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Women's History Month Lesson: Your Place in the Race

Sarah Edson


Women's History Month Lesson: Your Place in the RaceA race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding ~ Steve Prefontaine

As educators, we often try to teach our students more than just facts and formulas. Being an avid female runner, there is a certain historical story which holds great meaning to me and teaches a lesson that cannot be graded through any test or quiz. Not only  have I found personal inspiration from it, but I also found it has great ties to the classroom.

It wasn't that long ago that women were denied entry into distance running races. Despite records of women having completed marathons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prior to 1968 women were not allowed to compete. Many believed that females simply weren't fit for such athletic feats. And so, decade after decade, officials declared that women had no place in the race.

This didn't stop women from running, of course. There's an almost primal drive that compels some humans to move, to push, and to explore. Despite my love for my comfy chair, blankets, and lap dog, I feel that drive. I run to think, to quiet my thinking, to let out stress, to see the world, to appreciate nature, to feel alive. I race myself, I cheer on others, and I love going further than I've ever gone before. I simply can't fathom being told I'm not cut out for the challenge.

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The Changed Race

Just nine years before I was born, a determined young woman decided to show the world that despite policy, her place was not on the sidelines. On April 19, 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the all-male Boston Marathon, having signed up with just her initials. That cold, rainy morning, with three male friends at her side and significant training under her belt, she stepped onto the starting line. Off they went. Word spread quickly that a woman had infiltrated, and though fellow runners supported her effort, race director Jock Semple made it his goal to remove her.

Several miles into the race, having caught up on a truck, Semple lunged for Switzer, attempting to pull her off the course and yelling, "Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number." Fortunately, two things occurred: Switzer's friends sprang into action, and a photographer captured the scene. While one of Kathrine's friends struggled to loosen Semple's grip, Kathrine's 235-pound boyfriend, Tom, channeled his inner hockey player and cross-checked the old man. Semple went flying. Momentarily concerned for his well-being, Tom looked to Kathrine and said but three words: "Run like hell." And that she did.

Women's History Month Lesson: Your Place in the Race

Boston, April 19,1967, photo courtesy of AP/Wideworld Photo via

Kathrine finished the Boston Marathon. She completed the distance in four hours and twenty minutes. And yet her finish was just the beginning. Her efforts, and the media attention from that race, helped compel the running community to officially recognize women as endurance athletes and welcome their participation. Kathrine went on to run 35 marathons, winning the women's division of New York in 1974, and achieving a personal best of 2:51 in Boston the following year. Two hours and fifty one minutes. Were I to quit my job, train full time, tie on roller skates and a jet pack, I couldn't touch that time. It's that good.

Thankfully, I've never experienced the kind of discrimination Switzer and her contemporaries did. Though a few years ago, I did encounter an older gentleman who saw me on the starting line of a long-distance winter trail race and asked me if I was in the wrong location. The short course began on the other side of the hill. I told him I was indeed in the right place and smiled quietly as I passed him at the halfway mark. He never caught up. I did applaud him as he crossed the finish line, though the hot chocolate I was holding made it difficult.

Connection to the Classroom

I share Switzer's story with my students each year, as there are too many life lessons from it not to. I ask them to ponder the courage it took Switzer and other pioneers to challenge the status quo. I ask them to think about what might have happened if the photographer had not captured the interaction between Semper, Switzer, and her peers. I ask them if such photos were captured and published today, how the Web would likely affect policy change. I ask them if anyone has ever conveyed to them, directly or indirectly, that for some event or activity, they were better suited for the sidelines.

I wish I could be there to cross-check anything that attempts to hold my students back. But I know I can't. So instead I hope to help them discover how determination, hard work, and a good team of supporters can get them through just about anything in life. And I hope they come to know that no matter what "race" their passion drives them to, nobody can tell them that they don't belong. I want every one of my students to know that from now on I've got her back, and I'll be that little voice in her heart telling her to run like hell.

What life lessons do you try to teach your students? How are your recognizing women's history month? Share in the comments section below!

Reprinted with permission from the author. Originally posted on author Sarah Edson's blog, Learning off the Beaten Path.

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