Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Interview with Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson

I was recently given the extraordinary opportunity to interview two legendary runners - Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson. Switzer and Robinson will be in Richmond for a speaking engagement that benefits the Massey Cancer Center just as thousands of runners descend upon the city for the Richmond Marathon, half marathon, and 8k.

If you've arrived here via link from the article that appeared on RVAnews.com - welcome! Here you will find more of my conversation with Kathrine and Roger, most of it very run-nerd in nature, which I thought would probably not be of much interest to anyone other than us runners. You know what happens when a bunch of runners start talking... they talk about running. A lot. And also food.

What follows is a transcript of the parts of our conversation that didn't make it into the article (with minor editing). Enjoy.

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During her training and in the starting corral, Kathrine had found that most of the men she encountered were encouraging and supportive of her. It made me wonder why Jock Semple had been so angry when he saw her that he wanted to physically attack her - and if the fact that Roberta Gibb had jumped into the race and completed the marathon unofficially the year before perhaps had him on edge.

Kathrine Switzer: Yes - a woman had run the year before but he didn't make any big deal about it. He said to the media afterwards, "no girl ran the Boston marathon - she just happened to come into the event along the course at the same time."

He was furious with me because - it was a sweet reason and I forgave him right away - well, not right away. It took me 20 miles to get over it, but I forgive him  because first of all, he's an overworked race director. The weather was bad and miserable, he was tired, and he was a great protector of this race. He was the guy who saved the race during World War II and the Depression. He kept it going, kind of single handedly. So when people were jumping into the race - drunk college students who would try to run with the leaders as long as they could, it just infuriated him. He hated clowns. The Boston Marathon was a serious race and he thought I was making a mockery of his race and of him personally. He thought I had gotten a bib number through subterfuge because I had signed my name with my initials.

Roger Robinson: In defense of Jock Semple, he came from a very tough background of extreme poverty. He was a small man who grew up in Glasgow [Scotland] schools. Glasgow was one of the toughest cities in the world. He would have had to defend himself and so his well known short fuse is something that goes back to his origins. The Boston Marathon was so important to him... he defended it and saved it when the Boston Athletic Association wanted to let the race go. So I often say in many ways, that Jock Semple deserves to go down in history as a hero of the Boston Marathon and it's unfortunate that his short fuse made him the villain.

In 1967, Kathrine's boyfriend broke up the attack by tackling Jock Semple. I couldn't resist asking Roger what he would have done if he had been running with Kathrine that day.

Robinson: (laughing) Oh this is a bad joke. Of course her boyfriend at the time was over six feet tall and a top football player and a hammer thrower. I am not of that physical stance. When Kathrine and I made our prenuptial agreement, one of the agreements was that if she ever gets physically attacked by a bad-tempered Scotsman, I'll try to talk him out of it instead. But I do like it when some journalists think that it was me who flattened Jock Semple.

When I took up running and 3 years ago decided to attempt my first marathon, it never occurred to me for a second that I wouldn't be prevented from doing so because of my gender - thanks, of course, to the efforts of Kathrine Switzer and many others who came before me.  I was aware that women were discouraged from intense sports like distance running, but I never thought about it much. I was curious as to whether or not Kathrine saw that as a good thing.

Switzer: Absolutely. I don't think that any mother wants to hammer into her daughter's brain that "you owe me a favor and you should remember all the difficulties we had, oh poor us, etc." We want them to go ahead and enjoy the freedom - the limitless and the empowerment. I love it when a mother comes by my booth at an expo and there's the poster of the photograph and the mother explains to her little daughter, "See, that man is trying to throw her out of the race because she's a girl." And the little girl will look at the picture and then look at her mother and say, "Why?"

That's what it's all about. she doesn't have to have any doubt.

One of the themes that popped up many times in our conversation was opportunity - and in particular, equality through opportunity.

Robinson: We feel very strongly that the way forward for the world is through equality of opportunity. If everybody has the opportunity, if there are no closed doors, then the world will keep getting better. Just don't close doors on people and talent will come through.

Switzer: I've often said that is one of my mantras: talent is everywhere, it only needs an opportunity.

Robinson: Look at the African runners. Here are people that come from total poverty, but because they are good at running, they become global figures. Within two or three years, they're holding press conversations in English and sometimes in French and Italian as well. They are incredibly smart people ... they're emerging because they're good at running, but then their other talents begin to show through.

During their visit to Richmond, Roger will address the runners at the Sports Backers' Marathon Training Team pasta party on Thursday night. Many first time marathoners will be there, so I asked both Roger and Kathrine what their number one piece of advice is for marathoners.

Robinson: It's always the same - especially to the men - go out slow. They always go out too fast and they say, "It felt so easy!" But then of course they get to 15 or 20 miles and they fall over. So always go out slow. Always aim to run negative splits. It's always my advice and people always ignore it and that's why I keep beating them.

Pullam: Well, we are boneheads - we're runners - that's what we do right? Ignore advice?

Switzer: My tip for the marathon and for any runner is that the night before the race, make sure you have a plan for exactly where you are going and how you are going to get to the race. Are you going to drive, take public transport? Make sure you get there an hour ahead of time because it will be chaotic and more difficult than you ever imagined. You don't want to get rattled. Get your number pinned to your shirt, get everything laid out. Get to the race early, use the bathroom, stretch. And remember that once the gun goes off, you won't be nervous anymore. It'll go away and you'll be fine.

