Finally honoring Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon
On a warm day in the winter of 1966, Bobbi Gibb was getting in a long run on the beach when she accidentally ran to Mexico. She was recently married to a Navy man, which brought her from her home in Massachusetts to San Diego, and to the Pacific Ocean. Running there was a new, even shocking experience for her.
"I was not a competitive runner, but I felt connected to the earth and air and sky," she says. She was fascinated with the "silvery white" of that beach after coming from the New England cold and snow. "I was completely lost in the day."
She set out at low tide. She didn't think much of it when she crossed the border because she didn't really notice -- the barbed wire didn't go that far down the beach, and she was lost in thought. That wasn't unusual for Gibb, who had previously driven cross-country in her VW bus with her malamute puppy Moot, stopping to run along the way, and to, when she could, sleep out under the stars. So to run that long, that engrossed in her mind, was normal.
On the way back, at high tide when she couldn't run along the ocean past barbed wire anymore, she noticed. United States Border patrol noticed too, and detained her. She hadn't carried ID. It wasn't until she could call family friend Ewing Mitchell -- an actor on the cowboy show "Sky King" -- to vouch for her that they let her go.
She'd run about 25 miles.
For many, straying into Mexico on a 25-mile run would be the highlight of any training done for or during a marathon.
But this happened to Bobbi Gibb in 1966. Women didn't really run then, certainly not long distances. At the time, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the national ruling body on amateur sports at the time, limited women's races to 1.5 miles. The farthest women could run in the Olympics was 800 meters.
The thought, Gibb says, was that "women are not physiologically able to run a marathon." And she wanted to change that thought. Even when the Boston Athletic Association rejected her application to run the Boston Marathon that year, she still showed up. "I realized that my run was going to be more than just my personal challenge," she says.
She dressed in a black bathing suit, her brother's Bermuda shorts and boys' running shoes. She'd clipped her hair shorter than she usually wore it, pulled it back and covered her head with a blue hoodie. She hid in the bushes, and when half the pack went by, she stepped into the race and joined them.
The rest is history. Sort of.
Gibb's story hasn't exactly been lost to time, but on the 50th anniversary of her race, she, and what she did, is still a revelation.
That's because most people will point to the following year as the one when women broke the Boston Marathon gender barrier. That's when Kathrine Switzer entered the race as KV Switzer and ran with an actual bib, and was almost pulled off the course in the process -- with cameras rolling. Gibb, who also ran that year, but with less fanfare, beat Switzer by more than an hour.
Switzer went on to start the Avon Women's International Running Circuit and push for the inclusion of the women's marathon in the Olympics, and that image of her being pulled at while running is a searing one. When I called a women's studies professor -- one based in Boston -- to talk about the significance of Gibb's run, she began speaking about Switzer. I knew almost immediately she was talking about the wrong person. It's a mistake I made in my own book.
Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and author of "The First Ladies of Running: 22 Profiles of the Rebels, Rule Breakers, and Visionaries Who Changed the Sport Forever," says Gibb is a quieter hero.
Unlike Switzer, "who has been part of the running community for so long and done so much for running," Burfoot says, "Roberta represents more typical runners. She's a private soul. She's a little bit shy."
Tom Derderian, author of "The Boston Marathon" and executive producer of "Boston," a documentary about the event, agrees with Burfoot's assessment of Gibb.
"It took an unusual woman to come to the marathon for the first time," Derderian says.
When I tell that to Gibb, three weeks before the 50th anniversary of her Boston Marathon run, while drinking coffee on a cold, drizzly day in Cambridge, she laughs. "I agree," she says. "I've always followed an inner guide."
Gibb, now 73, is lanky with the compact body of a runner, which she still is: She runs for at least an hour every day and was training to run this year's Boston Marathon until two bouts of bronchitis sidelined her (she'll be the grand marshal, instead).
"She had a rhythm and an athletic ease that most people don't have, but that champions do," Derderian says. "Had there been an Olympic marathon for women [then], she would have been an Olympian. She was as good as Joan Benoit [Samuelson], she was as good as Shalane Flanagan. She had that kind of wheels."
Gibb is a renaissance woman. Her Boston Marathon run was the starting line of a journey that has coursed through science, law and art. After nearly two decades as lawyer, she became a full-time sculptor and she spends her time now working on her sculptures, paintings and writing -- and working with the Cecil B. Day Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts, studying and parsing through research on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically ALS.
"How many degrees does Bobbi have now?" asks Samuelson, winner of the first Olympic women's marathon. She calls Gibb "one of a kind."
Gibb grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Her mother, she says, tried to package her in the 1950s-styled box of femininity, but Gibb chafed. She did things girls weren't supposed to do, like sleep outside under the stars and, of course, run, which she did at first through the woods and fields and then more seriously starting in 1962 with a Tufts classmate who would become her first husband. She loved math and science, which is why she started college at Tufts, and then studied art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which planted the roots for her later career.
Gibb hoped to go to medical school until she was told in interviews that they wouldn't admit a woman because she would be taking up a spot for a man, or that she'd leave the program because she'd just "get married and have babies," she says. Instead she went to law school, taking classes at night while, during the day, working with famed cognitive scientist Jerome Lettvin at MIT.
