Kathrine Switzer, first woman to enter Boston Marathon, shares her story at UC Irvine event

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Groundbreaking runner Kathrine Switzer shared her story of participating in what had been the all-male Boston Marathon during a UC Irvine event about breaching barriers and creating social progress through running.

Switzer, 70, and Elizabeth Gray, who left an abusive marriage and pursued her dream of running in her first marathon, spoke Thursday at the university’s Crystal Cove Auditorium to an audience of about 50 people.

During Switzer’s hour-long speech, she spoke of the journey leading to her being the first official female entrant in the Boston Marathon in 1967. Her entry number, 261, inspired the name of 261 Fearless, a nonprofit she founded in 2015 to unite women through the creation of running clubs, education programs, communication platforms and social events.


She began running at age 12 with support from her father, who discouraged her from trying out as a cheerleader. She started by running a mile every day during the summer before she began high school.

“I felt like I had a victory under my belt every day and nobody could take this away,” she said. “It was a good way to enter high school — I felt aware and protected of my own body.”

Once at Syracuse University in New York state as a 19-year-old student studying journalism, she started training with the cross-country team. She said she asked to join the track team, but the coach said it was against NCAA rules.

She befriended Arnie Briggs, a 50-year-old mailman and veteran participant in the Boston Marathon, who had trained with the Syracuse team for years.

Briggs took her under his wing and trained with her. He eventually agreed to help Switzer, then 20, register for the Boston race.

Switzer’s boyfriend at the time, a football player known as “Big Tom” Miller, joined her in the race despite not having trained for it. His reasoning: If a girl could do it, so could he, Switzer said.

The day of the race, Switzer’s participation enraged one of the event’s directors, who physically tried to push her out, she said. Miller tackled the director, and Switzer finished the race with encouragement from her friends and on behalf of all females, she said.

“It scared the hell out of me,” Switzer said. “I thought we had killed him. I had never been close to violence before.

“I was so embarrassed and humiliated.”

Now she encourages everyone to be supportive of one another and take challenges head-on.

“A boy or girl sometimes only needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ to undertake something to change their life. They just need to be told they can do it,” Switzer said. “People always rise to the occasion if you give them the opportunity.”

Twitter: @vegapriscella