Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bobbi Gibb: The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon

This year’s Boston Marathon marked 45-years since the 1967 race where Kathrine Switzer registered as K. V. Switzer to hide her gender and race officials tried (and failed – she finished in 4:20) to physically remove her from the course. Switzer holds the honor of “the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon,” (5 years later in 1972). However, the honor of “the first woman to run the Boston Marathon” goes to Bobbi Gibb, who ran unofficially in 1966.  

I interviewed Gibb and wrote the following profile when she was in Boston to shoot off the gun for the Elite Women’s start in 2006 commemorating her first marathon’s 40-year anniversary. 

“I hid in the bushes and waited for the race to start. I let about half the pack go by and then I jumped in. I have to give them credit, it didn’t take long for the men around me to notice,” an older woman with wild blonde hair relaxes into a plush chair at the Fairmont at Copley Plaza on the eve of the 110th Boston Marathon. “’Is that a girl? Hey girl, are you going to run the whole thing?’ they asked me.” She pops a few peanuts into her mouth and explains that at first she was afraid they would be angry, that they would throw her out of the race. But Bobbi Gibb quickly learned that not everybody adhered to the typical 1960s stereotypes. The runners welcomed her, a woman, into their elite circle saying, “It’s a free road, she can run if she wants to.”

On April 17, 1966 Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run a marathon. She did so in defiance of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), world running standards, and common stereotypes. By finishing the Boston Marathon, Gibb called into question all restrictions on women, and contributed to the women’s movement of the 1960s.

For most of the twentieth century, women’s athletics were severely limited. People did not believe that women could exercise like men could. Until 1910, doctors believed that women breathed differently than men, making them unfit for strenuous exercise. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, is quoted on the official Olympics website saying, "It is indecent that the spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a women being smashed before their very eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks," as his reasons for banning women from the Games.

When Women’s Track and Field was introduced to the Games in 1928, women ran up to 800 meters. However, when several women collapsed at the conclusion of the 800-meter race, officials banned women from running any distance greater than 100 meters. “It was believed that women would do themselves irreparable damage to their procreational capabilities, so no longer events were held," says John Thresher, president and CEO of Athletics Canada. Women ran no further than 100 meters until 1948 when the Olympic Committee introduced the 200-meter dash. In 1964, only two years before Gibb ran her first marathon, women competed in 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter races.

While growing up in Massachusetts, Gibb knew absolutely nothing about competitive running. Nothing “inspired me to start running,” she laughed, in response to my question. “It’s not that I started running, I actually never stopped running,” she explained. “I just loved to run since I could stand.” In high school she played field hockey, one of the few sports available to girls, and in her spare time she ran with her dogs, exploring the woods around her house.  While attending college at Tufts University where her father taught, Gibb met a man on the cross country team. “After a while I was keeping up with him. We’d run all over Boston…. I felt so happy when I ran – so relaxed.”

In 1964, a friend’s father suggested she watch the Boston Marathon. “A marathon!” Gibb exclaims, mocking her own naiveté. “I hadn’t even heard of marathons.” But after watching the race, she was inspired. “I saw the marathon and fell in love with it. I started to train in nurses shoes.” (In the 1960s nobody made women’s running apparel.) Unlike contemporary marathoners, Gibb had absolutely no formal training, coach, or idea of what she should do. In the summer of 1964, she traveled across the country in a VW van accompanied by her dog, a malamute named Moot. “I’d run two, three, four hours a day,” she said. “I was running 30 to 40 miles at a stretch.”

Gibb does not approach the sport with the same attitude as other runners. “Running is not a chore or punishment to Bobbi, it’s a joy,” explained fellow marathoner Dave Dial. Dial and Gibb run together in their hometown of San Diego. “She’d be quick to pause and say, ‘Wow, look at that rock formation,’ or, ‘look at that flower.’” Gibb’s offbeat style may surprise many runners. She doesn’t run for time but for the connection with nature, for her love of “the earth, the sky, the trees.” And Gibb did not compete in marathons for her own personal glory, but to open up fields closed to women. Dial explained, “Some people do things for fame or money, but Bobbi did what she did out of love.”

As an undergraduate, she attended art school, but Gibb wanted to study math and science so she enrolled in UCSD for pre-med, until, “They told me I was too pretty and I’d upset the boys in the lab.” That fall of 1966, she mailed her marathon entry to the BAA. Gibb was shocked when she received a letter from the race director, Will Cloney, stating, “women are not physiologically able to run such distances and furthermore are not allowed to do so.” Gibb was unaware that the race was closed to women, but she knew she could destroy the false claim that women could not run 26.2 miles. “I was angry and upset,” she said. “So I decided to run the marathon anyway.” Reflecting on it 40 years later she still gets excited at the injustice. “It’s a Catch-22!  If you’re not allowed to do something how can you prove to people that you can do it?” Gibb knew that “somebody had to do something” and saw her opportunity to “blow the whole thing wide open.”

