Meet Tersilla Komac, Around the Bay’s answer to Kathrine Switzer

There are some interesting parallels between Komac's 1975 Around the Bay race and Kathrine Switzer's 1967 Boston debut

February 26th, 2019 by | Posted in The Scene | Tags: , , , ,

Kathrine Switzer’s story is well known: she famously ran the 1967 Boston Marathon with number 261 pinned to her sweatshirt, having registered as “K. Switzer” since women were not welcome. When the race director saw a woman on the course, he attacked her physically. But Switzer’s friends fought him off, and she finished the race with a time of 4:20. Boston changed the rules to allow women to enter in 1972. But eight years after Switzer’s crazy day in Boston, Hamilton’s Around the Bay 30K race was still closed to women, and the brave Tersilla Komac, an Italian immigrant and mother of three, pulled off her own version of Switzer’s race.

RELATED: Kathrine Switzer shares her 2018 running goal

Kathrine Switzer
Switzer after her 50th anniversary run in Boston. Photo: Canadian Running

The parallels between Switzer’s race and Komac’s at Around the Bay are not surprising, given that women wanted in on the running boom, while most races were run by men who didn’t think women were strong enough, or should be allowed, to run. But in every other respect, Komac’s story couldn’t have been more different from Switzer’s. In 1975 she was a 40-year-old immigrant from Italy, married with three young children and living on Keith Street in what is now Hamilton’s industrial north end. She’d been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, which prevented her from sleeping.

“I had to take three pills a night to sleep,” says Komac. “I started walking after my husband was home, and I saw people running.” She walked to make herself tired enough to fall asleep, and when she saw some young men running together, she eventually decided to join them–and the rest became part of the race’s storied history.

“I loved it,” Komac says, about the running. “I loved the freedom, the fresh air, the birds singing… I went by myself for a little while,” then she started training with the guys from the Y, who occasionally participated in races.

Komac (standing, second from right) with her training partners in the 1970s. Photo: courtesy of Tersilla Komac

Since women weren’t allowed to register at Around the Bay (“It was ‘no ladies allowed,'” says Komac), she simply ran without signing up. Police made her wait for a gap in the traffic, which cost her time, but she finished anyway. The following year, in an interesting repeat of Switzer’s experience, she entered as T. Komac, and covered her bib with her T-shirt, just for good measure.

“People told me, cover the number before you start,” says Komac. “If they see you’re a lady they’ll stop you, but if you start, and you have a number, they cannot stop you.”

She finished in a very respectable 2:35, but went straight home, to avoid attracting attention. Unlike Switzer, Komac wasn’t out to change the world. She had a busy family, and though she continued running, she never ran Around the Bay again. The race officially let women enter three years later, in 1979.

Tersilla Komac’s grandchildren after the 2016 Around the Bay. Photo: courtesy of Tersilla Komac

As the years went on, only a few people knew about or remembered Komac’s races, but they were enough that this year the City of Hamilton honoured her with a plaque, as described in Paul Wilson’s February 19 story in the Hamilton Spectator. Three years ago, four of Komac’s seven grandchildren raced Around the Bay in T-shirts reading Just like Nonna. “My whole family went to see them finish,” she says, obviously thrilled to be honoured by her family in this way. 

This year’s Around the Bay race takes place on March 31.