"RadicaliSed by the incident," as she puts it, Switzer became a fierce advocate for women's running—a right we practically take for granted today. Not only did she campaign for the Boston Marathon to allow female racers, which it did in 1972, but she also co-created the first women's-only road race later that year. She went on to run 39 more marathons, including a return to Boston in 2017, 50 years after she first ran there.
Now 70, Switzer is as passionate an advocate for seniors as she's always been for women. She ran the 10K at the National Senior Games, which is celebrating its own 30th anniversary this week. Prevention caught up with Switzer to talk about what it takes to be an athlete at 70—and beyond.
Prevention: What was it like to run Boston again, 50 years after your historic first race?
Kathrine Switzer: It was sensational. It was very gratifying. There were so many people that knew my story. Boston was a celebration of the past 50 years and looking ahead to the next 50 years. It was a sort of passing of the torch to the next generation of women–and men!–who are going to continue what has become a social revolution of women's running. And then the sleeper story throughout this whole thing was the ageing story. I thought it was really cool to be able to, 50 years later, run the same marathon again. No other woman has done that. And that's not because I'm terrific, but because of the lack of women who ran 50 years ago! The press was captivated by the story of doing the same race 50 years later, at age 70.
I think this is the next frontier. People still treat older people the way they treated us women 50 years ago, which is, 'Be careful! You might hurt yourself!' when in fact the opposite is the case. The more you do, the more you can do! There are lots of women who have run marathons at 70, 80, even 90. I was only eighth in my age group at Boston, for heaven's sake! I want to get this message out there because we can not only encourage [older athletes], but we really can create a healthier ageing population.
PVN: How did you decide to do the 10K at the Senior Games?
KS: Humana, [a health insurance company and the sponsor of the Senior Games,] asked me if I would be a part of the welcoming ceremonies, and I said I'd be thrilled to. And when I looked at the schedule and saw that there was a 10K the next day, I said, 'Hey guys, can I stay over and run this?' You can turn to any of the 11,000 athletes there and find amazing stories. There's so much optimism, determination and ability to prevail. You get to know people best when you go out and run with them. There's a little bit of pressure because I know I'm going to get hosed in the race! But even just the social aspect is incredibly important. A lot of times when people retire they've had really great dynamic careers and a great socialisation process with their work and travel and then, boom, it ends.
PVN: How have you had to adjust your mindset about racing as you've gotten older?
KS: When you're running well, you feel like you're flying. And then you wonder why there are all these people passing you. You realise that naturally there's going to be a slowing process. I had to also realise that I needed more recovery time. Before Boston, I worked with a trainer who said I shouldn't be running every day, I should be running every other day. That was heresy to me, but she said at 70 you need to recover as much as you need to train. On the days I wasn't running, I did all sorts of strengthening exercises, like one-leg balancing squats. I was sore as hell for a while, but I amazed myself with what I could do within just a few weeks. I felt like I was snapping back into shape.
PVN: What advice do you have for older athletes who are just getting started, who might not have that "snapping back into shape" experience?
KS: My tips are really very simple. Leave your shoes by the door and put them on and go out even if it's only for 10 minutes. Start with a walk if that's all you can do, even if it's just to the mailbox. Then go to the streetlight, and then the next streetlight. Work up to 30 seconds of a light jog and take it from there. To help you stay motivated, get a buddy who is just like you. If a buddy is waiting for you, you won't worry about being embarrassed or feeling slow; it'll just be the two of you. You share the secrets of your soul when you're walking or running together.
I also think it's important to have some kind of goal. I hate the goal to lose 3kgs, though. I don't like people thinking they have to give up something or lose something. I like the thought that they'll gain something [through exercise], so maybe choose a local 5K that you can walk or jog. Most everyone could probably go out and walk a 5K right now in an hour. If you're thinking, 'I couldn't possibly!' I say, I've seen you shopping!
I think women in particular need to be convinced that they deserve to have that time for themselves. They come up with every excuse: The house, the kids, the dishes, even the dog deserves attention before they themselves deserve attention. You can just say it'll wait and go out alone for 10 minutes! It'll be worth it even if it really is only 10 minutes. And usually when you're out for 10 minutes, you take 20!
Also, for older runners, don't make too much of a fuss of it. You don't have to completely change your clothes and get into special gear. Get the shoes on and go out in what you have on. Just move.
PVN: Do you think being so active has helped you avoid aches and pains and illnesses often associated with ageing?
KS: Well, maybe I've been lucky, but I honestly think that running for me has been like a magic pill. I think about why I don't get as sick as most people or why I have a higher energy level—I think there are real physiological reasons. When you run every day—or every other day, as I do now—you're pushing your body. You're sweating all the time. You relieve stress, which I think helps prevent [illness]. You increase your optimism and optimistic people have healthier lives. You keep your muscles strong, and when you raise your heart rate, which is a muscle, you prevent cardiovascular disease. I don't take any drugs except eye drops. Do I occasionally get something like a cold? Sure. But I think running is a magic potion. I think exercise is a magic potion.
PVN: Have you ever gone for a run and wished you'd just stayed on the couch?
KS: I think in probably 55 or 56 years of running I've had maybe three runs where I didn't feel better when I came back than when I went out. I can tell you about thousands of times when I didn't want to run and I did and I came back saying I'm glad I did that. Except for those three times, there hasn't been a crummy day that hasn't been made OK by a run.