Graduating from college is like the beginning of a race, Kathrine Switzer told University of Lynchburg graduates Saturday.
“Most of you already are thinking, ‘I’ve done it. I’ve graduated at last,’” Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, said. “Actually, you’re like an athlete who is walking naively to the start of a big race, and you don’t realize that you have a very big marathon ahead of you.
“None of it is predictable. But it’s all exciting.”
Switzer came back to Lynchburg, where she got her first taste of competitive running 53 years ago, as the 2019 Undergraduate Commencement speaker. In total, the University of Lynchburg honored more than 900 graduates in two Commencement ceremonies this weekend, including about 480 graduate students on Friday and 480 undergraduates Saturday.
In Switzer’s Commencement address Saturday morning, she told the undergraduates how a Lynchburg College coach helped inspire her competitive running career.
She played field hockey, lacrosse, and basketball at Lynchburg, but there was no women’s track program at the time. But one day she was running on the track when men’s track coach Aubrey Moon approached her.
“Kathy, can you run a mile?” he asked.
“I can run three miles,” Switzer said.
Moon asked if she would fill in for a missing runner in the mile race at an upcoming track meet. The team would get points by having someone in the race, even if she finished last. Moon also invited another field hockey team member to run.
Having two women run for the men’s track team attracted a lot of media attention. It also drew criticism from people who claimed running was dangerous for women, but Moon was supportive. “Coach Aubrey Moon gave me that first step,” Switzer said.
Switzer transferred to Syracuse University to major in journalism. After she proved she could run 26.2 miles, an assistant coach on the men’s cross country team agreed to take her to the Boston Marathon. He insisted that she officially register to receive a bib number, rather than run unregistered as other women had done in the all-men’s race.
About a mile into the marathon, a race official ran after Switzer to try getting her out of the race. He yanked at her bib with the number 261. Switzer’s boyfriend knocked the race official down, and Switzer finished the race without further incident.
Switzer was angry about the incident at first, but the anger gave way to determination to get more women running.
“Other women were not in the race or didn’t undertake difficult or adventurous things because they were afraid,” Switzer said. “They were afraid of all those old myths that limited them.
“I realized that I wasn’t special. I had an opportunity. Talent is everywhere. It only needs an opportunity. In this case, women had none to disprove the old myths and the restrictions. I knew then that a goal in my life would be to create these opportunities.”
Switzer became a champion for women athletes. She led movements to open the Boston Marathon to women and add the women’s marathon to the Olympics. Today, she leads 261 Fearless, an organization that empowers women through running.
She said 261 Fearless is about more than just getting women to run. It’s about the power that running creates by helping them become fearless.
“Running now is a metaphor for our lives,” Switzer said. She told the graduates that they can take their own education and experience and find a way to work against mistreatment or discrimination.
“Think of ways you can bring about positive change and advancement,” she said. “Take the next step. You’ll surprise yourself.”