Fifty years ago, running for fun was seen as pretty much absurd. One of the opening statements from a social runner in the acclaimed documentary by Pierre Morath, ‘Free to run,’ goes as follows:
‘We were considered pretty odd, kind of weirdos’.
People thought runners were odd.
Such perceptions are a bizarre and stark contrast to today where millions of runners pound pavements and pathways worldwide without anyone battering a single eyelid. But for years this was not the case. In some instances runners would go out at night simply so as not to be seen, whilst the documentary also describes how one runner was stopped by the police running shirtless on a hot summers days, under the assumption that he was some sort of paedophile.
Whilst it was considered strange for men to run, it was deemed positively bad for women and their health. The perception amongst society and leading Doctors was that women carried too much fat and were simply too emotional. What’s more, the rigorous training required threatened the onset of masculine traits such as hair growth. This wasn’t just the perception for everyday women, but also for those trying to compete as professional athletes.
Women were allowed to participate in running events at the Olympics from 1900 however only up to the distance of 800 metres, anything over was deemed dangerous. But even this 800m race was short lived after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. As the winner of the race crossed the finish line she fell as happens sometimes at the end of a burst of intense exercise. However this one fall was misreported and from one runner falling, it was reported that of the 11 runners that started the race, 5 were unable to finish and 5 collapsed.
Pictured above: Women competing at a sporting event
In reality none of this was true but it set in motion bans to female distance racing before it had really even begun. The president of the IOC, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested the elimination of all women's competition from the Games. Such a drastic move was not taken, but until 1960, when the 800 meters reappeared, no race over 200 meters was contested by women in the Olympics.
In the mid 1960’s one pioneering female runner, Kathy Switzer, set out to challenge perceptions and limitations on the everyday female runners. Why? Simply because she loved to run. Switzer discovered running originally when her Father suggested that running just one mile a day would make her the best player on her school hockey team. What she found though was not just how great a hockey player she was, but how great running made her feel!
‘Everyday I ran I felt so empowered… like I could conquer the world.’
As Kathy sought to run more and more and competitively, she faced repeated opposition. At her University she applied to join the athletics team but was being rejected as girls were simply not allowed. Kathy came into the spot light in 1968 when she decided she wanted to run the renown Boston marathon. Her male coach ran it every year, so she thought, why can’t I? By registering under her initials it was assumed that ‘K.V.S’ was a man and so no questions were asked upon her registration. Just a few miles into the race however the race Director spotted her and physically tried to remove her from the course refusing to accept that a woman should or could run the Boston marathon.
Pictured above: Kathy was spotted by the Race Director who tried to haul her out of the Boston Marathon race in 1967
The Kathy Switzer's story was picked up by the press around the world and made head waves in the progress for womens’ right to run. Kathy continued around the world being invited to marathons overseas constantly pushing for her and other females right to run long distance. Finally in 1984 that the world witnessed the first ever all female marathon at the 1984 LA Olympics many part in thanks to Women like Kathy.
What Kathy's story demonstrates was just how impactful a strong, determined and committed individual can be. One might call her a ‘Power Woman’ and it’s women just like her that in some unique way have had the will, resilience and grit to overcome barriers and make a difference, that we are going to honour on one of our upcoming running tours ‘Power Women of London.’ What better way to discover these heroic stories than by doing just as Kathy Switzer did, donning a pair of trainers and running!
Our Power Women tour runs in groups from the 19th-25th June and 17th-21st September. Each group has a guided pace, from beginner to rather fast, to keep you in your comfort zone. Can’t make it? This tour is always available as a private tour with your own guide. Perfect for birthday presents, an alternative hen activity or a visit to London.
For more info check out our tour calendar.