Before Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor, there was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, the race’s original bandit. This is the story of one of the greatest pioneers in the sport who helped women get on equal footing.
When Bobbi Gibb talks about running, her voice lifts. Even now, at age 79, she still can’t get enough of the sport. Gibb still runs sometimes up to two hours as much as five days a week, “more or less,” she says, laughing. This is a woman whose mind is intrinsically undeterred. Gibb’s world is boundless: a former neuroscientist and lawyer turned painter and sculptor. That’s all in addition to one of her most influential achievements — she was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. In 1966, Gibb’s daring attempt to do it, or rather “bandit” in the country’s most prestigious marathon would ignite a movement in the sport that would lead to women following in her footsteps for decades to come.
To date, more than 200,000 women have crossed the finish line on Boylston Street, the end point of the Boston Marathon. But there was once a time when women were not allowed to do that at all. Until 1972, the Boston Marathon had been exclusive to men since the inaugural race in 1897. During the pre-sanctioned era, women were excluded from competitive marathons as well as races longer than a mile and a half. Exceeding that distance was considered too straining on a woman’s body, a notion assumed after the public spectacle during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. During the debut of the women’s 800 meters event, five competitors dropped out mid-race and five more collapsed at the finish line. Thereafter, the event was eliminated from the Olympics until 1960. It was also widely believed that running a longer distance could damage a woman’s reproductive system. No woman dared go further — until Gibb.
When Gibb was introduced to the Boston Marathon in 1964, spectating along the course with her father, it was the first time she had ever witnessed other people running. She paid no attention to the fact that the race consisted of only men. She was too awestruck by the delicate sound of feet clapping against the pavement as the runners passed by her in silence. Gibb, who grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts running alone in the woods with a few neighborhood dogs most days of the week, had found her tribe.
“There’s something about that purity and that integrity it takes to run a race like that,” says Gibb. “It struck me as something extremely beautiful and courageous and enduring. It’s like life.”
AN INNER DIRECTIVE
Moved by the experience of watching the race, Gibb was convinced that she needed to be a part of the experience. Though she knew nothing about how to prepare for a marathon, the day after the race, 21-year-old Gibb began training for the Boston Marathon. She had never raced in her life. She had no coach. She had no books. But Gibb’s innate self-discipline and ambition was enough to get her started. She based her training plan of running seven days a week on how her body felt, incrementally increasing her distance.
This marked a turning point in her life in other ways, too. Gibb began marathon training in parallel with a solo cross country road trip to California in a VW minibus. During the 40-day journey, she’d park her van and run upwards of 40 miles at a time. Once, she tallied 65 miles in two days. The fact that she could surpass 26.2 miles in one go, without fuel or water, gave Gibb enough confidence that she could complete the Boston Marathon. So she mailed in an application.
Gibb remembers the moment she received a letter denying entry into the coveted marathon. The Boston Marathon was only for men, wrote race director Will Cloney. Women were not physiologically able to run 26.2 miles, Gibb read. The Boston Athletic Association also didn’t want the medical liability. Seething, Gibb crumpled up the letter, put on a pair of leather nurse shoes and ran for 20 miles, finishing on a beach, where she slept for the night. In the morning, she awoke, having cemented a steadfast quest to prove to Cloney, and also to the world, that women were more than capable of being on equal footing as men in the marathon. Gibb wanted to be the one to do it.
“I suddenly saw that I had a way I could change human consciousness,” Gibb reflects. “This could be a crack in the armor. If I could run this marathon, and run it well, it would change the way people thought about women.”
A SECRET LIFE OF RUNNING
Gibb trained for two years (she had intended to run the marathon in 1965, but prolonged the effort due to recovering from a sprained ankle). Sometimes Gibb would run for four hours when she wasn’t in class at the University of California, San Diego, and she would run eight miles one way to campus as part of her mileage. Gibb was tight-lipped about her training efforts, knowing that she’d face the label “nuts” or “delusional”, as she puts it. She made do with her training attire — a black bathing suit, cotton shorts and white leather Red Cross nurse shoes, which she had gotten during her first job out of high school as a nurse’s aide.
Despite the rejection letter from the Boston Marathon’s race director, Gibb figured she would find a way to sneak onto the startline. She was willing to risk the consequences, even if it meant potentially getting arrested. “I was going into the unknown. I had no idea what I was getting into. I just knew I was doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” Gibb says. “It was sort of civil disobedience. There was a greater good at stake.”
Gibb showed up to the suburbs of Boston just 18 hours before the race after a three-day trip in a Greyhound bus from Southern California and shocked her parents with the news of her forthcoming plot. Gibb convinced her mother to drive her to the starting line in Hopkinton. The morning of the race, April 19, 1966, Gibb masked herself feminine physique in a blue hoodie and a pair of Bermuda shorts over her black bathing suit, a $5 bill tucked inside. She ducked behind bushes and waited until half of the 540 official entrants had started to run before she slipped into the pack. “Is that a girl!” she heard a man shout from behind her just three minutes into the race. Gibb looked around and smiled. She was no longer a secret. Much to her surprise, the men praised her effort.
Boston was Gibb’s first race ever, and she had never run on pavement until this experience. The hard ground punched her feet. Gibb had mistakenly worn a new pair of footwear — men’s running shoes — and she developed blood blisters that ballooned across her feet. Every step felt like stabbing pain, she remembers. At one point, she took off her shoes and ran barefoot. The sensation was excruciating, but Gibb gritted her teeth and kept moving forward.
“I knew I had to finish, because here I was making this public statement. It was a huge responsibility,” Gibb says.
At no point did she consider quitting, even despite her heavy stomach. Gibb had pre-loaded the night prior with roast beef and pie. Having prepared for this marathon for two years, she was also prepared to fight through to the end. And she did. Gibb crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 21 minutes and 40 seconds, ahead of two-thirds of the men.
“Crossing the finish line was “like coming home,” she remembers. Completing the marathon was her version of a reply to Cloney.
Gibb returned twice more to bandit the race, in 1967 and 1968. In 1996, the Boston Athletic Association retroactively recognized Gibb as the three-time women’s winner during the pre-sanctioned era. In 1972, the Boston Marathon included an inaugural women’s competition. Eight women toed the startline. The number would only continue to escalate. But it was Gibb who helped break the gender barrier.
“The thing about a marathon, it’s a democratic sport,” she says. “Anybody can run.”