Equal footing

Forty years after Kathrine Switzer made running history in Boston, Sacramento’s first women-only marathon charges ahead

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Amid the ever-increasing volume of sports writing, athletic images often provide the most memorable, freeze-frame moments. There’s the black-and-white picture of Muhammad Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston in 1965. And there’s the 1988 color photo of Michael Jordan in his red Chicago Bulls uniform, airborne from the free-throw line in the NBA slam-dunk contest. Both shots are still best-selling sports posters, decades after the original split-second marvels were captured on film.

Endurance-sports images have their place, too. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong always knew cameras were clicking at finish lines. In the running world, pictures of Steve Prefontaine’s determined facial expressions or Joan Benoit Samuelson carrying an American flag to the finish line of the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles have lofty places in history.

Perhaps the most unheralded yet significant image in women’s sports was taken at the 1967 Boston Marathon. A series of black-and-white photos shows race director Jock Semple jumping off the press truck and trying to tear the race number off of runner Kathrine Switzer. At that time, women simply weren’t allowed in the Boston Marathon. The 26.2-mile distance was believed too long and dangerous for the “fairer sex.”

One year earlier, Roberta Gibb’s request for a Boston Marathon race number was denied, but she ran anyway, hiding in the bushes until the race began. Gibb often said she was afraid she would be arrested, but she finished the journey in 3 hours and 21 minutes.

Switzer entered the race as K. Switzer and wore a race number. She dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and, with the exception of lipstick, was inconspicuous in the field—at least for a while.

Semple finally caught on, but his abrupt efforts were thwarted when Switzer’s boyfriend shoved the race director off the course. Switzer finished as an unofficial runner in 4 hours and 20 minutes.

Five years later, women officially were allowed to enter running’s most famous race. In 1984, Samuelson made her famous entrance into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at the end of the marathon. Fast-forward to this Sunday at 7 a.m., and Switzer’s legendary run will have a Sacramento connection when the inaugural City of Trees Marathon happens on the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. Although Sacramento has staged other women’s running events, an all-women’s marathon is a first for the city.

The City of Trees Marathon, from Negro Bar in Folsom to Sacramento’s Discovery Park, will occur just two weeks after the 40th anniversary of Switzer’s historic Boston Marathon run.

“What happened that day in 1967 was as significant as giving women the right to vote,” Switzer, now 60, says often during her popular appearances at marathons around the country. “It showed everyone that women can do anything—that women have no physical limitations.”

A women’s marathon like City of Trees in Sacramento (a marathon with the same name is also held in Boise, Idaho) begs a question asked of all women’s endurance events around the country: What if men want to join?

“We have had two inquiries internally about men in the race,” said Captain Joe Valenzuela of the Sacramento Police Department, organizers of City of Trees. “But so far we haven’t had any men register. But if a man wants to give me a check, that’s fine. We gladly welcome the participation of anyone.”

The SPD developed the marathon as another vehicle for its marketing and recruiting efforts, particularly among women. As with other SPD sporting events, the organization capitalizes on the sponsorship of the activities by setting up a recruiting booth and other department equipment at the event finish line.

The inaugural race is also a way to honor deceased officer Emily Morgenroth. Ten years ago, Morgenroth became the first woman in the department’s history to be killed while on duty.

Outside of the police department’s Web site and a few other online listings, the City of Trees Marathon has received little publicity. The field is limited to 500, but 10 days prior to the event less than 100 runners had entered. Even in the Sacramento running community the new event has received little fanfare, although the possibility of men entering has sparked conversation.

“I have never encountered a problem with men wanting to participate, but I guess I would wonder why they would want to run with all women?” said runner Mary Coordt of Elk Grove. “But I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for women to participate in an all-women’s event. We should be thankful to the women like Grete [Waitz] and Kathrine [Switzer] who worked so hard to open doors for us today. If it were not for them, who knows where women and running would be?”

Coordt, arguably the Sacramento area’s premier long-distance female runner, has won several marathons, ultramarathons and many other road races. She’s not entered in the City of Trees event, but has participated in several all-women’s events, including two women’s Olympic trials marathons.

“It feels like you’re running together,” said Coordt about her all-women running experiences. “You help push each other, encourage each other, push each other to reach our individual goals. Rather than competitors, it’s racing together.”

“Plus,” Coordt continued, “since the race fields are usually small, there are smaller bathroom lines and no worries about a good start, since the starting line is never crowded.”

Rich Hanna, a longtime Sacramento runner, is a former two-time 100-kilometer national titlist and the winner of numerous marathons. He’s also a coach and owner of Capital Road Race Management, a Sacramento race-timing and consulting company.

Hanna is also in a unique position. As an elite male runner, he was given an entry in the Nike women’s half-marathon in San Francisco. The full and half-marathon attract several thousand runners, including several hundred men. Hanna, a longtime director of the Sacramento chapter of Team In Training, a fund-raising running organization for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, ran the half-marathon as an invited guest and to critique the course.

“I’m glad I did it once,” said Hanna. “But if I knew there would only be a few hundred men out of the field of eight- or nine-thousand women, I’m not sure I would have started.”

“But I don’t see a need for [men competing in women’s races], since there are so many race races to choose from these days,” Hanna added. “Smart men volunteer for women-only races.”

While often overlooked in the mainstream sports world, Swtizer’s legacy is highlighted in the current issue of Runner’s World, the country’s largest-circulation running publication. In a first-person article excerpted from her recently released book, Marathon Woman: Running The Race To Revolutionize Women’s Sports, Switzer writes a seven-page account of her training and historic marathon. In an accompanying sidebar entitled “Six Degrees of Kathrine Switzer,” the magazine designates key moments in women’s running history, including some of the aforementioned events. The final date referenced is 2004, when, for the first time in its history, the women’s start of the Boston Marathon was adjusted 30 minutes ahead of the men’s field.

As Switzer commented, “We’ve moved from exclusion to exclusivity.” Which now means a marathon on Sunday morning in Sacramento.