Words of Wisdom from the Marathon Woman

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by Kelly McGurrin

My two best running buddies are my mom, Helen, and my friend of over 40 years, Julie Michel. All three of us are breast cancer survivors. The pleasure and therapeutic value we get from running cannot be expressed in words; it’s pure emotion and endorphins.

We have run the Ottawa Race Weekend numerous times as well as another favourite, the Space Coast Half Marathon in Florida. A “bucket list” race we’d often considered was the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon. This year, we decided to go for it.
From left: Helen, Kathrine Switzer, Julie and Kelly at the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon.

The event’s setting in Niagara Falls is an instant draw. Plus, it’s a relatively small race (with just over 1000 participants) that gives out great swag (including a bottle of Niagara wine) and offers a scenic route with an abundance of porta-potties (decorated with bouquets of flowers).

Another appealing feature was the special guest, Kathrine Switzer. Her story is a compelling one: she was the first woman to run the renowned Boston Marathon in 1967 under the moniker K. Switzer, at a time when women were banned from this race and all long distance races. The race officials, upon hearing that a woman was running, attempted to intercept her and physically extract her from the course. Her boyfriend, along with a number of other runners, surrounded and defended her. She completed the race in spite of spectators and journalists heckling and harassing her, and made history in the process. Back then, she was 20 years old and a member of the Syracuse University running club. She loved to run long distances and felt it was unfair that women were excluded. She defiantly informed her detractors that she’d still be running when she was 80 years old. It was five years before women were permitted to run the Boston Marathon in 1972.

Today, Kathrine is 72 and still a runner, as well as an activist, author, and founder of “261 Fearless,” a global non-profit organization established to empower women through sport and healthy living. We had the opportunity to meet her at the race expo the day before the run, and had a chance to share a story about how she had inspired us. 

Back in 2011, my mom’s running friend and unofficial coach, Louis Comerton, met Kathrine at another race. He purchased Kathrine’s book, Marathon Woman, and asked her to autograph it for my mom, who’d only just started running a year earlier at age 70. Kathrine obliged and wrote: “Helen! You inspire us! 70 & showing it’s never too late to be what you might have been! Go for it!” On this race expo day, we brought the book to show Kathrine and she added a note: “I’m in awe of you–thanks for helping me run Boston in 2017!” She explained that seeing someone start running at 70 motivated Kathrine to run Boston in 2017 (when she was 70) on the 50th anniversary of her historic race.

Now 79, my mom has completed  marathons in Florida, Paris, and Washington, along with many half marathons. She is scheduled to run the Chicago Marathon this October. Kathrine was riveted by this story and made an impromptu speech to the crowd while my mom stood alongside her, saying: “Watch out, world! I just want to say, it’s never too late to start running, and Helen is proof positive of this. I’m really proud of you, Helen!” My dad, Brian, was quite choked up. It was a pretty special moment and I figured that alone was worth the price of admission!

The next day was run day. An 8:00 a.m. start saw us standing in a drizzle of rain, with wind gusts to 40 km/h and a temperature of 14°C. It was not the greatest feeling to be starting a long run with wet feet. But soon we warmed up, the rain tapered off, and just to our right was the majestic sight of Niagara Falls. The route was spectacular, alongside the falls and the Niagara River on a parkway reserved for the 1100 runners. All but 17 of the participants were women (they don’t ban the men from participating!). My mom and I both bettered our times from the Ottawa Race Weekend Half Marathon, which we’d run the previous Sunday—this was the first time we’d run two half marathons one week apart.

Kathrine Switzer was present on race day, encouraging everyone at the start line, high-fiving runners at the 7K mark, and greeting us at the finish line. It’s just as she says in a quotation on her website: “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

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