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The Fearless Kathrine Switzer

Running legend Katherine Switzer continues to inspire women of all ages and get more women running through her organization 261 Fearless

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“I’m wearing 261 on my back. It makes me feel fearless!”

Kathrine Switzer is the marathon legend who wore that number in 1967 as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, despite an official’s efforts to pull her off the course. Now she repeats the words in quotes above, the words of many women today who wear their appointed race bibs as well as a second bib on their backs with her number.

“This isn’t something I did,” she says. “This is something that came over the transom.”

However unintentional it was, Switzer, 76, has become a hero. Over the past decade, she’s taken further steps to solidify her place in the present—not simply in history. She describes her overall mission: “empowerment of the female runner.”

We caught up with Switzer in San Diego back in 2015 at the Girls on the Run Summit. The nonprofit pair girls with volunteers to train for a 5K. After her keynote speech, Switzer was abuzz with energy. She makes a handful of speeches a year, but usually it’s for a business like Morgan Stanley. This speech was different because her audience—more than 400 women from around the country—has a shared mission of empowerment.

Switzer says she was surprised when she first started hearing about women wearing 261 in races and seeing photos on the web. She says she thought, “It’s wonderful and kinda creepy. It’s the Internet.”

Then she started seeing tattoos! That’s when she realized how strongly women can relate to her story. For the record, she doesn’t have a 261 tattoo, but she’d like to get one.

Switzer transformed the 261 symbol into a full-fledged movement inspiring women to live fulfilling lives through running. In 2015, she and CEO and President Edith Zuschmann established 261 Fearless, a global nonprofit organization of running clubs dedicated to helping women of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds to uncover their self-worth and potential through running.

“I discovered early that running always made me feel powerful, free, and fearless,” says Switzer. “261 Fearless uses running as a vehicle to empower and unite women globally through the creation of communication platforms, clubs, training opportunities, ambassadors, merchandising, and events.”

261 Fearless’ Work

261 Fearless helps grow safe, supportive running communities for women by providing:

  • Local 261 Running Clubs in 12 countries on five continents offer non-competitive, non-judgmental, women-only spaces for members to take their first running steps and start enjoying outdoor activities.
  • 261 Business Training provides one-on-one education and mentoring to women looking to establish their own nonprofit local 261 club.
  • Year-round Coach Education Programs educate women on topics like proper running techniques, injury prevention, and leadership skills like effective communication, mentoring, and differentiation. Coaches then lead 261 Clubs on weekly outdoor runs.

Switzer splits her time between New York and New Zealand, where her husband, the runner and writer Roger Robinson, is from, so it’s relatively easy for her to travel the world. She has a specific interest in helping women in North Africa and the Middle East, and she has been assembling a team to work with her—one person in Austria, another in Boulder, Colo.—so her efforts can extend all over the globe.

“We can do whatever we want,” Switzer says fearlessly.

What Makes Her Tick

To end our interview, Switzer indulged us with a little more insight into the marathoner’s life:

What was your first sports bra?
I designed it with Lily of France. Before that she hadn’t worn a sports bra, but she helped the company to come up with a non-chafing, comfortable design. With the $5,000 she received, she bought a Mazda sports car.

What did you eat for dinner last night?
I had a Tuscan pizza in my room—it had arugula and sun-dried tomatoes—and a glass of skim milk.

Do you drink milk a lot?
Yes. It’s my secret weapon. (She’s had two running injuries—the current sore Achilles after stepping in a hole and a back injury after a long plane ride—and she started running at 12, so she credits milk for her strong bones and constitution.)

What’s one thing people wouldn’t know about you?
I really love sitting in bed in the morning with a cup of tea. (Her husband indulges this habit, as Switzer has reached a point that she no longer does early morning runs and prefers to stick to daylight hours.)