By Kelly Parsons
Mandy Murphy was en route to Charlotte to run a marathon in 1999 when she turned on her radio and heard Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker on NPR. For the rest of the trip, Murphy couldn’t get Barker and the organization — a nonprofit started three years prior to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident through the sport of running — out of her head.
“I just was completely struck at that moment. I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing concept,’” said Murphy, a Durham native. “I spent the whole time I was running a marathon thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how can I get to a computer quickly enough to learn more about what this program is?’”
During that next year, Murphy looked into starting her own chapter of Girls on the Run in the triangle. She researched the organization and met with Barker. Murphy worked in the corporate sector and was her family’s breadwinner at the time, but three weeks into the process her company folded.
In 2000, Girls on the Run of the Triangle was born — an anniversary the organization is celebrating this weekend with two days of events.
On Saturday, Nov. 12, Girls on the Run of the Triangle will host the Sweet 16 Black Tie Dinner Gala at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, a sold-out event that will feature keynote speaker Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967. The next day, Switzer will be involved in a Community Walk and Talk at the Frontier at Research Triangle Park, where Switzer will be available for book signings and photo opportunities.
The planning of the celebrations began a year and a half ago, Girls on the Run of the Triangle executive director Juliellen Simpson-Vos said, based on the idea that 16 is a big milestone in the lives of young women.
“When you’re 16 you’re coming of age. You have a better sense of who you are and who you can be, but you’re not exactly there just yet,” Simpson-Vos said. “It’s a celebration of all the brimming potential, but also being able to celebrate things you’ve accomplished up to this point.”
And Switzer, Simpson-Vos and Murphy agree, is the perfect speaker to usher the organization into its next era.
Switzer was a 19-year-old journalism student at Syracuse University in 1966 when she first decided to run the Boston Marathon, an idea she got from her 50-year-old university mailman running partner who often regaled her with stories of the 15 Boston Marathons he had run in his life. The year before, a woman had competed in the famous race after jumping out of the bushes on the course, but no woman had ever officially run the Boston Marathon.
Switzer trained, and her running partner turned coach agreed to take her. After looking through the race rule book, he insisted, though, that she register for the event. She signed up using her initials, K.V. Switzer.
“I was in a baggy gray sweatsuit like all the guys were. We all looked alike from a distance,” Switzer remembered about that snowy April day in 1967. “All the men knew immediately I was a woman, and they thought it was wonderful. They said, ‘Go for it! We’re really with you.’”
But not everyone was.
Around mile two, the race director jumped off the press truck and attacked Switzer, she said, trying to pull off her bib number and push her off the course. Switzer’s boyfriend, who was running beside her, pushed him away, a scene depicted in now-famous black-and-white photos taken by the Boston Herald.
“It was a radicalizing experience. I wasn’t in the race to prove anything, but suddenly I had to prove everything,” Switzer said. “I had to finish. I knew if I didn’t finish, people would say I was just there for publicity or being a clown or a fool, and they wouldn’t take women seriously. So I had to finish.”
She did, with a time of 4 hours and 20 minutes, and the experience, she said, changed her life forever.
Switzer went on to make a career in sports marketing and journalism. She’s organized 400 races in 27 countries, and she was instrumental in convincing the International Olympic Committee to add the women’s marathon to the Olympic Games in 1984. For decades Switzer has broadcast marathons, including the famous races in Boston, New York and the Olympics.
She’s also an author and an athlete, having run a total of 39 marathons. Switzer will run her 40th, the Boston Marathon, on April 17, 2017, the 50th anniversary of the race. She’ll do so with 100 other women beside her, raising money for her foundation, 261 Fearless.
But before then, Switzer, who splits her time living in New Zealand and the Hudson Valley in New York, is looking forward to sharing her message with Girls on the Run of the Triangle, an organization she feels embodies the kind of lifelong lessons she learned through running.
“When I go out to see them in their school or training sessions, they’re so free, they’re so spontaneous, they’re so happy and they’re so non-judgemental,” Switzer said of the Girls on the Run participants. “I often think, ‘God, if I had Girls on the Run (when I was a kid), I’d be president of the United States right now.’”
And that’s just the kind of feeling Murphy, who now works for Girls on the Run International as the director of professional development, wants to convey to the participants of the now 16-year-old organization, one that will continue to reach girls around the Triangle long after its upcoming birthday party ends.
“I love that (Switzer) listened to that voice and she had determination and she wouldn’t let the world stop her,” Murphy said. “So the nugget is, when that voice speaks, listen and act.”