(Originally published on March 15, 2016 | Updated on March 29, 2018)
In February of 1966, 23-year-old Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb opened her mailbox and eagerly tore open the letter from the Boston Athletic Association, expecting to see her race number. Instead, she found that her request for an application to that year’s Boston Marathon had been denied. She couldn’t believe the words she read.
“This is an AAU Men’s Division race only,” wrote race director Will Cloney. “Women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”
Gibb was outraged. Fifty years ago, opportunities for females in the work world and society in general were limited—but in running? Not physiologically able? “I could run 30 miles at a stretch!” she says.
A lifelong runner, Gibb ran in the woods as a kid in the Boston suburbs, played field hockey in high school and ran 7 or 8 miles a day with her cross-country runner boyfriend at Tufts University for no reason other than running made her feel “as free as a bird—such a sense of peace and wholeness and health.” She had been training for Boston for two years, ever since she’d watched the 1964 race. Standing enthralled at Wellesley College (Mile 13) as the runners passed by, she made a secret promise to herself: I will train. I will raise my mileage. I will do this!
So after running nearly every day for 700 days, getting married, moving to San Diego and even logging two 30-milers, she was ready for Boston—only to find out that women were banned.
“At that point, I could have said, ‘Well, too bad—I guess I won’t run.’” she says. “But instead, I said, ‘All the more reason to run it!’”
And when she did, she changed the world.
“People don’t realize what it was like back then,” says Gibb, 73, who today works as a neuroscience researcher at the University of California San Diego and makes sculptures in San Diego and Boston. “It was hard for a woman to become a doctor or lawyer, run a business, live on her own. A woman couldn’t get a mortgage or even have a credit card in her own name. It was really claustrophobic. As a teenager, I’d see all these unhappy suburban housewives taking tranquilizers and drinking to alleviate the pain of not being themselves. And now, on top of it, we aren’t even allowed to run?”
Gibb hadn’t planned to run the Boston Marathon to make a statement. But now, fired up by her rejection letter, that changed.
“I saw that this moment was bigger than me,” she says. “Once I did it, they’d not only change the rules, but change attitudes. It would throw into question other misbeliefs about what women were capable of.”
In April, Gibb curled up in a Greyhound bus seat for four days, heading 3,000 miles east from San Diego. She arrived the day before the race in Winchester, her childhood home in suburban Boston, and broke the news to her parents.
“My dad was angry,” she says.” Even though he was an MIT professor who had always encouraged me to reach for my dreams, he thought I was nuts, that I’d get hurt. But my mom understood. She had been frustrated her whole life—a gifted, intelligent woman who wasn’t able to do anything but be a housewife. She agreed that this would be important.” With a kiss for luck, mother dropped daughter off in the starting-line town of Hopkinton the morning of April 19, 1966.
An hour before the race, all 540 male entrants began gathering behind a roped-off pen. Police barricades blocked the start area. Gibb, wearing her brother’s Bermuda shorts and a blue hooded sweatshirt to cover her ponytailed hair, was worried she’d be thrown out or arrested if she tried to get behind the ropes. She jogged 2 or 3 miles around downtown, then hid in some bushes near the start line.
At noon, the gun went off. Gibb let the fast runners go by and slipped into the middle of the pack. It didn’t take long for the guys to notice.
“The men loved the fact that I was running,” she says. “They were very protective and encouraging.” When she mentioned that she was afraid to take off her sweatshirt because it would expose her as a girl, the men said, “We won’t let them throw you out. It’s a free road.”
As Gibb settled into a sub-3-hour pace, her progress became a big story on the radio broadcast. “At Mile 13, the women of Wellesley College knew I was coming and let out an enormous scream,” Gibb says. “They were jumping in the air, laughing and crying.”
Riding a wave of adulation, Gibb arrived at Heartbreak Hill, Mile 20, feeling lucky and on pace to break three hours.
Heartbreak ended that notion. Her legs, starved of food and drink (in high school she was told that would cause cramping), started to falter. Her feet were blistered and bleeding from wearing brand-new boy’s size 6 shoes (there were none for women), and she wasn’t used to hard pavement, having trained only on dirt trails.
Her pace fell off the table. “With 2 miles to go, I was literally tip-toeing along,” she recalls. “But if I failed to finish I was going to set women’s running back 20, 30 years. They’d say, ‘See? This is why we don’t let women run these long distances.’ So, I had to finish—and finish well.”
When Gibb reached Boylston Street, the crowds were electrified. She picked up her pace and sprinted through in a time of 3 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds—more than 13 minutes ahead of the 2017 Boston qualifying time for the 18 to 34 age group—and finished in the top third of the pack.
