“I thought about how many preconceived prejudices would crumble when i trotted right along for 26 miles.” ~ Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb
In 1966, 23-year-old Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb became the first woman to complete the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon. It was unimaginable for her to achieve what she did — at least according to the social standards of the day. By doing so, she helped to open the door for future generations of women who wanted to take part in organized sports.
Gibb was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 2, 1942. From an early age, she did things girls weren’t supposed to do. Gibb slept out under the stars, and ran (a lot). By every account, She was born to run. Gibb started running the moment she could walk, and she never stopped. It made her feel alive.
In high school, she played volleyball, field hockey, and basketball. She trained by taking neighborhood dogs for runs in the woods. Because high school cross-country was a boys-only sport at the time, Gibb didn’t see herself as a long-distance runner.
She went to Tufts University in Medford, MA after graduating from high school in 1962. Gibb’s boyfriend, a runner on the school’s cross-country team, convinced her to take up distance running. In the beginning, his five-mile runs proved challenging, but soon she was capable of longer distances. Before long, she was running everywhere. Friends suggested she watch the Boston Marathon.
Gibb and her father went to the marathon in 1964. She had never seen people running before and was excited to learn that there were more people like her—others that loved running as much as she did. She fell in love with their courage and was awed by the endurance needed to run 26.2 miles. The experience was life-changing. Gibb started training to run a marathon the next day.
She was in uncharted territory. There was a physiological belief that it was unsafe for women to run long distances, so few—if any, actually did. There were no women’s running shoes or sports bras, so she made do with nurse’s shoes and a one-piece swimsuit. Over time, she improved, eventually running well beyond marathon distances consistently.
In 1965, she married and moved to San Diego but continued to train for the Boston Marathon.
She sent a request to the Boston Athletic Association to officially enter the Boston Marathon in February 1966. Race director Will Cloney wrote back, denying her application. He told her women weren't capable of running such long distances — the marathon's sanctioning body only allowed women to run 1.5 miles. The marathon was a grueling men’s race, and the association didn’t want to risk the liability of a female runner getting hurt.
That wasn’t the end. Gibb knew women could run the entire race. She’d been running marathon distances for some time and didn’t suffer from any of the physiological issues race officials had referenced to keep women from competing. If she proved promoters wrong, she’d open the doors of opportunity for women beyond just running — she’d show them they could do anything they wanted.
Her marathon run was going to be more than a run — it was going to be a social statement.
Less than a week before the 1966 marathon, Gibb boarded a Greyhound bus in San Diego bound for Boston. After four days of travel, she arrived at the bus station the day before the race. Gibb called her parents to let them know that not only was she in the city, but she planned on running the Boston Marathon. Her dad thought she was delusional.
However, once she’d explained the reasons behind her running, Gibb’s mom was on board. She offered to drive her daughter to the starting line of the race.
The following morning, Gibb, disguised in a hoodie and her brother’s Bermuda shorts, hid in a set of forsythia bushes near the starting line. Assuming she didn’t get arrested first (she believed she might), she planned to sneak onto the course and run the marathon alongside the other competitors.
Gibb found an opening after roughly half of the runners (all men) had passed. She jumped out from behind the bushes and joined them. In little time the surrounding men knew she was a woman — but to her surprise, they didn’t care. In fact, they told her they’d help keep her in the race. Now all she had to do was finish.
She did. Her time of three hours, twenty-one minutes, and forty seconds was faster than two-thirds of the male competitors. Gibb had not only proven women could run a marathon but that they could excel.
The following year, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon — though she signed up as KV Switzer, and race officials assumed (incorrectly) that she was a man. In 1972, women were officially welcomed to compete in the marathon for the first time. There were eight women runners that year. In 2022 there were 12,100.
Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb is the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon. She is recognized as the women’s race winner of the 1966 through 1968 pre-sanctioned era. By doing what she loved, and not listening when society tried to tell her ‘no,’ she helped generations of women recognize there was more to the world than the life set out for them.
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- "Boston Marathon Running Legend Bobbi Gibb Recalls Milestone." The Coast News Group. Last modified November 1, 2018. https://thecoastnews.com/boston-marathon-running-legend-bobbi-gibb-recalls-milestone/#.
- Conochan, Kelaine. "Bobbi Gibb - Boston Marathon - The Rebel — Recognize." Recognize. Last modified June 14, 2021. https://www.recognizepod.com/135-challenge/bobbi-gibb-the-trailblazer.
- Miller, Jen A. "Paving the Way: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon." ESPN.com. Last modified April 12, 2016. https://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/feature/story/_/id/15190954/50-years-later-paying-tribute-bobbi-gibb-first-woman-run-boston-marathon.
- Pimentel, Annette B. Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon. London: Penguin, 2018.
- Tumin, Remy. "In 1972, Only 8 Women Ran the Race. Today, 12,100 Are Running." The New York Times - Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. Last modified April 18, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/18/sports/women-running-boston-marathon.html.