Team 261 Fearless groups up for a photo before the 2017 Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer is seated in front in the gray sweatsuit on the left with the #261 race number. Pat is a couple of rows from the back wearing sunglasses in front of the gold balloons. Horst Von Bohlen photo
Iconic Boston Marathon group works for opportunity
Running with Dan Woll
When Pat Murphy of Herbster, Wis., toed the starting line at the 2017 Boston Marathon, she was not alone. Murphy is a member of Team 261 Fearless. Joining her were 108 other members from 20 countries. Team 261 is a global community of women founded by Katherine Switzer, who is the first woman to officially enter and finish the Boston Marathon. Team 261 members help one another find strength, confidence, solace and freedom in running and walking. Their distinctive maroon T-shirts printed with bib number 261 – the number Switzer wore in the 1967 marathon – drew encouraging cheers all along the difficult Boston course.
That’s not how it was in the beginning of women’s distance running.
In 1966, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon, but she did it without entering. Gibb hid in the bushes at the start and ran without a number because women were not allowed to participate. Asked why she insisted on trying to run, she told her mother, “This is going to help set women free.” Her father told her she was delusional. Gibbs’s accomplishment didn’t officially count and is still not widely known, even though her time of 3:21 was remarkable.
The beginning of 261
One person who did notice was Katherine Switzer, a student at Syracuse. Switzer told her coach about Gibb. She also wanted to run Boston. He answered, “No dame ever ran no marathon.” She asked him to accompany her on a long training run. Thirty-one miles later he passed out. Chastened, he relented and coached her. Switzer recalls that from that point on, “He was like an evangelist and helped me sign up.”
The following spring, Switzer did what she said. She filled out an entry using her professional signature of K. Switzer and was assigned number 261. That was the easy part. During the race, her boyfriend had to body block race organizer Jock Semple off the course when he tried to grab Switzer’s number 261, a scene recorded in perhaps the most famous marathon photo of all time. Switzer and Semple eventually became friends. Semple ultimately became a staunch supporter of the women of the Boston Marathon.
From left, Pat, Kathrine Switzer and Pat’s daughter Anne Koenning meet for a photo op at the 261 Fearless pasta party, the night before the race. Keith Koenning photo
Looking back, Switzer now states, “What was a dramatic incident 50 years ago became instead a defining moment for me and women runners. The result is nothing less than a global social revolution; there are now more women runners in the United States than men, and these women are both fearless and compassionate, wanting to help other women around the world achieve their goals.” Switzer, now 70, ran this year and Bobbi Gibb, the woman who had to hide in the bushes, was named the Grand Marshal of the race. Switzer and Gibb are friends to this day, and share a mutual pride as Boston finally celebrated their contributions to the history of the oldest marathon in America.
After her groundbreaking run at Boston, Switzer became very involved in organizing womens’ running events globally. She helped lead the campaign that led to the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics. Bobbi Gibb was asked to sculpt the trophies for the top three women finishers for that dramatic Olympic trials marathon won by Joan Benoit, only seventeen days after she underwent knee surgery.
One of the many women who followed in their footsteps is 62-year-old Pat Murphy. No one tried to shove Pat off the course, nor did she did have to hide in the bushes at the start, but Pat faced her own challenges getting to the starting line. Troubled throughout her life by chronic bronchitis, asthma and related problems, Pat turned to running in her fifties. As her stamina and strength developed, her respiratory ills eased to the point where she began considering a marathon. Encouraged by her husband, Keith Koenning, she became a strong runner at distances up to 10K. As her age group medals began to accumulate, she raised her goals and in 2010 completed her first marathon. She’s been on the run ever since and has completed 28 marathons in 16 states, Ireland and Spain, with an impressive best of 3:49.
Medals are not what drives Pat. She runs for the fun of it, but also to encourage other women. She has a self-effacing slogan for them, “If I can do it, you can do it!” Call it Murphy’s Law. To this end she is a volunteer ambassador in Switzer’s 261 Fearless. She does not want other women to be driven away from the sport as she was in her youth, when it was believed that running was harmful for women.
Pat meets up with daughter Anne Koenning in the family waiting area after the 2017 Boston Marathon, sporting her finisher’s bling. Keith Koenning photo
Running on the lovely roads of the South Shore of Lake Superior can be tough. She is used to putting up with high winds, snow, ice and mud, as she piles up 35-45 miles a week on the hills of Bayfield County. That training stood her in good stead this year as she ran a solid 3:58 in the Boston heat, holding a steady pace even over Heartbreak Hill.
