston told to her by Syracuse training partner and coach Arnie Briggs, Switzer decided that she too would run Boston. In 1966, a woman named Bobbi Gibb had run Boston unofficially and the race claimed to be open to anyone, so Switzer believed she’d have no issues competing.

Wearing Bib #261 and a gray hooded sweatshirt Switzer blended in with the other runners at the starting line. It wasn’t until race director Jock Semple was informed by members of the media that a woman was running his race did Switzer’s attempt at history become a much bigger story.

In those days, the press truck started at the back of the pack and worked to catch up with the leaders. When Semple jumped off the truck near the 2-mile mark, a number of media members were in position to capture his angered attempt to remove Switzer from the race. This attempt led to this series of iconic photographs which really helped to take Switzer’s run to new heights.

Boston Marathon race director Jock Semple approaches Kathrine Switzer during the race
Walter Iooss, Jr. - Getty Images

Judging by the runners turning back, it’s clear that Semple was causing quite a commotion as he chased the group. Switzer’s coach Arnie Briggs (#490) and boyfriend Tom Miller (#390), move between him and Switzer.

As Semple approaches Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller from the Syracuse track team steps towards him
Walter Iooss, Jr. - Getty Images
Miller pushes Semple away from Switzer
Walter Iooss, Jr. - Getty Images

Despite being shaken by the incident, Switzer was committed to finishing what she started.

Switzer’s finishing time of four hours and twenty minutes didn’t matter. The fact that she was over an hour behind Bobbi Gibb, who ran unofficially again that day, didn’t matter. The photos captured put the Syracuse student into the international spotlight and from that day forward she embraced the role. Her running progressed to the point where she lowered her marathon time to two hours fifty-one minutes. She won the women’s race at the 1974 New York City Marathon, and finished 2nd at Boston in 1975.

In the late 1970s, Switzer partnered with Avon to develop an international women’s running series. These races helped promote the sport of distance running and thanks to the success of the series, Switzer’s push to add the women’s marathon to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles was approved by the IOC. When American Joan Benoit won the gold in the event, it became one of the top moments of the Olympics and women distance runners had proven they belonged.

Joan Benoit
Joan Benoit celebrates her Olympic Gold in the marathon

Switzer’s been widely recognized for her accomplishments. She was a member of the inaugural class of the Distance Running Hall of Fame and in 2011 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. As we celebrate the success of today’s Syracuse women athletes, we should stop and remember that if it weren’t for the efforts of Switzer and other pioneers, their opportunities might not be what they are today. It’s why Switzer rightfully deserves her place among the all-time great Syracuse athletes.

Today Kathrine Switzer will don the number 261 bid in Boston
Walter Iooss, Jr. - Getty Images

The 2017 Boston Marathon marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Switzer’s historic run. To commemorate the event, she will return to Boston to compete in this year’s race. Her bib number, 261, will become the 2nd number to be retired by Boston. A couple of weeks ago, ESPN ran this profile of Switzer, which is well worth your time to watch.

Good luck to Kathrine and all the Syracuse alums taking on Boston today.