On to the other truly important topic for runners - food. I wanted to know what Kathrine and Roger's favorite post-run indulgence is.

Switzer: For me it's a really good cold craft beer!

Pullam: We have a lot of that in Richmond! How about you Roger?

Robinson: Similar - a good meal and a good half bottle of wine. A large steak of something. You know you've hit on something - in a way, what you're saying is that being a runner enables you to live life fully and with relish.

Pullam: It really does, doesn't it?

Robinson: Yes! Runners really enjoy themselves in all aspects of life. I think it's a really significant thing!

Robinson and Switzer spend half of their year in New Zealand, so while we were on the topic of food, I couldn't resist a plug for one of my favorite restaurants in Richmond - Proper Pie - which of course is owned and operated by resident Kiwi Neil Smith. So Neil, be on the look out!

As a runner who qualified for Boston this year but did not make the cut off time, I wanted to ask these elite runners their thoughts on Boston's qualification system and whether or not the BAA should adjust the standards.

Switzer: Roger is more versed on this than I am and I agree with his totally, so I'll let him take this one.

Robinson: I'm not extremely well versed, but I'm involved to the extent that I'm coaching and advising a friend who started running at 64. He's now 68 and would like to qualify for Boston, so I'm close to the issue. He'll be 70 in 2017 and I believe his qualifying time is 4:20 or something close to that. I've told him we're going for a 4:05. He's got to get in on the first wave [of registration]. We aren't going into the situation that you just suffered. I don't want to criticize Boston, but I do think they should consider making the standards tougher. It would be better than letting people think they've qualified and then rejecting them.

Boston is in a difficult position and they're handling it as well as they can. The running scene is changing so much and so fast that it is hard to keep up. It's taking a lot of work from the people involved to keep ahead of the trends. It's exciting and wonderful that this is happening because it's great for the sport, but it does create some problems.

Speaking of things changing so quickly, I wanted to get Roger's take on some current running trends - the craze for minimalist shoes and then the response to that craze, the ultra cushioned shoe.

Robinson: There always have been these kinds of trends. One that has disappeared is the whole notion that you will go stale if you do too much training. And then there was the notion of "style." Back in the beginning of the 20th century, you'll see pictures of runners all prancing along with perfect arm position, which was very important. Then that passed out because of runners like Paula Radcliffe and Alberto Salazar. Now it's back again and Salazar, who was one of the ugliest runners in history - is now fussing about what they now call "form."

Another one is stretching. In the 70s and 80s, everybody believed in stretching before the race. You'd see everyone lined up along the fence, stretching their calves and quads. Now it's gone to skipping about and loosening up to make sure everything is warm. They call it "dynamic stretching" - a fancy name  for what we always did before static stretching became the rage.

I'm about to try a fad that I'm sure I'll reject. My friend has just given me two pairs of compression shorts. I hate the idea. I bet compression is out in 10 years time. (laughs)

I had one last question for Kathrine - I couldn't help myself, I had to ask her what she thinks of running apparel brands like Lululemon and Athleta, which make it seem like planning our race day outfit is as important as the race itself. I'm one who falls into this camp. I'm guilty of carefully planning my ensemble. In many of the interviews that I read in preparation for this one, Kathrine likes to point out that she was wearing a sweatsuit that day in Boston, but that she wore lipstick too, so I thought she might have a strong feeling one way or the other.

Switzer: That's actually very important! Under that sweatshirt, I had on really cute shorts and a top. I have always been proud of being a woman and looking great. I was very disappointed that I couldn't off that sweatshirt that day. When I run alone and train I just wear sloppy gear, but on race day I love dressing the part. I like looking good and I think clothing helps a lot of women feel strong and gives them sassiness. 261 Fearless (Kathrine's new non-profit) has a line of clothing with Skirt Sports and in fact, I run in skirts all the time.

Now I feel justified in my carefully choreographed race day outfits and my ridiculous collection of running clothes. Thanks for that, Kathrine!

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Kathrine and Roger were wonderful to interview - kind, gracious, funny, and extremely patient with a novice "reporter" such as myself. I highly encourage anyone who is in Richmond to take advantage of the opportunity to meet them while they are here.

Thursday, November 12th - Roger Robinson will address the Sports Backers' MTT Training Team at the Team's traditional Pasta Dinner.

Friday, November 13th - Kathrine Switzer will be at the Massey Cancer Center booth at the Richmond Marathon Expo on from 11 am to 3pm. The Expo is held at the Arthur Ashe Center
 at 3001A North Boulevard, Richmond, VA

At 6 pm on Friday evening, Kathrine and Roger are giving a talk whose proceeds benefit the Massey Cancer Center. Details and tickets available here: https://www.support.vcu.edu/event/switzer

Saturday, November 14th - Roger Robinson is running the HCA VA 8k. Kathrin and Roger will both be in the VIP starting area. VIP Premium Packages are still available at http://www.richmondmarathon.com/race-details/run-richmond-premium-package.aspx

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