Gibb: The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon
A Journey of Determination
Gibb, seen running the 1967 race, is now recognised as a three-time winner of Boston Marathon
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“Women are not physiologically capable of running a marathon.”
Those nine words leapt off the paper like a slap to the face. “The audacity,” thought Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb. The letter she held was the response to her request for an official entry to run the 1966 Boston Marathon – a flat-out refusal, but also a derogatory sideswipe of her capabilities as a woman, particularly given she was now running up to 40 miles at a stretch.
Fighting for Her Right to Run
The 1960s were mid-swing, but attitudes towards female athletes and their participation in long-distance running remained archaic. The question of whether women could run 26.2 miles had been answered countless times before, and yet female runners remained barred from practically every marathon event around the world. “To hell with them,” she thought as she crumpled the letter and threw it on the floor. Bobbi Gibb would run the Boston Marathon – whether they’d let her or not.
Ask Google who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon and you’ll find the name Kathrine Switzer, along with a photo showing a group of men chasing and manhandling a woman with the number 261 pinned to her midriff. It is a shocking image that easily fits a narrative of embedded misogyny, but this is not the real story of the first woman to run the world’s oldest continually-staged marathon. The truth, as so often, is far from black and white.
A Childhood of Limitations
Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, Gibb was always an energetic child with a sense of awe and a love of nature. “My mother used to say to me that you’re never going to find a husband while running around in the woods with the neighbourhood dogs,” says Gibb. For all the significant changes that occurred during the 1960s, it was still a time of rigid social constructs. “After the war, people were just happy to return to normality – and normal meant the little women in the kitchen, washing the dishes, with the nice curtains. There were centuries of well-established beliefs about women,” said Gibb. “I looked at my mother’s life and those of her friends; they were such narrow lives – you couldn’t even get a credit card without your husband’s permission.”
A Dream Takes Shape
Gibb knew she wanted something different, but like many growing up with idealistic dreams of great change, the pathway to it was labyrinthine. “I wanted to change the social consciousness about women from a very early age, but I didn’t know how to do it – at first.” Despite living close to the Boston Marathon route, Gibb had never attended a race until her father took her in 1964. The effect was immediate and profound. “I just fell in love with it – I found it very moving. All these people moved with such strength, courage, endurance and integrity. Something deep inside told me that I was going to run this race – this was what I was supposed to do.”
The Battle Against Prejudice
In the mid-1960s, women’s long-distance running was still considered dangerously radical. Female runners had completed 26.2 miles many times, but groundless ideas lingered that a woman’s body was not built for such extreme exertion. It was feared that allowing women to take on the distance would lead to dangerous levels of indecency.
Lost Heroes of Marathon
Names that should be etched on plaques as great marathon pioneers are now almost lost. The day after the men’s marathon event at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, Stamata Revithi, a 30-year-old mother from Piraeus, ran the same course unofficially in five and half hours.
Practically no reliable information exists on Revithi, except that she came from poverty, had a 17-month-old child and had lost an older child the previous year. Her achievement received little to no attention, with the Athens Messenger reporting briefly that “an active and determined woman made a trial run of the classic route in early March, without any stops except a momentarily rest to eat some oranges”.
Nothing is known about this trailblazing woman, often labelled as the ‘first female marathon runner’ after that day. As Greek author Athanasios Tarasouleas puts it: “Stamata Revithi was lost in the dust of history.”
Cynical Attitudes Persist
Thirty years later, in 1926, an English woman, Violet Piercy, ran the London Marathon course unofficially in 3:40:22 and completed two official marathons in 1933 and 1936. The Sunday Mirror quoted her as saying her 1936 race was to “prove that women could stick the distance.”
It was clear to all with their eyes open that women could run 26.2 miles, but cynical attitudes lingered based on imaginary evidence and often outright lies. The 1928 Summer Olympic Games saw women compete in track and field events for the first time, and on 2 August three of the nine women who ran in the 800m final broke the world record, with Germany’s Lina Radke claiming gold.
However, what should have been a giant stride forward for women’s athletics degenerated into a remarkably nasty media campaign in which newspapers worldwide reported incorrectly that many women had collapsed with exhaustion after the race and that such exploits were far beyond the female sex. The New York Times falsely reported that “six out of the nine runners were completely exhausted and fell headlong on the ground”, while the Montreal Star shrieked that the race was “obviously beyond women’s powers of endurance and can only be injurious to them”. The Daily Mail even pondered whether women running over 200 metres would age prematurely.
Breaking Through Barriers
The media firestorm led officials to cut the 800 metres from the women’s Olympics, with the event not appearing again until 1960. Women’s perceived fragility was underpinned by some preposterous medical theories that wound their way into the public consciousness. “There were fears that women would become more ‘masculine’ if they played sports and that they had a finite amount of energy. If they expended it on education, politics and sport, it would draw away from their reproductive capabilities,” said Schultz.
Running Against the Odds
Training in Solitude
Gibb started quietly training for the Boston Marathon in 1964, often using the Middlesex Fells Reservation near her home to run away from judgmental eyes. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a coach, no books, nothing. I didn’t have any way of measuring distance, so I just went by time. My boyfriend would drop me off on his motorbike and I would run home,” says Gibb.
An Unconventional Journey
In 1964, her parents went on sabbatical to the UK, leaving 21-year-old Gibb their VW campervan. With a summer ahead of her and a longstanding dream of seeing more of the country, she packed up the van and spent the next 40 days moving slowly from the east to the west coast. “At night, I would sleep out under the skies, and each day I would run in a different place. Over the Berkshires, along the Mississippi River and across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, and down into California – before jumping into the Pacific Ocean – all in one summer. That was my training for the 1966 Boston Marathon,” says Gibb.
A Statement of Power
A few months before the marathon, she applied for a runner’s number to be one of the 540 that would eventually start the race, but was rejected with the now famously curt assessment of women’s physiological capabilities. “I realised that this was my chance to change the social consciousness about women. If I could prove this false belief about women wrong, I could throw into question all the other false beliefs that had been used to deny women opportunities,” says Gibb.
Four days before the race, she boarded the first of several Greyhound buses and arrived at the family home 72 hours later. Her mother drove her to the start line the morning of the race that…