According to the BAA’s website, the Boston Marathon is the oldest annual marathon in the world. The race was inspired by the first modern Olympic marathon in 1896, and was first run April 19, 1897 by only 15 competitors (ten of which finished). The race is now held every Patriot’s Day, which falls on the third Monday in April. It attracts entrants from all over the world, numbering in the 20,000s. In 1966, before the running boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were 540 entrants.

On the day of Gibb’s first marathon, she convinced her mother to drive her to the start of the race. She knew that she was about to make a huge social statement for women, and “when you do something that far out of the social norm you don’t know how people will react.” Once the runners around her realized Gibb was a woman and accepted her, she began to relax and enjoy the run. Spectators along the way cheered enthusiastically for “the girl.”

“When I got to Wellesley, the girls went crazy,” remembers Gibb, a smile of satisfaction on her sun-tanned face. Even though she has told this story countless times, it is clearly a fond memory. “I felt like I was setting them free – I was really doing it.” She ran the race conservatively. “I felt a great sense of responsibility because I didn’t want to risk failing and setting women back 15 years,” explained Gibb. Blisters from her first pair of real running shoes and dehydration challenged her in the last few miles. Nevertheless, Gibb finished in 3:21:46, placing her 126th out of 540 male runners.

She described the finish in Copley Square, “The governor of Massachusetts came down and shook my hand. He’d heard on the radio that I was running and wanted to congratulate me.” The press was all over Gibb and her family for the next few days. She took a taxi home from the race, and when she arrived her street was lined with cars – she found her parents in the midst of a crowd of reporters.

“I didn’t realize it would take so long to change the rules.” She ran the Boston Marathon unofficially in 1967 and 1968, waiting for the day the race opened to women. “I thought, I’ll keep doing this until everyone believes a woman can run this race,” she said. Each year more women ran. In 1967, Katherine Switzer snuck into the race by lying about her gender. She ran under her initials, K.V. Switzer, and had her coach attend her pre-race physical and registration. When race officials realized their mistake, they tried to physically remove Switzer from the course. Gibb didn’t know about Switzer until after the race, and was appalled to hear the drama Switzer’s lie had caused. “I wish I’d known Kathrine was running, then we could have done it together. I didn’t want the race officials to see women runners as a problem because then they would never let us run.” In 1968 a total of five women ran, all without official numbers. “It was really positive that year,” Gibb smiles. “It felt like a celebration.”

The BAA did not open the Marathon to women until Title IV forced integration in 1972. Title IV states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1972 at the 76th Boston Marathon, eight women entered, and all eight finished. Official BAA records state that Nina Kuscsik was the first women’s champion, finishing in three hours, ten minutes and twenty-six seconds.

Gibb is pleased with the lasting effects of her marathons. “I wasn’t trying to be a role model, but I did want to inspire people. I did it in order to prove that women could run 26.2 miles and to call into question every other false belief about women.” Gibb’s race was a pivotal event in the women’s movement. According to Gibb, within two months of her marathon the National Organization for Women, dedicated to eliminating gender discrimination, was started in New York. In 1972, the Olympic Games in Munich included the 1500-meter run in Women’s Track and Field for the first time. The women’s marathon was not added to the Olympic schedule until 1984, when American Joan Benoit won the gold medal.

“Bobbi’s done a lot of things in her life, and she’s done it all on her own terms,” says Dial. After 1968, Gibb decided to focus more on her education, earning her law degree and working as a lawyer for 25 years. “The most important thing for women is to get an education,” she says.  When reflecting on women’s rights today, she says, “Things have really moved in the direction I wanted them to move in,” but Gibb recognizes that women have a way to go. “People still don’t believe that women can really think. And in part it’s the fault of women,” she lectures. “I’d like to see women taking themselves and their minds more seriously.”

When Gibb ran her first marathon, she knew she was making a huge social statement, but even so she tends to shun attention. Gibb’s independent spirit has shaped her life and affected the lives of those around her. She has recently returned to her interest in biology and is doing research for an ALS lab in Cambridge. She laughs and says, “About ten years ago I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.” She hopes to publish the books she has written, and continue to work on her art and sculpture. But Gibb will never forget her love of running. She was planning on running the Boston Marathon this year for her run’s 40th anniversary, but the race organizers asked her to shoot off the start gun for the Women’s Elite race instead. According to the BAA, 7,625 women finished the Marathon this year. Gibb’s reaction to the magnitude of women’s running today is uplifting. “I see women running and they look so strong and confident. I feel like they’re all my daughters. That’s the reason I did all this – so women could feel strong and confident.”