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She snuck into the race from the sidelines, concealing her gender with an over-sized sweatshirt. Here's what happened when she took the sweatshirt off


The incredible story of Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon

By Brigit Katz on April 20, 2015

Bobbi Gibb at the Boston Marathon Finish Line in 1966. Courtesy of Yarrow Kraner.
Bobbi Gibb at the Boston Marathon Finish Line in 1966. Courtesy of Yarrow Kraner.

Bobbi Gibb is seventy-two years old. At various points in her life, she has worked as a horse-riding instructor, a sculptor, a lawyer, and an associate in a neuroscience laboratory. She has written a book about inflation, and one about economics. She is putting together a collection of essays and a children’s book. She is collaborating on a film project. She is a mother, which she says is “the best thing” she ever did. And in 1966, Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.

 It is this accomplishment, in all its sheer awesomeness, that is likely to live on as the crowning point of Gibb’s storied resumé. When she ran the Boston Marathon for the first time, women were not allowed to compete in the race because it was quite literally believed that they would expire from overexertion. So on April 19, 1966, Gibb concealed her face with a hoodie and hid in a cluster of bushes near the starting pen. The starting gun fired. A rush of men zoomed by. Gibb jumped into the throng and started running.

By joining the race that day, Gibb defied just about every social precept concerning acceptable behavior for women. But to her, it was the natural culmination of a life-long impulse to run. As a child, Gibb would zip around with her friends as they played Cowboys and Indians, or pretended to be cantering horses.  She came of age in the 1950s, before second-wave feminism hit its stride. It was a time when nice, decent women were expected to work middling jobs until they snagged a husband. And nice, decent women did not run.

 “As soon as you became an adolescent, everything changed,” Gibb told Women in the World. “You started to become a woman and suddenly there were all these incredible constraints. I could see coming down the line that I was going to have to live in a box as a woman—literally, locked up in the house. We were expected to be housewives, and that’s all … We weren’t expected to have minds, and we weren’t expected to have bodies that ran.”

But Gibb did have a mind of her own and Gibb did run, even when she was long past adolescence. Gibb used to race through the woods near her house in Massachusetts, running four or five miles for the sheer fun of it. When Gibb paused to rest, she would lie on the ground and think about “atoms, and molecules, and where the universe came from”—the scientific principles she was learning as a pre-med student in college.

 “[Running] was sort of a spiritual thing, and I could get away from society and its rigid ideals,” she said. “It had nothing to do with sports. I knew nothing about the sporting world. I never stopped running when normal girls would stop running and settle down. I never became a normal girl.”

 In 1964, Gibb watched the Boston Marathon for the first time. No women were competing in the race, but Gibb didn’t really notice. She was more preoccupied with the wonder of it all, the audacity of pushing bodies to the limits of physical endurance.

“Something inside of me said, ‘I’m going to run this race,” she explained. “It was the ultimate challenge.  I didn’t know if I would physically be able to do such a thing. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was going to be making a social statement.”

 Gibb set about training for the marathon with no coach, no books, and no knowledge of how to prepare the body for a long-distance run. She thought running 26 miles might kill her, thanks to prevailing notions about women’s athletic capabilities. Each day, she would test the waters, running a little bit further than she had the day before. At the time, shoe companies did not make athletic footwear for women. So Gibb ran in nurse’s shoes.

 When her parents moved away during her father’s sabbatical, Gibb took the family’s Volkswagon bus—and their Malamute husky—and set out West. Every day, she would drive and run, drive and run—across the Mississippi, over the Great Plains, through the Rockies. By the time she got to the Pacific, Gibb could run up to 40 miles in one stretch, she said.

She was ready for the Boston Marathon, but the Boston Marathon was not ready for her.

 In February of 1966, Gibb submitted an application to the Boston Athletic Association. She received a letter from the director of the Boston Marathon, explaining that she would not be permitted to run because it was a men’s race, and because she was not physically capable. Allowing a woman to run 26 miles, the letter said, would be a tremendous liability.

 “At that point, I was enraged,” Gibb said. “Here they were, stopping me from doing what I loved because I belonged to a certain class of person … It was a double bind. How can you prove you can do something if you’re not allowed to do it?”

 Every marathon is a symbol—a symbol of human struggle, resilience, and triumph. In the wake of the Boston bombings, this has never been truer of the race that captured Bobbi Gibb’s heart. And back in 1965, when Gibb decided that she was going to sneak into the Boston Marathon, she was privately determined to make the race stand for something more than a long road and a finish line. If Gibb could publicly defy the physical limitations ascribed to her sex, she could also disprove ingrained notions about the capabilities—or lack thereof—of women.

