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Women and running - Kathrine Switzer: from her first Boston marathon to 261 Fearless

It seems incredible, but in the not-so-distant past, there was the common and shared opinion that women were not physically able to run a marathon and, even, that running could be harmful to their health. We are not talking about centuries ago, but about a few decades ago: in the 1960s, these beliefs were in fact still pretty strong and rooted in our society. However, again in the 1960s, two champions of women’s rights broke up these old beliefs: Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer.

The first woman to cross the finish line of a marathon: Bobbi Gibb

The path of women's marathon was a literal obstacle race. The first woman to complete a marathon run was Bobbi Gibb, in Boston, in 1966. As the competition was officially closed to women, Bobbi wore her brother's clothes and waited for the start, hidden behind a bush not far from the starting line.
Bobbi Gibb after her first marathon
Of course, since she was not registered, she ran the entire distance without a race number, but her experience was positive: the other athletes supported her and encouraged her until she crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds. However, a full women’s acceptance to a marathon was still far away.

A bib for Kathrine Switzer

Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!

Jock Semple was the race director of the 1967 Boston Marathon, when he realised that there was one female athlete among the athletes. The woman in question was Kathrine Switzer, number 261, registered with the generic credentials K. V. Switzer, partly as a ruse not to be excluded from the assignment of the bib. The image in which Kathrine Switzer is badly strung by Semple has become part of "The 100 photos that have changed the world" reported by the magazine "Life".

A photo that changed women sport forever
Kathrine Switzer, would not let herself be stopped. Thanks also to the help of her then boyfriend, former football player and weight thrower Thomas Miller, who pushed the judge to the ground, Kathrine Switzer was able to free herself from Jock’s grasp and finished her race.

I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women's sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I'd never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger. Kathrine Switzer

After the events, Switzer not only brilliantly continued her career as an athlete, running over 40 marathons and winning the New York marathon in 1974, but became also a symbol and activist for the inclusion of women in sports.

The Boston Marathon in 2014, segment of the Women United race
Kathrine Switzer's initiatives include the Avon International Running Circuit, a program that includes more than 400 women's competitions in 27 countries and has involved, over time, more than a million participants, helping to finally include the women's marathon in the Olympic Games, which happened, incredibly, only in 1984.

On April 17, 2017, fifty years after her feat, Kathrine Switzer, at the age of 70, once again took part in the legendary Boston Marathon, wearing the same bib number, 261.

In honour of this great athlete and her gesture, the number was permanently withdrawn from the race.

However, Kathrine Switzer's activities did not stop there. In 2015, together with four other visionary friends, Switzer launched the 261 Fearless project, dedicated to the inclusion of women in the world of running and sports.

Switzer’s 261 Fearless is a network of clubs around the world and is based on the principles of aggregation, fun and sharing, with the aim of helping women to deal with their fears and combat prejudice through non-competitive running and sporting activity.

261 Fearless in the world, the Italian example

From the United States to New Zealand, from Africa to Afghanistan, India, England, Austria and Germany: 261 Fearless clubs are everywhere in the world and, since 2018, also in Milan, Italy.

Here, Switzer's initiative found fertile ground thanks to the initiative of Greta Vittori, amateur runner and professional PR who, after interviewing Kathrine Switzer, decided to become an active part of her great project and began to gather around her a group that meets twice a week, to share an important sport experience.

Running together to break down any prejudice
The Italian branch of Switzer's Fearless 261 is mainly dedicated to women who struggle to devote themselves to a sporting activity, because somehow they do not feel up to it: some do not like to run alone, others are ashamed to be seen in a tracksuit, or feel too fat, too thin, have emerged from a disease, live in a new city, and so on.

For two hours a week, 261 Fearless allows them to leave everything behind and focus only on themselves, through "gentle" workouts.

"Being Fearless doesn't mean being a hero or never being afraid," says Greta. "It means not being afraid of other people's judgments or showing yourself as you are: without makeup, with extra pounds, dressed in sportswear, with a ponytail or crease still to be done. I have been working for over twenty years in the fashion world, where even the colour of a wrong lipstick is immediately noticed and pointed out. Going to training on Saturday morning also helps me to resize myself and reposition things in the right order of importance and priority.”
Small objectives for a big difference
Slow running, alternating with walking, games with elastic bands, balls, strengthening exercises, correction and attention to posture: an approach that allows you to do physical activity and movement without almost realising it and, at the same time, to meet new people with whom to share common passions. "Being able to represent Kathrine Switzer and her association in Italy and make her philosophy known is a mark of honour for me", continues Greta. "The women who come to my training sessions are workers, mothers, wives or singles who often live in a city that does not belong to them and that they do not know how to approach.”
Feel Fearless and cross the line
The weekly meetings thus become a way to break the home-work routine and live a communal experience. Not only that: gradually you learn to set yourself and achieve small goals, and nothing prevents them from getting bigger and bigger, without constraints or performance anxieties. Without a doubt, the competitive dimension here is overshadowed. "They have so much fun that in the end they can no longer do without it", concludes Greta.

Some people tell me that they can't wait for Saturday to arrive, others tell me that thanks to my weekly training the weekend has a new spark... and then I really feel Fearless!

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