The inspiration for this women only marathon is American endurance runner Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 was the first woman to officially complete the all-male Boston Marathon. As runner number 261 she completed in 4 hours 20 minutes, despite being manhandled by officials who tried to drag her off the course two miles in. The images from that day - together with Kathrine's campaign for the "archaic rules" to be overhauled - changed endurance running for women forever. What Kathrine did showed that women CAN run marathons, that they're not "too fragile" and would not suffer appalling health problems; she had paved the way for millions of women to take up marathon running either for fun or competitively. Yes, women had run marathons before, but generally in an unofficial capacity because official participation simply wasn't allowed.
At the time of the 1967 Boston Marathon, the longest women's race in the Olympics was 800 metres. This was to change, too, with longer distances being introduced. It wasn't until Los Angeles in 1984, however, that the women's marathon became an Olympic event. As for the Boston Marathon, it finally admitted women in 1972.
The photos above are credited to the Boston Herald and were captured by photographer Harry Trask. They show race official Jock Semple attempting to pull Kathrine off the course and her boyfriend at the time, hammer thrower Tom Miller, pushing him away. Read Kathrine Switzer's story in her own words on her website >>>
Along with being a milestone in women’s marathon running, 1967 was also the foundation of outdoor sport in the East Devon village of Tipton St John, the year its community-owned playing field was established. Local resident and keen marathon runner Jo Earlam has been a fundraiser and event organiser for the field for many years. The popular Otter Rail and River Run 10km was launched by Jo in 2007 to mark the field’s 40th anniversary. Whilst considering plans for the field’s 50th anniversary, a Facebook post popped up on her newsfeed highlighting 1967 as the year of Kathrine Switzer’s Boston run. The seed of an idea formed and after enlisting the help of experienced distance runners and event organisers Pauline Beare and Peg Wiseman, planning for the Women Can marathon began…
Jo Earlam, race administration:
"When I had the idea for this Women Only Marathon it was because I passionately believe and know any woman can run a marathon, if they want to. I took up running somewhat half-heartedly in my late 30s. I had the help of the Women’s Running Network, which is how I met Pauline and Peg – both huge inspirations to me. Their support enabled me to run the London Marathon, which I completed as a supposed one-off challenge in 2005, the year I was 40. It was a mixed feeling on the day of exhaustion and elation, but what I got from the training, the camaraderie, overcoming mental and physical barriers, stayed with me and has changed the course of my life. I ran a further 50 marathons in the next 10 years, and I’m still going. To me, there's nothing quite like the marathon, you line up with people of all abilities. And to discover that within my lifetime, it was considered that women were incapable of running a marathon, came as a complete shock. I can't believe that such a belief was held until so recently.
"I’ve lived in the village of Tipton for over 30 years – I love the playing field and the wonderful space it offers our community to take part in sport, or just enjoy the outdoors. For the last 10 years I’ve organised a multi-terrain 10km from the field, that’s popular with men and women from a wide area. Discovering that 2017 wasn't only the 50th anniversary of the playing field but also the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer running the Boston Marathon was like a light bulb moment: why don't we organise a marathon, starting and finishing at the playing field, to mark those two occasions?
"I've run all the course at some point over the years, taking in different sections of it for training. I've always thought that if you bolted all the sections together it would make a fantastic route for a marathon, with the Otter and Sid valleys, the Jurassic Coast, picturesque villages and the towns of Sidmouth and Ottery St Mary. When I measured the route and found it could be done to match 26.2 miles exactly, it seemed like it was just meant to be. It's a challenging route, not a course to be thinking about doing a PB, but that's not what this marathon is about. It's about being part of it, enjoying the course and the company. And I'm asking the men to show their support for us and for the message it sends out by being our marshals, our support team, manning our water stations – and yes, guys even making the tea!"
1967 Kathrine Switzer enters the Boston Marathon against men only rules
1982 first women’s marathon in the European championships
1984 first women’s marathon in the Los Angeles Olympics – 33 years ago
1987 first women’s marathon in the World championships – 30 years ago
2002 Paula Radcliffe wins first Marathon, London and sets new world record at Chicago the same year
2003 Paula Radcliffe sets the current world record for the marathon 2:15:25
2015 Iran holds its first marathon, women are excluded, but two run unofficially
2015 Marathon of Afghanistan and first Afghanistan woman to ever run a marathon in her own country
Peg Wiseman, planning assistant:
"I only started running when I was 30. I hated running when I was at school - I think most girls do! I hated being visible. But I loved team sport, which I started doing almost as soon as I could move. Then, mass participation group running became popular so I thought I'd give it a go. I remember trying to run 400 metres around my local field and at the end I collapsed in a heap. But I did it. That was in January 1983; in July 1983 I ran my first half marathon and three months after that I ran my first marathon, in Gloucester. I thought: 'I've just discovered who I am'. I felt I'd gone full circle and was two-years-old again - and I've never looked back since.
"I got involved with the Running Sisters groups with Pauline and we set up the Women's Running Network in 1998. Now I'm a consultant and tutor with UK Athletics, delivering Leadership in Running Fitness courses to train people who take running groups and I helped to develop the courses for the Run England programme.
"Why do I love marathon running? There are loads of reasons. I've stood on the starting line beside Olympic and World champions Rosa Mota and Greta Waitz; in which other discipline can you do that? The 26.2 mile course is a journey, it's a bit like life, you go through ups and downs and you have to develop strategies to deal with them. And running in general is just great. It keeps you fit, you take in fresh air and views. All you need is the outdoors; it's so available, it's on our doorstep. The concept behind the Women Can marathon is very close to my heart, as someone who has gone from believing endurance running was something that was beyond me to where I am today. And I think that's a story that a lot of women tell, the journey from no self-belief to self-confidence through running."
Kathrine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon. Photos: Boston Herald
Pauline Beare, race director:
"I started running when I was very young and I was the National Inter-Counties Champion when I was 14 but like a lot of teenage girls, I stopped. I had a gap of 20 years between the ages of 16 and 36 when I didn't run. And then I went back to it again.
"By then I had become unfit and overweight and wanted to do something about it. I had to re-invent myself. I did a sports-related course at college and I had a lot of support from people to help me get fit and lose weight. I found I enjoyed running and COULD run and I had my first London Marathon in 1992. I used to run the Running Sisters groups in East Devon and then Peg and I set up the Women's Running Network in 1998 because we felt there was a shortage of help for women who wanted to run. It can be daunting for women taking up running to join mixed running groups. I now take three running groups a week and I'm also a Nordic walking instructor for Nordic Walking UK and a Breeze cycle leader.
"One of the things that marathon running gives you is self-confidence and it helps people to tackle issues in their lives. I've seen this happen with a lot of women I've coached. I guess it comes back again to this recognition of 'do you know what? I can!' Running can be that powerful and it's why there are still so many campaigns in the world to enable women to be able to run marathons, because there are lots of cases where they can't. I see the Women Can marathon as part celebration and part reflection because, for a whole number of reasons, we still have a situation globally where not all women CAN run marathons."
Copyright Women Can 2017.
Jo Earlam, Pauline Beare and Peg Wiseman