 “I said [to myself], ‘This is so great, because if I could prove this wrong … that’s going to throw into question all the other prejudices and misconceptions that were used to keep women down for centuries,’” Gibb explained.

 On the day of the marathon, Gibb wore her brother’s Bermuda shorts, a pair of boy’s sneakers, a bathing suit, and a sweatshirt. As she took off into the swarm of runners, Gibb started to feel overheated, but she would not remove her hoodie. “I knew if they saw me, they were going to try to stop me,” she said. “I even thought I might be arrested.”

 It didn’t take long, though, for male runners in Gibb’s vicinity to realize that she was not another man. Gibb expected them to shoulder her off the road, or call out to the police. Instead, the other runners told her that if anyone tried to interfere with her race, they would put a stop to it. Finally feeling secure and assured, Gibb took off her sweatshirt.

 As soon as it became clear that there was a woman running in the marathon, the crowd erupted—not with anger or righteousness, but with pure joy, she recalled. Men cheered. Women cried. By the time Gibb reached Wellesley College, the news of her run had spread, and the female students were waiting for her, jumping and screaming. The governor of Massachusetts John Volpe met her at the finish line and shook her hand.

 Gibb placed among the top one-third of marathon runners. She thinks she could have made better time had she known not to wear new sneakers on the day of the race. Gibb’s feet were covered in blisters, and by mile 20, she couldn’t do much more than tiptoe along. And even at the start of the marathon, Gibb ran conservatively, scared beyond all measure that she might collapse before the finish line.

 “I was actually running way slower than I wanted to,” she said. “I was saving my energy because I knew that the worst thing that could happen would be if I didn’t finish. I had this huge weight of responsibility on me. Here I was, making this very public statement. If I had collapsed or hadn’t finished, I would have set women back another 50 years, or maybe longer.”

Bobbi Gibb after the 1966 Boston Marathon. Photo courtesy of Yarrow Kraner
Bobbi Gibb after the 1966 Boston Marathon. Photo courtesy of Yarrow Kraner

 The Boston Marathon was officially opened to women in 1972. But when Gibb returned to the race in 1967 and 1968, she found herself running alongside other female competitors, who had decided to participate even though they were not sanctioned to do so. Gibb wasn’t surprised: she could feel the rumblings of change as she ran—and ultimately, hobbled—her way through the Boston Marathon course in 1966.

 “I really felt as though I was opening people’s minds,” Gibb said. “It was just waiting to happen, and this was like a crystallizing moment.”

 The progress toward equality was, of course, not entirely linear. Take, for example, the headline that ran in the Record American after Gibb’s historic accomplishment: “Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon.” More egregious was Gibb’s rejection from medical school; she was told during her interview that if she were accepted, it would “upset the boys in the lab.”

 Instead, Gibb went to law school, had a son, wrote an autobiography, worked as a lawyer for 18 years, and then moved over to a job as a research associate in a neuroscience lab at the University of California, San Diego. She has competed in the Boston Marathon at least five times, possibly more; the many races Gibb has run over the course of her life have become a bit of a blur.

Bobbi Gibb at the site of the 2015 Boston Marathon/ Yarrow Kraner.
Bobbi Gibb at the site of the 2015 Boston Marathon/ Yarrow Kraner.

 Gibb still runs one hour every day, though she has been taking some time off of late to collaborate with Yarrow Kraner, a director who is putting together a film about Gibb’s life. The movie will share the title of Gibb’s autobiography: Wind in the Fire. When one of Kraner’s friends sent him an excerpt from Gibb’s writing, he knew immediately that hers was a story he wanted to tell.

 “I was so struck by … [her] bravery, and blown away that I hadn’t heard of the story,” Kraner said. “The film is obviously about not just the woman who broke gender barriers in the Boston Marathon, but [who also] had the courage to open the realization of what women can accomplish in a lot of different arenas, and just put a question mark in thousands, [even] millions of minds about what can be accomplished.”

You won’t find Bobbi Gibb’s name alongside that of Margret Sanger or Gloria Steinem in the annals of feminist history. But Gibb’s participation in the Boston Marathon was inarguably a gutsy, ballsy, stunning achievement for women’s rights. Gibb is not unaware of that, but she can only be so incisive about something that she simply loved doing. During her interview with Women in the World, Gibb gave a lengthy explanation of how she broke into the Boston Marathon on a sunny day in April of 1966. Then she paused.

“I don’t know,” Gibb said after a moment. “I just ran.”