Body & Fitness

Marathon legend Kathrine Switzer on how she’s 72 and still running

If ever anyone needed inspiration to get out and get running, Kathrine is it.
Marathon runner Kathrine Switzer

Most Kiwis wouldn’t guess that, nestled in the hills of Wellington, a global sporting superstar has made a home.

Thousands of kilometres away from the US, where she’s mobbed by fans, the world’s most famous female marathon runner enjoys a more laid-back life of dinner parties, movie nights and pounding the pavements of the windy city.

Because at 72, Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a registered entrant, in 1967, is still a runner and still committed to women’s empowerment.

“All things being equal, you can run for your lifetime,” says Kathrine. “I’ll run till I drop! There are, of course, injuries – I tripped on a tree root the other week – and anybody can get sick. But it’s phenomenal what the body can do, and studies show that women who exercise as they age live longer, live more happily, and are more optimistic.

“I truly believe that at any age, a person can get their fitness back or even begin running for the very first time.”

The global trailblazer loves hitting the hills above Wellington.

If ever anyone needed inspiration to get out and get running, Kathrine is it.

Her story is world-famous – how as a young runner desperate to compete in what was then a men-only event, she was shoved off course by an official at the Boston Marathon.

Shaken but undeterred, Kathrine completed the race, inspiring women the world over to run, to race, to enjoy the simple act of – as Kathrine says – “putting one foot in front of the other”.

Shaken after an attack during the Boston Marathon, Kathrine was determined to finish.

Her connection to New Zealand began in 1983 when, while working as a speaker, broadcaster and writer, she met Victoria University professor and masters athlete Roger Robinson backstage at a speaking event in Canberra.

“It was love at first voice!” she says with a grin.

Roger says he was instantly attracted to the “dynamic American”.

But there was a problem. They lived on opposite sides of the planet.

“Although being together required some ingenuity,” says Roger (79), “it has actually worked out in a very stimulating way.”

“My girlfriends would refer to him as GU – geographically undesirable,” says Kathrine. “But he was my ideal partner

– a great philosopher and a fabulous athlete. We decided life was too short; that we needed to marry and be together.”

That was in 1985, and a decision was quickly made to split the year between New York, where Kathrine lived, and New Zealand.

“God invented a jet airplane for a reason,” says Kathrine, “but yes, it’s very expensive. You just live more modestly, and you don’t covet fancy clothes and glamorous cars. Until last week, when it finally died, we were driving a 21-year-old Honda Civic.”

Now, the couple enjoy “two wonderful environments, two interesting cultures and two summers,” says Kathrine.

Usually arriving each December to enjoy our warmest months, she says New Zealand is a wonderful place to relax and set goals for the following year – both personally, and for her charitable foundation, 261 Fearless, named after her famous Boston bib number.

Kathrine and her Kiwi husband Roger made their marriage work despite being geographically challenged.

Last year, one such goal was to empower women who run while having their period, and an alliance with Kiwi menstrual-cup start-up Hello Cup was born.

The locally designed and made medical-grade cup is a safe reusable option for periods, holding around three times as much fluid as a tampon, and it can be worn for up to 12 hours.

“As a runner, I knew how limiting running with your period could be. Beyond that, a goal of 261 Fearless is to reach countries and cultures where women are fearful about running or there are restrictions that mean they can’t run. And one of the biggest restrictions is their period. In Africa, girls are missing school because they don’t have the financial means to buy sanitary products. And in industrialised nations, we’re overloading the landfill.”

A chance meeting with Robyn McLean and Mary Bond, the founders of Hello Cup, “ignited something” in Kathrine.

“I thought, ‘Jeepers, I need to get my foundation involved!’ I bought 50 cups on the spot and took them back to my team.”

Kathrine and her foundation took the cups to last year’s 2018 New York City Marathon Expo. “It was a great success,” says Kathrine, “and the product was named one of the most innovative at the expo.”

Kathrine’s foundation 261 Fearless has teamed up with Hello Cup to further their mission of empowering women globally through running.

As if foundations and marathons weren’t enough, Kathrine and Roger are also authors.

Kathrine’s memoir, Marathon Woman, is her most widely known work, while Roger’s latest, When Running Made History, was launched earlier this year.

Roger, describing it as a “partly scholarly but extremely readable history of the modern running movement”, says Kathrine has certainly helped shape one section in particular.

“The chapter on women’s running is written largely from the privileged perspective of being married to Kathrine,” he says, “and the changes we’ve seen from 1983 until now.”

Being Kathrine’s husband, Roger confides, is quite the whirlwind.

“She’s incredible,” the down-to-earth Kiwi says, with obvious pride. “But it is a little like being married to St Joan! We are often besieged by literally hundreds of people, wanting selfies, mostly. Kathrine, though, is always Kathrine and handles it without ever changing as a person.

“And when we’re in our New Zealand home, we have our downtime. Kiwis are really good,’ he adds with a certain wryness, “at not making her feel at all celebrated!”

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