Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of Marathon Woman from DaCapo Press in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. 

I am really embarrassed to admit this but prior to reading Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports, I only knew of Kathrine Switzer because of the Boston Marathon incident from 1967. You know the one, where she was yanked off the course by the race director? You've seen the picture a million times.

What I didn't know was that this one event, in which a young woman wanted to run a marathon, set into motion a movement that would change women's sports forever. What I didn't know was that Kathrine Switzer had a huge role to play in this movement. And what I didn't know was that Kathrine Switzer was an amazing runner in her own right.

Overshadowed by that one fateful event are all of Switzer's accomplishments. If you are a woman and you've run a race farther than 1 1/2 miles, it is because of Switzer. Yes, there have been other women's sports pioneers but Switzer's run at Boston was the pivotal event that made it possible for all of us to do what we love to do...run. And let me tell you, after reading her story, yep, I'm going to say it: "we've come a long way, baby!"



Switzer returned to Boston this year, the 50th anniversary of her first run at Boston. Still beautiful and athletic at age 70, she ran her 9th Boston Marathon in 4:44:31, which was a BQ. Her iconic bib number 261 was retired after this year's race. Marathon Woman, which was re-released in April for this year's anniversary of her legendary run, tells her story of running, love, and advancing women's sports over the past 50 years.

Marathon Woman reads like a novel. Clearly, Switzer has a gift for storytelling. Her life has been anything but boring. Even though early on she was aware of the impact she had on women's running, her true passion was running and the pursuit of a sub-3 hour marathon. In the 1970s, running was just beginning to take off. There weren't coaches or technical gear. Certainly there weren't women's running clothes! For training, Switzer wore cotton sweats and at races, she wore tennis dresses. There certainly weren't women's running shoes, so she wore men's. She stopped wearing socks because the only ones available were cotton which caused Switzer to develop severe blisters. In the book, she tells stories of pulling her bloody feet out of her shoes and getting all her blisters lanced. Sometimes she wrapped her feet in athletic tape, just to finish the race.

Switzer was coached by her then husband, who drove her like a race horse. Her home life with him wasn't so great. In fact, one thing that stood out to me was the continual string of bad relationships she had with men. She didn't give up on them easily, either. I didn't dwell on that aspect of her life too much, but I did wonder why she was attracted to these men who didn't treat her very well. The good news is that she eventually met and married the man who is her current husband, and who she says is the love of her life. She deserves that.

Switzer worked tirelessly to advance the cause of women's marathoning. In fact, she gave up running marathons and went to work for Avon, initially to help promote women's tennis but along with other programs developed the Avon International Running Circuit. The Avon races, which were for women only, were the key to proving that women's marathoning was truly a global sport. She wouldn't let it rest until the IOC approved women's marathoning as an Olympic event. In 1984, the very first women's Olympic Marathon took place in Los Angeles. Switzer was working as a news commentator for ABC sports, and she shares the excitement she felt when Joan Benoit (now Benoit Samuelson) won the race.

I had no idea about any of this. In fact, I have to admit that the reason I didn't read this book before was because I thought it would be all about that fated day in Boston. Yes, the day that Jock Semple tried to pull Switzer off the race course was a pivotal part of the book. But it's what followed that event that was so remarkable to me. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, with a mother who exemplified that very traditional role of woman as the caregiver. I was taught not to rock the boat, which obviously was a lesson I didn't learn very well. To young women growing up today, Switzer's actions might not seem all that revolutionary. But to those of us growing up in that era, "women behaving badly" was a big deal. Women were just supposed to go with the flow and yes, it was a man's world (cue the song). Switzer mentioned that she was called a "women's libber" or a "feminist"--which is kind of similar to being called a liberal now. Her reply was that she was none of those things. She just wanted to run. Running wasn't feminine and there was that myth that women who ran risked their uteruses falling out.

courtesy of Kathrine Switzer and the Boston Herald
In spite of all this, Switzer ran. Not only did she end up running more races and even winning the New York City Marathon, over the years she met a lot of runners that you've heard of. This book reads like a "Who's Who" of running pioneers. All the big names are in here.

The only question I had after finishing this book is what happened to the Avon races? Did they end because they served their purpose, which was to promote women's marathoning in order to make it an Olympic sport? Since women could run alongside men, was there no longer a need for women-only races? Avon is now very active in the fundraising arena with their Avon 39 2-day walk for breast cancer.

