When Bobbi Gibb Crashed the Boston Marathon and Blazed a Trail For Women

Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb had to sneak onto the Boston Marathon course in 1966, becoming the first woman to run the historic race. "But how can we prove that we can do something if we are not allowed to do it?" she says today.
April 14, 2016, 5:32pm
Photo: YouTube

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Dressed in her brother's hooded sweatshirt and Bermuda shorts to disguise her femininity, Roberta Gibb hid in a forsythia bush on Hopkinton Street near the start line of the Boston Marathon. After the race started, and half of the men had ran by, she crawled out of her hiding spot and joined the pack. It was April 19, 1966, and she was a woman running a men's race.

"I thought I might get arrested or they would throw me out," Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb said, now 73. "But how can we prove that we can do something if we are not allowed to do it?"

When she crossed the finish line three hours and twenty-one minutes later, Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She was 23. This year when the Boston Marathon celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gibb's historic run, more than 14,000 women will toe the line. Most of them will have never known a time when they weren't officially allowed to run the world's oldest marathon.

Read More: Running to Narnia: The Quest for the Two-Hour Marathon

"It's unbelievable that I have competed in a professional sport for twenty years and have only known equality," says Deena Kastor, a three-time Olympian and the American record holder in the marathon. "I am eternally grateful for the courage of Roberta to step into the unknown for the sake of pursuing her passion. She is a superhero, a pioneer, and the leader of our sport."

Nobody thinks twice about women running a marathon today. Photo by Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Things were different in the 1960s. Women generally didn't run in public, and when they did, it was for short distances. In 1966, the longest women's race sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was 1.5 miles. In the Olympics, the cutoff point for women was even shorter: 800 meters.

But Gibb liked to run, going on jogs with the neighborhood dogs in the woods near her parents' home outside of Boston. In school, she was studying mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and when she ran she thought about atoms and molecules. She felt connected to nature, and free of stereotypes and social pressure. For Gibb, running was living—it was a spiritual journey of mind and body. She felt like a goddess.

Gibb didn't know anything about sports or competitive running, but in 1964 she watched the Boston Marathon with her dad. "When I first saw the marathon, I fell in love," Gibb said. The marathon was, in her eyes, a beautiful celebration of life. "I wasn't thinking whether it was men or women. I just fell in love—I knew it was my destiny. I never questioned that even though it was completely outside of the social norm."

An injury kept her from trying to enter the marathon in 1965, but the following year Gibb, now living in San Diego, had logged the miles and felt ready for a marathon. She wrote to the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), which organized the race, requesting an application for an official entry. Her excitement quickly turned to frustration when she received a letter back saying that her application had been denied. Women are physiologically incapable of running a marathon, the letter said, and they are not allowed to enter a men's division race.

Gibb was furious. She'd trained for two years and knew she was capable of covering the distance. Suddenly, the marathon became an opportunity to make a statement.

"My hope was that if I can run this race and run it well that it would change the way people thought about women and it would totally demolish all of the social stereotypes," Gibb said. "And it would open up the bigger question of what else can women do."

The 19th Amendment had guaranteed women the right to vote in 1919, but little else had changed between the sexes by the spring of 1966. The National Organization for Women wouldn't be founded until that summer with the stated purpose of fighting for full social equality and partnership between men and women. For the moment, though, women were considered weak, silly, and inconsequential, Gibb says. If they worked, most were secretaries or homeworkers. When Gibb went for an interview for medical school, she says she was told that she was too pretty and she would distract the boys. Women were expected to get married and have children. They certainly weren't expected to run marathons.

Despite knowing that she was not welcome as an official entrant, Gibb boarded a bus in San Diego a few days before the race and rode across the country for three days and four nights before arriving in Boston on April 18, the day before the race. Her dad was angry about her plan to run the marathon; he thought she was delusional and might hurt herself. Her mom fed her roast beef for dinner and agreed to drive her to the start line in the morning.

"I told her that I was going to help set women free," Gibb said. "That really hit home with her because she was a beautiful, intelligent, talented woman who never actualized or reached her potential."

Gibb didn't know what to expect when she joined more than 500 men running the marathon that day. While the course was on a public road, she knew she was doing something that wasn't allowed and was worried she'd be thrown out, arrested, or worse. But she quickly found that the men who ran beside her were welcoming and encouraging.

"I always make the joke that I was a skinny, nerdy, kid who couldn't get a date to save my life—of course men wanted women in the race," said Ambrose "Amby" Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon Champion and author of First Ladies of Running. "(Runners) were a tiny minority then. We wanted anything that would help grow our sport and make us seem a little bit less like weirdos."

