American marathon runner
On April 19, 1966, Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb became the first woman to run and finish the Boston Marathon. In a field of 500 male runners, she was the 125th to cross the finish line, shattering the long-held belief that women could not compete in endurance sports. Her accomplishments paved the way for the passage of Title IX and the inclusion of a women's marathon as part of the Olympic games.
Good Girls Don't Run…
Raised in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, Gibb loved running even as a girl, when she would pretend to be a horse and gallop through fields like the wind. In school she played on the volleyball, field hockey, and basketball teams, training by taking her dog on runs through the woods but never considering herself a competitive distance runner. Because Title IX—the 1972 legislation opening school-sponsored sports programs equally to boys and girls—was not even envisioned, high school cross-country was off limits to Gibb—it was for boys only—and the world of long-distance road racing was unknown to her. The reason most often cited for the exclusion: long-distance running was hazardous to women's reproductive health.
After graduating from high school in 1962, Gibb spent three years at the Tufts University School of Special Studies in Boston, taking courses in sculpture at the city's Museum of Fine Arts. Her boyfriend, a member of Tufts' cross-country team, inspired Gibb to begin running distance. At first, his five-mile runs stretched her endurance, but soon she was able to master longer distances. It wasn't long before she made her eight-mile commute from her home in the city's suburbs on foot and at a run. Gibb's growing enthusiasm for running caused friends to suggest that she watch the next Boston Marathon, the oldest marathon in the country and run continuously from Hopkinton, Massachusetts into Boston since 1897. Watching the April 1965 running of the race from the sidelines, Gibb was inspired to master the marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
With no real idea how to go about training for the marathon distance, Gibb daily put on a pair of nurse's shoes and ran, no matter what the weather. Steadily she increased her distance from her base of eight miles. In the fall of 1965 she ran 65 miles of a three-day, 100-mile equestrian trail ride in Woodstock, Vermont, leaving the course on the second day only after her knees had given out from the continued strain. Marrying and moving to California with her husband, a Navy man, she continued to train for Boston.
Despite the fact that British runner Violet Piercy had officially run the distance in a competitive marathon in 1923 with no negative medical consequences, the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which since 1888 has established standards and overseen amateur sporting events throughout the United States, steadfastly refused to sanction women's distance running. Because the U.S. Olympic committee, the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and Boston Marathon sponsor the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) fell under AAU guidelines, women were prohibited from participating in events these organizations sponsored. Gibb only learned of this when she received notification from the BAA that she would not be granted an application for the marathon because she was a woman. Her anger quickly changed to determination; as she later wrote in her To Boston with Love: "I'd heard that the Marathon was open to every person in the world. It had never crossed my mind to consider myself different from the other runners. My outrage turned to humor as I thought how many preconceived prejudices would crumble when I trotted right along for twenty-six miles … I believed that once people knew women could run marathon distances, the field would naturally open up."
Gibb decided to run as a "bandit." Because the Boston Marathon requires that runners "qualify" with a finish time from a previous marathon, hosts of unregistered runners have traditionally run the prestigious course as bandits. On Patriots Day 1966, Gibb planned to jump from a clump of bushes just beyond the starting line and join her fellow bandits and the 500 registered runners on their way to the finish line. After a four-day bus ride from San Diego she was dropped off at the race start in Hopkinton. She jogged around town to warm up, inconspicuous amidst her fellow runners because her blue hooded sweatshirt hid the fact that she was a woman. Hiding as planned, she jumped into the pack at the gun. Her fellow runners, realizing Gibb was a woman, were enthusiastic about her endeavor, many wishing that the women in their lives would share their enthusiasm of the sport. Although Gibb soon warmed up due to exertion she was afraid of removing her sweatshirt; when the men running with her assured her they would not let her be ejected from the race she removed the sweatshirt to reveal her long blonde pony-tail, black bathing suit, and baggy bermuda shorts. The crowds lining the streets enthusiastically cheered her on.