There is no denying the impact Kathrine Switzer had on women and running. In the United States, there are more women runners than men, with the half marathon distance the most popular among women (comprising 61% of all finishers in that distance). In 2015, women made up 57% of finishers in all distances. Men still outnumber women in the marathon distance, but that gap is narrowing, with women totaling 44% of finishers. (source for data: www.runningusa.org)

If you haven't read this book or have hesitated in picking it up, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy. I guarantee you won't be able to put it down. Full of inspiration, this book reads like a novel. My only regret is that I didn't read it sooner.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.

Have you read Marathon Woman? Do you consider Kathrine Switzer a pioneer in women's running? Do you think women's only races still are necessary? What's your favorite race distance?

While the book club linkup has gone away, I'm still interested in sharing your reviews! If you've written a review of Kathrine's book or another fitness related book, please send me the link and I'll include in this post. Please use the badge below to link back to this post.


Next month we are reading a brand new release by Catriona Menzes-Pike called The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion. It's the story of one women's journey through running as a means to deal with grief and life. Preliminary reviews have been excellent. I'm looking forward to this one!


By the way, I'm giving this book 5 stars, which means I get to link it up with the Friday Five! Head over to Fairytales and Fitness and Running on Happy to see what everyone else is posting about.


61 comments :

  1. This looks like a really good read. I'm going to try to do more reading this summer and this would be a great book to add to my list. I don't know too much about her and would love to learn more!

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    1. I was so pleasantly surprised by this book! It was so good and I had no idea about all that she's done! What an amazing woman!

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  2. Kathrine sure is a trailblazer for women's running and women in general. I love her determination.

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  3. Kathryn is such a remarkable woman! I would love to read her book one of these days. I still haven't picked up the new Dean Karnazas book on my shelf yet, so Kathryn's will be next!

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  4. I've always been fascinated by this story and the strength it took her to do what she did! Great book choice.

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    1. I didn't realize the domino effect of her race! Lucky us!

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  5. Sounds like a great read and yet ANOTHER book I need to add to my ever-growing stack! Thanks for the great review. I've got quite the list going for my summer reads!

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    1. I'd put this one on top. It's a great story.

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  6. I haven't read the book, but after reading your review I have to! I knew a little about Katherine and I realized how she helped to open up running to women, but I really want to know more now.

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    1. I was pretty surprised by all that she had done. There's a lot for us to relate to, since this happened in the 70s.

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  7. This book sounds very interesting. I think I'll pick it up {gasp}. Hopefully, I'll have some more time over the summer with the new WW series!

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    1. It's a long book but it's a really quick read. I couldn't put it down.

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  8. I like how you worked it into the Friday Five. :)

    I've had this on my list of books to read for a long time, but hadn't pulled the bullet. Thinking of buying it for our trip to UT. I like to immerse myself in running books while on a racecation (or really any time).

    I did know she was a pioneer, but I don't really know a whole lot about her life.

    I think women's races actually do still have a place. I think it can be very comforting for a new female runner -- my first 5k was a women's race after all.

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    1. It would be a great book to read on the flight out there--plenty of inspiration.

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  9. Okay, are you ready for this? I hadn't even heard of Kathrine until this book came out and bloggers started talking about her, which makes me kinda douchey to be a runner for 20 years and have no idea that she paved the way for me!

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    1. My thought when I read this book is that younger runners should read it! When people have paved the way for us like Switzer did with women's running, we don't realize how lucky we are!

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  10. I would love to read this book! I hope to get some good reading in this summer while the kids are out of school. Great book review!

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    1. This would be a great book for summer reading.

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  11. I am half way through the book ! it is so good!! I will write a review, probably next week when I finish it.

    I read about her a long time ago, but didn't realize that she had a book until recently.

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    1. I knew about the book but I had no idea about her life! What a great read! I can't wait to read your review.

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  12. I can't help but like her with a name like Katherine ;) I have read of some of her influence through the years, but I need to read the book. Her time this year at Boston was impressive!

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    1. Yes, and if you read the book you'll find out why her name is spelled Kathrine without the "e"!

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  13. I met KSwitz at NYCM the year I ran it. Definitely a running pioneer in my mind. I wondered the same thing: What happened to the Avon Race Series??

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    1. I did a lot of "research" when I wrote this post, trying to find that out! As much as I could figure out, it really seems like once races opened up to women, there wasn't a need for women only races. Isn't it interesting how those races made a comeback a few years ago? And how they're struggling now?