Gibb was an instant media sensation. Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe met her at the finish line to shake hands. Her street back home was lined with reporters interviewing her parents. Newspapers in Japan (whose runners swept the podium) and Malaysia (where Gibbs’ parents had friends) ran articles about her. The TV game show “To Tell the Truth” had her on as panelists tried to figure out which of three women was the first to run the Boston Marathon. She donated her $65 in winnings to the Tufts Medical Center in order to retain her amateur status for a future Olympics tryout.
A “Sports Illustrated” article may have summed up Gibb’s impact best: “Last week a tidy-looking and pretty 23-year-old blonde [had] a performance that should do much to phase out the old-fashioned notion that a female is too frail for distance running.”
“That was exactly what I wanted!” Gibb says.
The AAU was reportedly going to push for a rule change that would allow women to run marathons. And she’d get calls from inspired women. “They’d say, ‘I just ran around the block for the first time. I’m so proud of myself,’” Gibb says. “It’s like being able to run from Point X to Point Y was the first step in their sense of autonomy.”
Gibb had stunned the world. “People don’t really understand it now,” she says. “It was so unbelievable that a woman could run the Boston marathon. It didn’t fit into people’s stereotypes. A woman baked cookies. She didn’t run marathons.”
Other women soon followed in her footsteps. When she ran Boston again in 1967 (in 3:27) she beat one woman, and 1968 (in 3:30) she beat four other women. The trickle turned into a flood as a women’s division was sanctioned at Boston and all other marathons by the AAU in 1972. Gibb could not have predicted, however, that most of those women, when asked who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, would probably say “Kathy Switzer.”
Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old journalism major from Syracuse who finished an hour behind Gibb in 1967, was wearing a race number obtained by pretending she was a man on her race application and using only her first and middle initials. She became the face of women’s running when photos of enraged race director Jock Semple trying to physically remove her from the race ricocheted around the world.
Switzer went on to a successful career as an author, speaker and TV commentator, won the 1974 New York City Marathon, finished second in Boston in 1975, and earned Runner’s World’s Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) award, an Emmy for her work as a commentator and wrote several best-selling books. In the process, she also became known as “the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”
For a dozen years, Gibb wasn’t aware her legacy had been “stolen,” as she puts it. She was busy completing her degree, getting her marriage annulled, applying to medical school, going to law school, remarrying and having a son in 1975.
Then, in 1979, while watching the Boston Marathon on TV with her family, she heard the announcer say, “In a moment, we’ll have a little piece about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.” The next thing they saw was Switzer, and stories about Semple trying to boot her out of the ’67 race.
Thus began the decade-long process of calling and writing letters to TV stations, magazines and book publishers.
“But still, 99 percent of the problem was Switzer going all over the country claiming that she was the first woman to run Boston,” Gibb says. “If you asked her directly, she’d say, ‘Oh no, Bobbi ran the year before me.’ But then she’d go on TV and be introduced as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”
In the early ’80s, Gibb sent a complaint to “Ms.” magazine about an incorrect article and got a call from Marlene Simmons, the author. “She said, ‘I knew you were the first, but they asked me to ignore that,’” Gibb says.
Simmons wrote more articles—correct ones—and the tide turned a bit. Gibb started to get more recognition.
Eventually the Boston Marathon had recognized Gibb as well. She was retroactively awarded first-place medals for her 1966, ’67 and ’68 races, invited to do the 1986, ’96 and 2001 races on her 20th, 30th and 35th anniversaries, and was inducted into the Boston Marathon Hall of Fame. This year, on the 50th anniversary of her historic run, Gibb will serve as the Grand Marshal of the race.
“Not only did Bobbi Gibb’s run lead to women’s participation in marathoning, but it also proved that courage and determination can lead to change,” says Joann Flaminio, president of the Boston Athletic Association. “Throughout Boston Marathon week we will be honoring Bobbi and the impact women have had on the sport of road racing.”
Today, still remarkably healthy and athletic, Gibb runs an hour a day. She lives a bicoastal life, working as an ALS researcher at UC San Diego and making commissioned bronze sculptures of portraits and athletes from her art-filled home in Boston. And even though not all women around the world may know her name, the impact of her run on April 19, 1966, still reverberates. Women can now be found in every nook and cranny of sports. Last year, 45 percent of the Boston Marathon’s 26,598 finishers were female. It is widely reported that women make up the majority of runners at all race distances.
“When I grew up, women were passive,” Gibb says. “They sat on the sidelines as guys ran and surfed. But I imagined female role models who were fast, beautiful, strong and self-assured—like today’s women. I did what I could to help move things in this direction.”