• ​The inspiration behind Women Can

    Kathrine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon. Photos: Boston Herald

The inspiration for this women only marathon and relay was 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". She had paved the way for millions of women to take up marathon running either for fun or competitively. 

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. But it wasn't until Los Angeles in 1984, that the women's marathon became an Olympic event. The Boston Marathon finally admitted women in 1972. Kathrine Switzer was instrumental in bringing about all these changes.

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.​

Fifty Years later

As well as being a milestone year for women’s marathon running, in the East Devon village of Tipton St John, 1967 was 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 first Women Can marathon began…

Jo said

​​"When I had the idea for this Women Only Marathon it was because I believed any woman could run a marathon, if they wanted to. I took up running rather half-heartedly in my late 30s. Since my first marathon in 2005 it's become a passion that has helped me overcome mental and physical barriers and has quite literally changed the course of my life.

"I love running in the beautiful East Devon countryside and wanted to share the joy of these scenic views, and yes challenging hills, with others. To create an event that celebrated women's endurance running, with an incredible route on my own doorstep was too exciting an opportunity not to pursue. The help of Pauline and Peg in achieving this was crucial.

"The day was something beyond my wildest dreams. I hoped it would be popular, but did not envisage the huge interest, and the way it captured the imagination of women around the country. The atmosphere was truly magical and a testament to the wonderful positive spirit of everyone who entered and all the amazing people who helped make it happen. I'm excited about 2018 as it builds on our first year and enables more women to be a part of this special event."

Pauline Beare, race director said

"Being race director of the first Women Can Marathon was something that fulfilled many of my dreams for women and running. I'm passionate about empowering women of all abilities to run for pleasure and take part in events.

"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. The 2017 Women Can marathon was part celebration and part reflection of the situation globally where not all women CAN run marathons.

"I want 2018 to take my dream further and enable more women to participate through doing this event as a relay and being a part of the special magic that shows Women Can."

Peg Wiseman said

"I 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."  

A few dates and facts that might surprise you

  • 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

Links - the history of marathons and women in sport

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