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  14. My friend gave me this book recently and I loved it - while I was aware of Kathrine Switzer, I wasn't fully aware of just how much she did for women and running over the years. She truly does deserve all the accolades she's been receiving lately.

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  15. I have this book on my nightstand...and still have not even read the intro (my bad...my VERY bad). I got to meet her (briefly) at the DSM Marathon expo (Oct. 2015), and have met Joan (Bix 2014). These women are amazing for what they've accomplished, and yet, they're just like us (well, they both are quite a bit faster LOL). You've succesfully guilted me into reading this book (finally)...stay tuned ;-)

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  16. This sounds like an awesome book. Katherine is actually really good friends with my cousin-in-law's parents! I would love to meet her one day. :) Fat chance haha

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  17. This sounds like a good one! I know how you are intrigued by her love life, there are so many famous women that we admire that have had crap husbands, I wonder why too?????

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  18. I had a chance to listen to her podcast interview on Runner's World. Didnt realize the major role she played in paving the way for us women runners!
    Did she talk about her childhood at all? I wonder how her relationship is with her parents and if she had any abandonment issues that may have led to her being in unhealthy relationships as she was trying to discover what she wanted out of one.
    I'll add this books to my summer reading list. I like that you mentioned it reads like a novel.

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    1. She shared a lot about her childhood. There didn't seem to be any issues. Let me know what you think when you read her book!

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  19. I love her story and the incredible movement she started. This sounds like another book to add to my summer list

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    1. This is a must-read for any woman in sports!

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  20. I have not read this book, but I am putting it on my list. Swatter's story is an important and amazing one, and I am intrigued to see the details of what happened after that fateful day. I guess her relationships go to show you that we are all human and make not so great decisions in matters of th heart. I'm glad she found someone who treats her well and with respect.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I hope you get a chance to read this--you won't regret it!

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  21. Ooh, I knew a bit more of her story but not so much. She was a VIP runner at CUCB this year and gave seminars. Running a marathon at 70 blows my mind.

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    1. Not only running it at age 70, but a 4:44? That's amazing.

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  22. This seems like a great book! I also only knew Kathrine Switzer from running Boston. Her story sounds so interesting!

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    1. This really was one of the best books I've read in awhile!

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  23. I haven't read the book but did met her a few years ago. She is beautiful inside and outside.

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  24. Marathon Woman is an "absolutely MUST READ" book for every female athlete, not just runner. Too often, we don't understand the history of our sport (who writes about women, but women?) and we must understand where we've come from to figure out where we're going. KS is the spiritual, political, activist leader of the women's running movement. After crossing the line of that first Boston, she never stopped smashing down barriers for women.

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    1. 100% agree. It amazed me to realize just how far we've come in women's sports, and I love that I have the perspective of growing up in the 60s and 70s. I fear that young women will take all their opportunities for granted!

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  25. It is an important story for sure. She was THE pioneer we all know and remember. YES, to women-only races and events. I think events of all genres segregated by sex make for great camaraderie for both women and men.

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    1. I don't know of any men-only running events--do you?

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  26. Same! I listened to a podcast interview with her this week and learned so much about the amazing role she played in pushing for women's rights in running, and her own speedy races. She's so inspiring!

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    1. She just keeps on going! Truly amazing.

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  27. I hadn't heard of her until I saw a video about her on Facebook. I too ran in cotton sweats in the '70's, when I was in high school. I ran track. One of my figure skating friends was organizing a women's track team for our school. There hadn't been one before, and she recruited me to help start one. We ran and competed with no coach until my mom threatened to sue under Title Nine, since the boys' track team had lots of coaching support. Yes we have come a long way baby!

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    1. I love having that perspective of being around before Title IX. That added a whole other dimension to this book for me!

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  28. I def need to read this book. I shamefully admit I did not know much about Kathryn Switzer until recently.

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    1. That makes 2 of us! Yes, read this one. It's really good.

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  29. Ok, it is on the list. Well, the new list. I actually had a list going and then forgot to save it.
    But nevertheless, Katherine is a legend and amazing and I can't wait to learn more about her!

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    1. This should be at the top of your list! It's soooooo good!

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  30. I am almost done with this book and I love her story. Amazing! What is weird for me is I started running way back late 70s to early 80s and never had any idea all that had and was still going on behind the scenes to bring women's running to the forefront. Talk about embarrassing.

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    1. I feel the same way!! Look at all she did for us. I hope you enjoyed the book. I think it's one of my favorite running books so far!

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  31. Thanks for the great review, Wendy. I'm adding her book to my bucket list right now.

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