A dark day
Running has brought Pat much joy but one race is an exception. After a difficult marathon in 2012 due to injuries and hot weather, she was thrilled to return to Boston in 2013. Her fitness may have saved her life. She ran faster than she anticipated, but her satisfaction at the finish turned to shock and horror when the explosions shattered the lives of so many. Had she run the slightly slower time she projected, the bombs might have claimed her own life.
She recalls smoke, panic, people running and confusion. Then there were sirens and rescue vehicles threading their way through the crowded street. Pat found her way to the family meeting area and waited, not knowing that it would be almost two hours before her husband could reach her. Meanwhile, her son – who was watching on the course – walked to his Boston home, unable to do anything but wait. By the time her husband reached her, she was chilled to the bone.
George Sheehan, who inspired runners in the glory years of American marathoning wrote, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” That runners’ code may be how Pat and others found the strength to go back to Boston the next year. Like many other runners, she had mixed feelings about returning, but the Boston Strong spirit energized her. She returned and ran a race that still gives her chills when she remembers the outpouring of love and support from the huge crowds lining the course shouting, “Thank you for running!” Soon she was yelling back, “Thank you for being here!”
Pat Murphy hands off some extra clothing to her husband, Keith Koenning, in the 2016 Chicago Marathon. Keith Koenning photo
Different whirls for different girls
Women distance runners come in all shapes and sizes. Gibb started out in the field of neurosurgery, then practiced law and is now a well regarded sculptor. Switzer began as a journalist and is now an activist and an organizer. Pat Murphy is a retired history museum director who remains active in the field. And then there is Peg Stafford of Madison, a retired lawyer and current rock climber, one of the few Midwest women to ascend the famed Northwest Wall of Yosemite’s Half Dome. Now nearing 70, Peg was the winner of one of the first Stoughton Syttende Mai 20-mile runs and ran a 3:20 at Boston a few years after Switzer and Gibbs’ groundbreaking efforts.
As a female runner, she was in the distinct minority in those days. With more yesterdays than tomorrows, her memories of running are special to her. Asked about this story, she also admires Switzer and Gibb and agrees wholeheartedly with Murphy’s views, which remind her of her own struggles and milestones. Stafford remembers being caught on an 11,000-foot pass in a snowstorm at night in the grueling Leadville 100 Ultramarathon. She had neglected to put on warm clothes at dusk. She and her pacer were alone in the mountains. At the Mile 87 aid station, she collapsed for an hour. Eventually, she got up, put on clothes and finished. She says today, “Nothing since has ever seemed quite as bad, which is actually what I learned from ultra running. I think it helps me in life.”
Boston Marathon icon Amby Burfoot, wrote an important book called “First Ladies of Running,” which profiles some of the key women in distance running. His words describe Kathy Switzer and Bobbi Gibb, as well as Pat Murphy, Peg Stafford and all the other women who have followed their dreams on the road.
“They just proved that they’re all unique and wonderful and there are different ways to get to the finish line.”
In the early 80s, Pat Murphy watched part of an early Twin Cities Marathon from the side of the road. She thought odd almost no women ran the course, and imagined running a marathon would be great thing to try to do “someday,” having no idea what it entailed. She was discouraged from getting serious about running for years by work and family commitments and such comments as women were not suited for long distance running, it would hurt their internal organs, or worse. “Someday” did not come for several decades.
Pat began running in her 50s and it helped her develop healthier lungs after many years of chronic bronchitis and C.O.P.D., along with too many inhalers and doctor’s visits. She had seen her parents’ health decline and decided it was high time for her to become more active and get healthy.
Pat entered her first marathon – the Towpath Marathon near Cleveland in 2010 – after going to the expo the day before and finding they had one bib left. She first qualified to run the Boston Marathon at her second marathon – Grandma’s in Duluth – and she has now run both Grandma’s and Boston four times. In Pat’s first Boston Marathon, in 2012, she was hampered both by torn hamstrings and high heat. In her second, in 2013, she had the good fortune of running part of the course behind NPR radio personality and Runners World columnist Peter Sagal, who was guiding a blind runner. More importantly, she finished several minutes ahead of her goal time, but only two minutes before the first bomb went off. She returned to Boston again in 2014 and 2017.
Pat’s most fun race was on Mother’s Day in 2015, when her two children each ran their first half-marathon with her in Fargo, ND. The three of them finished hand-in-hand.
Pat lines up for one of her first races ever, the 2008 Herbster Bark Point 10K. Keith Koenning photo
Pat is grateful for the support of her workout buddies, including Brenda Goetz, of Orienta, and Gina McCafferty, of Cornucopia.
More information about Team 261 Fearless and how to join Pat Murphy in supporting the cause is at 261® Fearless.