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Women’s Right to Run in Seneca Falls features Boston Marathon trailblazer

It might have been hard to imagine on a sun-soaked day in New England last Monday that Roberta Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon a half-century earlier, wasn’t an official entrant. She jumped out of the bushes into the middle of a pack of male runners to participate.

A year later, in 1967, Kathrine Virginia Switzer became the first female to run the race as a numbered entry.

Not that it was easy.

The Syracuse University junior first had to convince her running coach, Arnie Briggs, that she could master the 26.2-mile distance. Briggs trained the SU men’s cross-country team. There wasn’t a women’s team at the time.

She also registered using her initials, K.V. Switzer.

A race official was none too happy when he spied Switzer from a media truck about 2 miles into the race, wearing a numbered bib. He hopped off the truck, tried to rip off her bib and looked to usher her off the course.

“Unfortunately for him, he did that in front of the press truck and the photos of him were flashed around the world,” Switzer recalled during a recent phone interview. “They became some of the most galvanizing photos in the women’s rights movement.

“This was sort of the shot heard round the world for women’s running.”

Switzer will participate in another first on May 7, Mother’s Day Weekend, when the village of Seneca Falls – 115 miles east of Buffalo – will host its inaugural Women’s Right to Run 19K/5K.

Race Director Katie MacIntyre said she hopes plenty of women – and men – from Western New York will join runners from around the world to celebrate the milestone, leading up to the centennial next year of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

“The course is picturesque and relatively flat,” which should be particularly compelling for those who tackle the 10-mile Mountain Goat run the week before in Syracuse, said MacIntyre, assistant vice president and marketing officer of Generations Banks, lead sponsor.

The 11.8- and 3.1-mile runs also include an after-party at the Seneca Falls Knitting Mill, which Women’s Rights Hall of Fame organizers look to turn into their new museum. It will be renamed the Center for Great Women.

Register for the runs at righttorun19k.org.

“A race is a perfect way to express women’s freedom, fearlessness, equality, and it’s a wonderful celebration as we move in to the 100th anniversary next year of giving women the right to vote,” said Switzer, who will be among those on hand.

“Today, there are more women runners in the United States than men,” she added. “What you see with women’s running is a social revolution. What you’re seeing with the Women’s Right to Run 19K is a celebration of that social revolution of women’s equality.”

Women’s running has come a long way since the Boston Marathon in 1967.

So has Switzer.

The attempt to throw her out of the race that year steeled her determination to continue. So did her then-boyfriend, Tom Miller, who steered the race official out of her way.

Switzer finished the run in 4 hours, 20 minutes. The race director disqualified her – and moved to expel her from the Amateur Athletic Union – which helped jump-start a worldwide effort to push for more opportunities for women in sports.

Congress passed Title IX in 1972 that led to the creation of women’s sports teams and sports scholarships in colleges nationwide.

Switzer was among women who successfully pushed for the women’s marathon to become part of the Olympic Games for the first time, in 1984 in Los Angeles.

She has worked as a color commentator since that first marathon during the Boston Marathon and many others on Boston television and “ABC Wide World of Sports.” She has run 39 marathons, winning the 1974 New York City Marathon. She’s run the Boston Marathon seven more times – including in 1975, when she posted her fastest marathon time: 2 hours and 51 minutes. And she plans to run the Boston Marathon next spring, when she turns 70, to mark the progress women have made during the last half-century.

Switzer – who also has organized the Avon global women’s racing series in 27 countries, and helps nurture the Girls on the Run program – was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

She and her husband of 33 years, Roger Robinson, live mostly in New Paltz but also part of the year in Robinson’s native New Zealand.

Switzer also has her own nonprofit, 261 Fearless Inc. (261fearless.org) – named for her first Boston Marathon bib number – and calls the organization “a global movement that empowers women through the vehicle of running.”

“I started that first Boston Marathon as a girl who wanted to run,” she said, “but by the time I finished the race I was in a different place. It became a political issue. So my whole life has been dedicated to equality in sports for women and creating opportunities for them.”

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