It was a perfect day for running: sunny, cloudless, low humidity, temperature in the 60s. From the back of a moving flatbed truck, Kathrine Switzer gazed up at the sky and murmured: “Thanks, God.”
Behind the truck, strung out along a brutally hilly course in Springdale, Ohio, were 106 women runners—competing to represent the U.S. in an international women’s marathon in Waldniel, Germany in September. Avon, the giant cosmetics firm, had announced that it would pay the expenses of the first six finishers. Switzer was aboard that truck, invoking the deity and cheering on the runners, because as manager of Avon’s special promotions, she has supervised an ambitious series of qualifying races leading to Waldniel.
A few years ago Switzer, 32, would have been out there on the road herself, pounding along at a six-minute-per-mile clip. She is truly one of the founding mothers of American women’s running. In 1967 she made history by entering the Boston Marathon disguised as a man. Back then women’s participation was illegal. Since those Dark Ages, the marathon has been integrated (though the International Olympic Committee, still mired in the 19th century, refuses to sanction a women’s marathon at the Games).
For Avon, Switzer set up a worldwide distance-running circuit of five races in the U.S. and seven abroad. Leading the American team will be the winner in Ohio, Martha Cooksey, 24, of Orange, Calif. She ran the 18.6-mile course in 1:53:06 and afterward said jubilantly, “I tried to psych myself into thinking, ‘Anybody can do it.’ ”
Anybody can’t, of course. But Switzer hopes they’ll try, at least. “I’m determined to tell women how great running and all sports are,” she says. True to her own advice, she still logs 40 miles or so a week (down from 110 when she was a champion)—”just enough to keep in shape.”
After that first Boston Marathon, Switzer concluded that “other women weren’t in the race because they hadn’t had the opportunity to realize themselves.” In 1977 she got her chance to help. As a director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, she met an Avon executive who told her the company was interested in sponsoring a running event for women and asked her thoughts. “I wrote a proposal on what a company like that could do with a series of running events,” says Switzer. Her recommendations led to her present $36,000-a-year job.
From her office overlooking Central Park or out of a suitcase (she travels 40 percent of the time), Switzer coordinates the Avon series, paying meticulous attention to every detail, even the selection of comfortable T-shirts for the entrants. Occasionally there are bad moments. In Ohio, for example, one runner was hit in the face by a pellet from a high-powered airgun and had to be hospitalized.
Such crises aside, Switzer is exhilarated by her job—and her life. The daughter of an Army officer from Vienna, Va., she got a masters in public communications from Syracuse University. Before Avon, she did public relations for Bristol-Myers and sports promotion for AMF. In 1972 she covered the Munich Olympics for the New York Daily News and stayed in Europe for a year. When she returned, her marriage of five years to a college beau was over. Switzer is now the wife of Philip Schaub, 45, a tough-minded marketing consultant. It was Schaub who put Kathy through such intense training (“I thought I was going to die”) that she lowered her marathon time to two hours, 51 minutes, ninth best in the world at the time. “By 1976 I decided it was time to concentrate on my career,” she says, adding a bit wistfully, “If I were still training, I’d be in my prime now.” Instead, she is helping develop a woman athlete’s bra, improved running shoes and a sunscreen that won’t sweat off.
The couple live in Chappaqua, a New York suburb. Since he’s a tennis fanatic, they compromise by playing golf. Switzer also cooks and stepmothers 17-year-old Eric, one of Schaub’s two children from a previous marriage. “I’m a mommy,” says Switzer. “I go through all the traumas.”
From practicing motherhood to promoting an Olympic women’s marathon, Switzer is the picture of determination. “If anybody tells me I can’t do something,” she says, “it’s like waving a red flag.”