Gibb continued her steady pace until the last few miles, when "Heartbreak Hill," dehydration, and fatigue began to take their toll on the un-coached runner. She also ran in new shoes—sized for boys since women's running shoes were not available—and the blisters they created began to affect her stride. "Each step sent a searing jolt of pain to my brain….," she recalled in ToBoston with Love. "My pace dropped off. I set each foot down as if on tacks." Determined to reach the finish, Gibb ran through the pain for the last three miles, finishing the race in three hours 21 minutes and ranking in the top third. Although she was greeted by cheering crowds, a burst of media attention, and a congratulatory handshake from Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, the doors to the post-race dinner provided for exhausted marathoners were closed and locked to her. While her accomplishment made newspaper headlines around the world, BAA race director Will Cloney denied Gibb's participation in the Boston Marathon proper, acknowledging only that she had "run the same route."
Gibb returned to Boston for the next two years, ranking as the unofficial women's winner in 1967 and 1968 but never besting her first time. In 1967 her finish as first woman was overshadowed by Kathrine Switzer, who, although officially registered under the genderless name K. Switzer, was almost physically removed from the course during a tussle with race director Cloney and race official Jock Semple that was captured on film for posterity (Switzer finished in 4:20 compared with Gibb's unofficial win time of 3:27:17). Cambridge, Massachusetts runner Sara Mae Berman took up the gauntlet for the next three years, running in 1969, 1970, and 1971 and posting a record time of three hours eight minutes in her final year. Finally in 1972 the AAU changed its rules about women and the BAA allowed them to register. The first official woman winner of the race was Nina Kucsik, who bested Berman's time by only seconds in 1972.
After her milestone runs in Boston, Gibb went on to get divorced and remarried, raise a son as a single mother, and establish herself professionally. Supporting her family as a legislative aide during the day, she earned a law degree and in 1979 opened her own patent law practice in Rockport, Massachusetts. Relocating to the West Coast in the late 1990s, she now lives in Delmar, California, where she works as a sculptor. Many of Gibb's bronze sculptures focus on running; her bronze work titled "The Marathoners" is on permanent exhibit at the National Art Museum of Sport. In 1984 she created the trophies given to the top three finishers of the first-ever women's Olympic marathon trials, held in Olympia, Washington.
The April 1996 running of the Boston Marathon was celebrated for more than just the 100th anniversary of the historic race. Crowds up and down the course cheered the hundreds of women runners facing the Boston marathon challenge, women now sporting official race numbers thanks to Gibb's tenacity 30 years before. Gibb returned to Boston to join their ranks as well as to receive a long overdue winner's medal. Running the course for the fifth time, she noted to an interviewer that the 1996 Boston Marathon would not be her last. She continues to run at least an hour a day and in 2001 completed her sixth Boston Marathon in memory of a friend and fellow marathoner diagnosed with Lou Gehrig 's disease.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY GIBB:
The Art of Inflation, 1978.
|1942||Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts|
|1966||First woman to run and finish the Boston Marathon|
|1967-68||Unofficial first-place female finisher of the Boston Marathon|
|1969||Earns B.S. at University of California, Los Angeles.|
|1978||Earns law degree at New England School of Law|
|1979||Joins Massachusetts Bar|
|1980||Publishes 28-pg. booklet To Boston with Love|
|1983||Runs Boston Marathon at age 40|
|1984||Designs trophies for first Women's Olympics Marathon trials|
|1996||Runs Boston Marathon at age 53 with a time of 6:02:24|
|2001||Runs 6th Boston Marathon as part of The Run for ALS Team 2001|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1966||First woman to run Boston Marathon, finishing in 3:21:40|
|1967||Finishes Boston Marathon in 3:27:17|
|1968||Finishes Boston Marathon in 3:30:00|
|1990s||Named to Road Runner's Hall of Fame|
|1996||Recognized by YWCA's American Academy of Women Achievers|
|1996||Honored at ceremony marking 30th anniversary of Boston win|
To Boston with Love, 1980.
Derderian, Tom, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Bill Rodgers, Boston Marathon: The First Century of the World's Premiere Running Event, 2nd edition, Human Kinetics, 1996.
Runner's World, April, 1990: 30; April, 1996: 72; May, 2001: 66.
Sports Illustrated, May 28, 1984: 26; July 15, 2002: 116. Women's Sports and Fitness, April, 1994: 48.
To Boston with Love: The Passionate Story of Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon, http://www.angelfire.com/nd.bobbigibb/ (January 15, 2003).
National Art Museum of Sport Web site, http://namos.iupui/edu/ (January 15, 2003).
Sketch by Pamela L. Shelton