Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 12, 2019

The cloud

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… [from Hebrews 12]

In 1967 Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run officially in the Boston Marathon. Nothing in the rules prohibited a woman from running, but women’s applications were routinely rejected. An English major, Switzer admired JD Salinger, so she filled out the forms using her initials, KV Switzer. She just wanted to run a marathon. They thought she was a guy.

The day of the marathon, word spread around the course that a woman was running, and during the race she was chased down by race director Jock Semple who attempted to pull off her race bib (the paper pinned to a racer’s shirt with her entry number on it). Switzer’s boyfriend and teammate pushed Semple to the ground. Switzer was so confused and unnerved by the incident she thought about dropping out—it’s not worth it, we’re going to get arrested for hurting that man.

But then Switzer thought of the larger community of women who were not allowed to compete in sports, and decided she would run for them. If she didn’t finish this race, she reasoned, it would set women’s sports back, not forward. The community of women searching for equality was stronger than was her own desire to quit.

The photo of Jock Semple trying to physically rip off her race number went viral. Or at least as viral as things went in 1967. It was in newspapers and on the evening news all over the world. It started conversations and arguments about women competing in sports. They are special. They are fragile. They bear babies. Their bodies shouldn’t be used for such strenuous activities. Try making that case to Serena Williams, who won the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant.

A few weeks after the 1967 Boston Marathon Switzer was disqualified from the race and removed from the Amateur Athletic Union.

But the greater part of this narrative is the story of community. Community is a huge theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as in every faith of which I’m aware. Community enables us to function as healthy individuals and groups. Nearly everyone can make a list of those who have inspired, encouraged, helped, supported, loved.

The writer of Hebrews calls this a cloud of witnesses. A cloud is something we can’t touch or hold onto, but it surrounds us, envelops us.

The communities we inhabit, if they are healthy ones, give us strength to get through the difficult times. They give us hope to reach into the future. They give us life when we think we can’t go on.

Switzer’s cloud of witnesses included her teammates—all men because there were no women’s running teams. It included other runners—strangers, mostly—who encouraged her. It included people all over the world who saw those photographs and were horrified. It included those who were brave enough to speak out afterward, to change race rules, and even laws (Title IX was passed just 5 years later in 1972).

With this cloud of witnesses cheering, Switzer went on to run 39 marathons, winning the New York City marathon in 1975 and coming in second in Boston in 1976. Her cloud of witnesses even grew to include Jock Semple, the man who tried to rip off her number in the 1967 race, but who later supported her and other women athletes.

During that ‘67 race, Switzer had time to think. And her anger and determination made her decide that day, during that race, that she would work for the empowerment of women in sports and business. She went on to build a new community of support.

The number 261 (from Switzer’s 1967 race bib) became a rallying cry for the growing community, that cloud of witnesses that supported and still supports each other.

Switzer created a nonprofit for that very purpose. From the website:

“261 Fearless, Inc. is a global community of women, be they walkers, joggers, or runners, who have found strength, power and fearlessness from putting one foot in front of the other…This is a welcoming place for women who want to become runners and walkers to find their fearless selves through the connection with others. We are here because sometimes you just need to know you are not alone. ”

We are not alone. God walks with us. All the people who care about us, know us, love us anyway—they are with us. All those who inspired us but are now gone are still with us.

We reach out to encourage others. We’re encouraged by those who reach out to us. Whether we’re in a tough place or a good place, community is one of God’s designs for our spiritual, mental, and emotional health.

In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Switzer’s first marathon run, she ran again in the Boston Marathon, along with 125 runners from 261 Fearless.

When we are inspired by our cloud of witnesses, the cloud continues to grow as we, in turn, support and inspire others.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

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