Kathrine Switzer was 20 years old when she became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon in 1967. At the time, she didn't think it was a big deal since another woman ran the race without a number the year before. But Kathrine still registered under the name "K.V. Switzer," not to become a pioneer in the sport, but to prove to her coach at Syracuse University that women could in fact run long distances.
She was right to use caution, since at the time some people weren't thrilled that a woman was officially a part of the famous 26.2-mile race. So much so that Jock Semple, the codirector of the Boston Marathon, tried to rip Kathrine's number off her back and forcibly push her out of the race while she was running—an incident that was caught on camera.
The iconic pictures show Kathrine's boyfriend, Thomas Miller, peeling the race official off of his girlfriend. She went on to finish the race in 4:20:02. Unfortunately, Kathrine was still disqualified, for no other reason than for being a woman. (Related: I Lost My Leg in the Boston Bombing and I Appreciate My Body More Than Ever)
"What happened to me was a radicalizing experience. And it was one that made me bound and determined to change things for women," Kathrine recently told the Boston Globe. "Running had given me everything, and I wanted other women to feel that as well."
That moment didn't just expose the ugly truth behind sexism in sports but also turned Kathrine into a role model and advocate for women's equality in athletics. Now 70 years old, she's back at the starting line, wearing the same number that was almost taken from her 50 years ago. In fact, she'll be the only person to wear the bib number 261 ever again, as the Boston Athletic Association announced that the number is officially retired. This marks only the second time the organization has retired a bib number.
Since then, Kathrine has gone on to run 39 marathons and created 261 Fearless, a running nonprofit that has groups for women all around the country—some of whom will join Kathrine for her victory lap today.
Many people still wonder what gave Kathrine the strength to keep on running on this day 50 years ago. And for that, she has a simple answer: "I knew if I [stopped] no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon," she wrote on her website. "They would just think that I was a clown and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me." We are so glad it didn't.