Two Chicagoans will toe the starting line Monday at the Boston Marathon to honor the woman who 50 years ago forever changed the race — and the sport.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to register for, and complete, the world’s most renowned marathon.
This accomplishment was achieved only after she dodged the grasp of a race director who hit the roof upon realizing a woman had somehow entered the race.
Photos of the confrontation published worldwide thrust Switzer into the role of women’s rights icon.
But she didn’t set out become the face of a movement.
Switzer flew under the radar of race officials by using her initials — K.V. Switzer — to register for the race.
But the abbreviation wasn’t intended to hide her identity. Switzer had been signing her name using her initials ever since she was 12. It allowed her to avoid explaining her unorthodox first name; her dad had misspelled it on her birth certificate.
“I got sick of [explaining] it. And I was reading J.D. Salinger and E.E. Cummings and, you know, if you’re cool, you sign your name with your initials,” she said last week.
Race officials also overlooked her at the starting line because, due to rain and sleet, she had on a baggy, gray sweatsuit.
“I wasn’t there to make a political statement. . . . If it had been a hot day, I bet they would have seen me and pulled me at the starting line,” Switzer said.
“When the race director Jock Semple came after me, it scared the hell out of me. I burst into tears,” she recalled.
“There was a split second when I thought, ‘Maybe I should step off the race and go home.’ But then I thought, ‘If I did that no one would believe women can do this. I’m finishing on my hands and knees if I have to,” she said.
Thus began Switzer’s mission to increase running opportunities for women, including a successful bid to officially open the Boston Marathon to women, which happened in 1972.
On Monday, Switzer, 70, will again participate in the race, and two runners from Chicago are among dozens who will join her to benefit Switzer’s charity: 261 Fearless.
The charity — its name is derived from her bib number in 1967 — establishes running clubs for women and girls around the world. Its goal is to build confidence, self-esteem, fearlessness, and support that extends into all areas of their lives.
“I want to honor Kathrine for what she did and because her charity represents what running means to me,” said Gayle McMurry, 65, of the Gold Coast.
“I was angry and I was shocked when I saw those photos” of Switzer being confronted during the race, said McMurry, a patent attorney.
“It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t participate in this sport as a woman at whatever level I wished. So perhaps I am an obvious beneficiary of Kathrine’s efforts over the years,” McMurry said.
“I can’t imagine something like that happening today in this country. I think that women have taken the sport to new levels. We’ve come a tremendous way,” she said.
The statistics back up her point.
Women make up 65 percent of the city’s largest running group, Chicago Area Runners Association, which has 10,000 members. In the early 1980s, women were about 10 percent of the group.
Marc Grabowski, 40, of Lincoln Park, also will make the journey to Boston to run with Switzer, who reserved seven spots in her group for men to honor the help she received from the opposite sex along the way.
Such as her then-boyfriend, Tom Miller, a burly hammer thrower, who shoved the race director toward the curb as he reached for Switzer half a century ago.
Grabowski is running to honor his mother, Audrey Grabowski, 77, a former flight attendant and ticket agent who put herself through school and often worked 16-hours days.
Grabowski said his mother encountered her own version of chauvinist race directors throughout her life.
“I know that if she was a man, the way she was treated sometimes on flights and behind the counter, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Grabowski, whose mother has been immobile since a stroke last year.
“It was tough to tell how she responded when I told her about the race, but I want to believe that she’s excited about it.”
Grabowski grew up in Boston, and Switzer’s name was known in his house, which was along the marathon route.
“If I had been running with Kathrine that day I would only hope that I would have had the courage to do something about it,” he said.
Switzer, who went on to have a successful career as a runner and broadcaster, was the recipient of loads of hate mail after the race in 1967.
“I was pilloried. But I knew I was right and I knew I was going to push on,” she said.
She is now the regular recipient of emails and letters that contain pictures of tattoos bearing her 261 bib number. They helped her decide to form her charity two years ago.
“Little girls right now are choosing me to write reports about in school,” she said in amazement.