Q&A: Boston Marathon History-Maker Bobbi Gibb

We spoke with Gibb 50 years after she became the first woman to finish the race.
bobbi gibb

Photo by Olga Khvan

On Marathon Monday 1966, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb crouched in the bushes in Hopkinton, her body concealed by Bermuda shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, ready to make history.

When the pack began to run, she leapt out to join. Three hours, 21 minutes, and 40 seconds later, she became the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon—even though, at that time, women weren’t allowed to register for the race.

This year, Gibb, a neuroscientist and artist, is serving as race grand marshal and working on a sculpture of herself that will eventually* adorn the marathon course at an as-yet-undetermined location. The installation again makes history, as the first sculpture of a female runner along the race route.

We caught up with Gibb, 73, to talk about her historic run, her sculpture, and the state of women’s running.

What made you run the race in 1966?

Women have been deprived of opportunities for centuries and centuries. I wanted to change that. When I ran, I felt free and I felt full of life. People thought I was nuts—nice, but nuts. I wrote my application [to the marathon], and [the Boston Athletic Association] wrote back, ‘Women are not physiologically able to run marathons.’ I said, ‘If I can prove this is wrong, that’s going to throw into question all the other false beliefs that have been used to keep women down for centuries.’ I decided to run anyway.

Where did you find the courage?

It amazes me now, when I look back, that I followed my heart. When I love something, I follow it. They say love casts out fear, and that’s true.

How did male runners react?

They were happy. They were supportive. They said, ‘We won’t let them throw you out. It’s a free road.’ For a grown woman to run in public was totally improper and way out of the social norm. But the crowds were all enthusiastic. Pretty soon the reporters started to pick up the story, and then a radio station started to broadcast my progress. I got to Wellesley and the women went crazy.

Was the B.A.A. equally supportive?

No. The marathon, in those days, was a men’s division race, which means women were not qualified to run. If there is a woman running in a men’s division race, it jeopardizes the accreditation of that race. They had to be very clear that I was not part of the men’s division race. It was an unsanctioned women’s division race. [The women’s race was sanctioned in 1972.]

What was the run like?

I had no coach, no books, no idea, really, how to train. It was my first-ever race. I had bought new boys’ running shoes and I had horrible blisters. I didn’t know you had to drink water, and I was severely dehydrated. I had eaten a huge meal of roast beef the night before, thinking you needed protein. I did everything wrong; it’s amazing I finished at all. But I knew I had to finish, because here I was, making this public statement. It was a huge responsibility.

What has the impact of your run been?

What I wanted to happen, happened. It galvanized people. It really changed the way people thought about women; it changed individual and social consciousness. It inspired lots of people, men and women, to run.

Fifty years later, you’re making a commemorative sculpture. How did that come to be?

We were going to do a sculpture of [Olympic marathoner] Joan Benoit and Joan said, ‘No, I want to see a sculpture of you there. You were the first.’ I said, ‘Oh, my god. Doing a sculpture of myself—that’s a little embarrassing.’ I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t expecting it.

Is it odd to make a sculpture of yourself?

At least I know what I look like! I don’t need a model.

Do you still run?

I’ve always run an hour or two a day—I still run an hour or two a day. I just love the feeling of running.

*The Boston Marathon Sculpture Project is currently raising the $150,000 necessary to erect Gibb’s sculpture. You can donate to the fund here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


RELATED:

Bobbi Gibb is recognized by the Boston Athletic Association as heralding the pre-sanctioned era as the women’s winner in 1966. Kathrine Switzer is known for being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry in 1967. It was not until 1972 that women were welcome to run the Boston Marathon officially.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com