She ran for the love of running but also because she saw how women were trapped. She envisioned Diana, the roman Goddess of hunting, running through the woods with her dogs at her heels. With running, Gibb says, she was "getting back to the archetypes."
When Derderian talks about Gibb being unusual, he means that one-of-a-kind personality but also the way she came up through running, which was very different than other women at the time. "Most of the women in athletics were already constrained by ... maybe you can call it the cautious, old-men coaches," he says. The AAU limits on women didn't help, either. Why bother training longer than 1.5 miles if you weren't allowed to race longer? And the AAU knew what was best, right?
She had none of the experience, so she had none of the preconceptions. It never occurred to her that there were limits. She just liked to go running and she was really, really good at it.Tom Derderian, author of "The Boston Marathon."
"Some of us old veteran male runners had seen one or two women runners in shorter races in New England," Burfoot says. Gibb was "certainly not the first woman in a 3- to 5-mile road race, but to have a woman in the marathon, and have it be the Boston Marathon, makes it a big deal."
"She had none of the experience, so she had none of the preconceptions," Derderian says. "It never occurred to her that there were limits. She just liked to go running and she was really, really good at it."
The 1966 Boston Marathon started well. Gibb ran most of it at a sub-three-hour pace. Despite her worries that someone would try to pull her off the course or even arrest her, men who talked to her there were delighted to see her. That helped her feel confident enough to ditch the blue hoodie.
James Carroll, head coach of the Heartbreak Hill Running Club in Boston, ran in 1966, too. The Boston Marathon wasn't like it is today, of course. "You have to flash back because there's no running watches, no water stops, there's no mile markers. There's no sense that you're in a major event," he says.
But that also meant that the course had far fewer people on the sidelines, and was much quieter than it is today.
"You hear spectators talking -- there's a girl. It's a girl," Carroll says.
Despite her training and her strong start, Gibb had to fight to the finish. She'd taken a three-day, cross-country bus trip to get from San Diego to Boston, eating "apples and bus station chili," she said, then loaded up on her mother's pot roast and apple pie the night before -- a meal that sat heavy in her stomach.
Her father thought the race would be the end of her. Her mother had to be coaxed into taking her to the starting line. Gibb didn't drink any water while running because she didn't know she was supposed to. She usually ran in nursing shoes, so the boys' shoes she wore that day -- which she'd bought just before she left San Diego -- didn't quite fit, and she felt it in the final miles of the race. But she kept on because she worried that "if I failed to finish, I would set women back another 50 years -- maybe more."
It was "torture to put one foot in front of the other," she says. When she made the last turn to the finish line, she was met with shrieks and applause. "It was such an incredible feeling of achievement," she says. She finished in 3 hours, 21 minutes, 40 seconds, in 126th place out of 540 entrants.
Instead of having Gibb arrested, John Volpe, the Massachusetts governor at the time, came over to shake her hand.
"Girl Finishes Marathon" was the headline in the Boston Globe the next day.
She saw it as a victory for women, of course, but for men, too. "If a shapely blond housewife can do this," she says, paraphrasing how some news reports described her, "anybody could do this."
More women followed suit. Switzer, of course, in 1967, and then Nina Kuscsik and Marjorie Fish in 1968 (although Gibb won the unofficial women's division of the Boston Marathon in 1966, 1967 and 1968). In 1969, Sara Mae Berman placed first (she won again in 1970 and 1971). The women's race was officially added in 1972.
"The AAU started to look really bad with Bobbi winning, and all those women following and not dying and their ovaries not dropping out," Berman says.
Today, Gibb splits her time between Rockport, Massachusetts, where she also has her studio, and Cambridge, where her son rents a room from Berman and her husband, Larry.
Gibb and Berman didn't meet until the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon, in 1996, but they became fast friends. Gibb stays with the Bermans often, her paintings and sculptures taking up a section near a living room window on the first floor of Berman's townhouse.
Berman was only disappointed when she heard about Gibb's marathon run "because I had wanted to be the first," she says.
In 1984, Gibb was commissioned to make bronze sculptures for the top three finishers of the women's Olympic Marathon trials -- the first one ever held. Samuelson, who won that year (and then went on to win the gold medal) says it's one of the few awards she has kept.
Samuelson is one of 11 Boston Marathon champions who have formed the Bobbi Gibb Marathon Sculpture Project, whose goal is to raise funds to put a sculpture of Gibb along the Boston Marathon course -- which has statues, but none of women. "There was some discussion as to who the sculptor should be and I most definitely thought all along it should be Bobbi," Samuelson says.
The goal is to have the statue ready to be on the course for the 2017 marathon.
"This year, once and for all, will showcase the fact that she was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon," Samuelson says.
Gibb has a 1-foot bronze mockup of the statue done already, at Berman's house. It's a woman, nude, her hair blowing behind. She wanted the statue to be a generic woman, but the sculpture project named after her might mean otherwise.
They want the final, life-size statue to have clothes on -- specifically, a black bathing suit, Bermuda shorts and boys' running shoes. Gibb says she is a little shy about making the statue of herself, but will do that if that's what they want her to do. And finding the model for it won't be hard, Gibb said.
"If I have any doubts, I can look down at my own feet."
Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story.