Marathon Woman: A Book Review

I’ve read countless tales about and by running legends, from Kenny Moore’s accounts of Bill Bowermen’s “Men of Oregon” and Steve Prefontaine’s gutsy, record-setting runs, to 1968 Boston winner Amby Burfoot’s methodical training and years of eloquent writing on the sport, to Frank Shorter’s famous Olympic marathon victory in 1972 sparking the Running Boom of the 1970s, to Bill Rodgers’ three straight victories in the Boston Marathon, to the unforgettable “Duel in the Sun” between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley in the 1982. I’ve drawn so much inspiration from these stories and have found myself both in awe of and in many ways relating to the runners they’re about. It wasn’t until a friend asked for some inspirational book recommendations that it dawned on me that these were all stories about men.

Marathon Woman (Revised)

Earlier this year, I was sent a copy of a revised edition of Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports by marathoner, sports commentator, and author, Kathrine Switzer. I knew a bit about Kathrine’s story, namely the famous incident in which race official Jock Semple attempted to bulldoze Switzer off the Boston Marathon course in 1967. He was unsuccessful, as Switzer’s boyfriend, a nationally-ranked hammer thrower, shoved Semple to the ground. Switzer went on to become the first-ever woman to finish the Boston Marathon with a numbered entry.

There’s Kathrine Switzer wearing bib 261, Jock Semple in black, her boyfriend Tom (bib 390) and her coach Arnie Briggs (bib 490). Photos by Harry Trask.

What I didn’t know was anything about Kathrine’s story leading up to that moment. When she began running, it was at her father’s suggestion in order to get in shape for her school’s field hockey team. She relished in being fit and enjoyed the success it brought her on the field, plus she found herself going from being a skinny kid to a strong, athletic woman. She had few female role models to look up to and was instead captivated by photos of the statue of Diana the Huntress as she was both athletic and feminine, just like Switzer.

Switzer raced as one of two women on the men’s track team at Lynchburg College, then she transferred to Syracuse University where she trained with the men’s team but couldn’t race, as women weren’t allowed in the NCAA conference. It was there that she met Arnie Briggs, who would become her training partner and coach. Despite running day after day with Briggs, and him believing in Switzer as a capable runner, she still had to convince him that a woman was capable of running a full marathon by running the 26.2 mile distance in a training run. It was only then that he believed her and helped her register for Boston under the name K.V. Switzer.

The altercation with Jock Semple on the Boston Marathon course along with Switzer’s finish as the first-ever registered woman to finish Boston thrust Switzer into the limelight, albeit unintentionally, as a pioneer. She found herself with a platform and part of a growing network of competitive women in the sport. The book takes you through her journey as a not only a runner, but as a journalist, entrepreneur, and advocate for women’s running. She co-founded the first women’s only road race, the New York Mini 10K, along with creating the Avon International Running Circuit of women’s only races in 27 countries which convinced the International Olympic Committee to adopt the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984.

I learned from reading this book the power of courage and persistence. Switzer prided herself on being annoying, from her conviction to her ability to run a marathon (and run it well) to getting her ideas heard in the male-dominated world of event directing, marketing, and sports journalism. It made me think of my own role in the sport as an athlete and coach- how I can both represent and support women in the sport by being an advocate and a role model myself. I’ll start by recommending this book. I got all fired up with my own ideas after reading it and I think you will too.

In other news, speaking of coaching and being a role model, I’m thrilled to share I just took on a role as Assistant XC Coach at a brand new high school in the Beaverton School District, Mountainside HS! I always knew I wanted to coach high school one day. Who knew this year would be the year? I can’t wait to meet the runners as we begin summer practice and help build the program from the ground up. Go Mavs!


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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