Kathrine Switzer at the Bedford VA – Image (c) Jon OC O’Connor, 2019 all rights reserved

By Jon “OC” OConnor, Commander, American Legion Post 221

Everyone paid close attention when Kathrine Switzer spoke at the Bedford VA recently – Image (c) Jon OC O’Connor – 2019 all rights reserved

A marathon, as in life, performs best for those who pace themselves. Life and marathons are not sprints. They say get back up on that proverbial horse; what really matters though is that you cross the finish line, even with the horse in tow. Determination and drive prevail over speed.

The Boston Marathon, steeped in tradition, the quintessential backbone of “Boston Strong” has never canceled an event since the race began in 1897. Stories and legends have emerged about that aptly named and grueling uphill stretch approaching Boston College; Heartbreak Hill.

As with all the stories on that Hopkinton to Beacon Street marathon, this story has legs as well….  Back in the day, number 261 came before 262, but what came after 261 in 1976 changed history, changed culture, and continues to change lives with more impact than might ever have been thought possible.

During the mid-sixties, K. V. Switzer wrote sports articles and covered athletic events at Syracuse University. Unable to compete at the varsity level in track, Switzer trained with a mailman named Arnie Briggs who actually ran the Boston Marathon 15 times and was a volunteer coach for the Syracuse Track Team. He instilled a love of the Boston Marathon in Switzer who fully appreciated the accomplishment, the attention, and the recognition that it provided young and old runners, the world over.

Switzer, an Army Brat whose parents were both in the US Army, had the good fortune to receive very positive, affirming (yet tough) direction from dad, Colonel Homer Switzer. Here lies one of the military threads linking Bedford’s Edith Rogers VA to Switzer’s 1976 life-changing, historical event. Colonel Switzer kept promoting the idea that you didn’t have to be fast, all you need to do is finish what you start in life, or in a marathon. Distance isn’t overcome by speed, but rather by determination and drive.

Did all the training Colonel Switzer and Arnie gave pay off?  Let’s revisit history on a bitterly cold April 19th in 1976. Arnie picked up the bib numbers early in the day. The crack of the starting gun propelled him and Switzer forward along with thousands of other runners; the beginning of something really big.

About 1 1/2 miles past Hopkinton’s starting line, a press truck began crazily taking all sorts of pictures, giving the two runners way more attention than usual. This “extra attention” soon caught the eye of not only the press but also those of the Boston Athletic Association’s (BAA) Jock Semple. It’s a good thing that the press truck was still very much engaged in talking pictures when Race Director Semple, enraged as opposed to engaged, ran onto the road attempting to rip the number 261 from the runner’s clothing, yelling “Get the Hell out of my race.” Photos of Semple were plastered on sports sections and front pages all over the world.

Arnie was running with K. V. Switzer that bitterly cold morning. They had trained together for years until one day he told Kathrine V. Switzer to stop talking about running the Boston Marathon and just do it. So she did, entering as K. V. instead of Kathrine.

Kathrine Switzer broke free of frenzied ol’ Jock after her then-boyfriend Tom planted a block to set her free. She was free of the BAA official, but not free from the press reporters dismissing her, saying that she couldn’t finish the race because a woman couldn’t possibly run a marathon.

Determination and drive prevailed, Switzer finished the race. And, she made history as the first numbered, female to run the Boston Marathon — even though the prevailing thought was women couldn’t do it. She made history again fifty years after that bitterly cold day in 1976: Kathrine had only slowed down by 24 minutes from her first Boston Marathon time. She had changed a culture, and on that day 50 years later, the first woman president of the Boston Athletic Association presented Katherine with her medal – a storybook ending.

Yet that’s not the ending at all. Kathrine realized some fifty years before, while running her first Boston Marathon, that talent and capability were abundantly available. She knew she had to give back, “they’re looking for opportunities,” she told the very enthusiastic crowd in the VA’s auditorium on April 3, 2019. Those four hours and twenty minutes in 1976 had given her all the time she needed to establish a lifelong set of goals by the end of that race.

She knew she had to give back, had to be a world class athlete, to share ideas for women-centric events, ultimately understanding that she was a young woman bringing opportunities to everyone, especially women. Kathrine did just that to an auditorium full of Veterans and VA Staff. She told her story of how she was angered after that first race, “angry at the women who weren’t there.” She knew she had the opportunity, they didn’t, and she had to give back.

Switzer started her foundation, 261 Fearless, using the power and the international language of running to empower women. She was fearless, although federations in twenty-seven countries said she would fail. She kept “failing” until her persistence paid off when the Olympics added a women’s marathon in 1984. That year 2.2 billion people watched women undertake a marathon. Kathrine Switzer changed a culture, women could compete in global events.

Thank you to the Bedford VA for providing their lecture series that promotes positive, life-affirming stories. Melanie Brayman who coordinated this event said the series started with Micky Wright, the boxing legend from Lowel in September 2018. Melanie went on to say “We need more events like these with benevolent volunteers like Kathrine Switzer. She came here out of the kindness of her heart, and when people have this attitude with our Veterans and Staff the results are really big, immediately visible”.

There are so many more stories yet to be written …. In its constant effort to assist our Veterans, the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital invites Veterans and the community to participate in the second annual Women Veterans’ Health Fair, dedicated to serving women Veterans. The Fair will take place on Saturday, June 22, 2019, from 10 am to 2 pm. It will be a great chance to meet and talk with other women Veterans from all eras and all branches of the armed services. Breakout sessions will include chair massages, Tai Chi, essential oils, Reiki, health and beauty tips provided by local professionals and more! For more information, call 781-687-4482 or email Geri Cherry, Geralyn.cherry@va.gov

Many life lessons came out of Kathrine Switzer’s story: Her story of support, encouragement, and determination is similar to what the VA offers our Veterans every day.

Even if you can’t always get back on the horse, you can still cross that finish line. It’s not a sprint that gets us to where we’re going in life. Grab hold of the opportunities available to you, and tell your own story.

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