The men were happy to share the experience and camaraderie with anyone, man or woman. They told Gibb that they wished their wives and sisters ran. Gibb was worried that taking off her sweatshirt would expose her as a woman, but she was getting hot running in the midday sun. The men supported her and vowed to protect her.

In the 1960s, there was no such thing as a sports bra. Gibb tried wrapping an ACE bandage around her chest and that didn't work, so she wore a tank top bathing suit while running. When she discarded the sweatshirt, word quickly traveled that a woman was running the marathon.

With every step Gibb got closer to the finish line on Boylston Street, but her feet grew increasingly painful. Most of her training took place on trails in a pair of sturdy nurses shoes. She'd never run on pavement before and she was wearing a brand new pair of boy's sneakers with thin soles. Gibb had no clue that it was a bad idea to wear a new pair in a race, and her feet were horrendously blistered. Her pace slowed, but walking or dropping out was not an option.

"I knew I had to finish," Gibb said. "I had all this responsibility. I'd come to demonstrate that women could run, but if I failed to finish I'd set women back fifty years."

She was on a sub-three hour pace, but in the last few miles Gibb practically tiptoed to the finish line. Her feet were bleeding. The press was waiting.

"It was exactly what I wanted," Gibb said. She finished ahead of two-thirds of the men.

The next day, the Boston Globe page two headline read, "Girl Finishes Marathon." The article refers to Gibb as a "23-year-old-petit blonde" and a "pretty Tufts grad" who, after jumping out of her hiding spot in the bushes, "took off in pursuit of the men."

Gibb's race made news around the country, but she was treated more like a novelty than a serious athlete. A newspaper photographer who visited her parent's home asked her to put on a dress.

"I had to prove that I was a real woman by putting on my polka-dotted dress and making fudge in the kitchen," Gibb said. "It was hard for people to juxtapose the stereotype of a woman baking in the kitchen with the image of a woman running strong and free. People couldn't get their minds around it."

The May 2, 1966, issue of Sports Illustrated reported: "Boston was unprepared for the shapely blonde housewife who came out of the bushes to crush male egos."

"Even if she fails to convince a single housewife that she is as capable as her husband of spading up the garden," Gwilym S. Brown wrote, "the performance should do much to phase out the old-fashioned notion that a female is too frail for distance running."

Marathon organizers weren't persuaded, however. "Mrs. Bingay did not run in the Boston Marathon," Will Cloney, the marathon director, told SI after the race. "She merely covered the same route as the official race while it was in progress. No girl has ever run in the Boston Marathon."

Gibb wouldn't be deterred. She ran the marathon again in 1967 (3:27:17) and in 1968 (3:40), and each year more women ran with her. In 1967, she was joined by Katherine Switzer, who applied to the Boston Marathon using her first initial rather than her full name and received an official entry. During the marathon, a race director named Jock Semple tried to grab the official bib off Switzer as she was running. The photograph taken during his attack became an iconic symbol of the fight for women's rights in sport.

"That picture is so horrendous—Jock Semple is so outrageous and threatening-looking that the photo went around the world," Burfoot said. Indeed, some media misreported Switzer as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon when in fact Gibb ran a year earlier, and finished almost an hour ahead of Switzer.

Each year, more women ran the Boston Marathon. In 1968 and 1969, there were three women; in 1970, five; and three in 1971. It was not until 1972 that the B.A.A. declared an official women's division; 8 women entered the race. On the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon and the 30th anniversary of her first run, in 1996, Gibb was retroactively declared an official finisher and the women's champion for 1966, 1967, and 1968. Sara Mae Berman was also declared the official women's winner for 1969, 1970, and 1971; and they were each given finisher's medals.

"This sport has come so far in fifty years. We've gone from zero women in the Boston Marathon to almost fifty percent in fifty years," Burfoot said. "It was truly a sporting revolution, but it had significance way beyond running. It empowered women in a lot of ways."

In the years since the Boston Marathon, Gibb had children, became a lawyer and practiced law for 18 years before pursing a career as an artist and ALS researcher. Today she runs an hour or two every day. Olympian Joan Benoit Samuelson and 11 other Boston Marathon champions have joined forces to fundraise for a bronze sculpture that Gibb will create of herself to be placed on the course. She was recently honored by the Massachusetts State Senate and will be the Grand Marshal at the 120th running of the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 18, 2016.

Gibb's first marathon in 1966 was her fastest recorded time, and today her 3:20-marathon best is well under the highly coveted Boston Qualifying time standard. Knowing that finishing was most important, Gibb ran conservatively. Sometimes she wonders how fast she might have run if she was pushing herself, but time was irrelevant. Like most runners today, Gibb simply ran for the pure and simple joy of it. She loved the experience and the camaraderie, and the opportunity to test herself over 26 miles and 385 yards.