The first Boston Marathon female finisher discusses how her race began a shift in social consciousness that's felt to this day.
The Chink In The Armor
Fifty-one years ago, a 23-year-old named Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. She was later recognized as the women’s winner that year and in 1967 and 1968, making her the first Boston Marathon female winner in history. In the decades since, Gibb has spent her time expanding her knowledge about the world in every way she could: she earned a degree in philosophy at UC San Diego, studied at Tufts and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has written two books, became and artist and established herself as an advocate for social change and awareness.
When Gibb spoke with Women’s Running last month, she was at an art colony in Massachusetts, where she’s spent time working on a life-size sculpture of a female runner–the first of its kind that was contracted by the 26.2 Foundation to be displayed along the Boston Marathon route. “There are many sculptures of runners, but they’re all men,” Gibb explained. “This will be the first one of a woman.” In addition to sculpting, Gibb remains an active scientist, writer and runner, dividing her time amongst her many passions. Even so, it’s easy to see how her pursuits relate to that first breakthrough run in Boston. Her name has drawn attention in recent years as she’s gained recognition for her Boston Marathon participation in the 1960s, her story shared by journalists and writers across the country and around the world. In addition to penning a book of essays that relate to her experiences running the Boston route (published last year as 26.2 Essays: An Inspiring New World View), Gibb was also the subject of a children’s book published in June called The Girl Who Ran, an inspiring tale for young runners and girls alike. “There’s a whole new definition of femininity: it’s now strong, fast, intelligent, smart, accomplished women actualizing themselves in the world. This is what I wanted to happen.”
How do you choose to spend your time these days?
I divide it up into pieces; that’s the only way I get it all done. I love to write, and I’ve written two books: one is Wind in the Fire, and one is 26.2 Essays, which I just published [last year]. For 26.2 Essays, I take scenes along the Boston Marathon route, and I see different things: say I go past Wellesley College, and I write a chapter on women, or I go by a library and write a chapter on knowledge. I love to think and study; I worked at MIT in neuroscience in the 1970s and part of the ‘80s. I wrote a chapter on democracy, on America and what it is and what it should be. I spent a huge amount of time on that book, but now that it’s done, I’ve been working on a life-size sculpture of a woman runner. I’ve been hired to do it by the 26.2 Foundation. It’ll be the first sculpture of a woman along the marathon course. There are many sculptures of runners, but they’re all men. I’m also still doing the neurodegenerative disease research; right now it’s mostly ALS.
I want to spend more of this next year on politics. I love democracy and I love America, but it seems to be in a state of confusion right now. I want to pour a lot of my energy into politics and where we need to be going as a country and how to get there.
I look out into the world, I see what’s going on, and I see how it could be better. I put a lot of energy into trying to change people’s consciousness. When I grew up in the ‘50s, women were second-class citizens; we had hardly any opportunities. As a teenager, I could see these things coming down the lines, and I thought, I can’t live in a world like this. I’ve got to escape. I’ve always had this feeling of wanting to make the world better. Now I look out and I see so many false beliefs. People kill each other over whose false belief is better, whether it’s about religion, politics or whatever. I think the world’s at a turning point now. Every human being is a valuable, wonderful, amazing person, and we need to somehow bring that and nature into our spirituality. That’s what I’m always working on and what I’m writing about.
When I ran the marathon, that changed people’s consciousness: suddenly, there was a new truth. It was a false belief that women couldn’t run 26 miles and women couldn’t go to medical school or be lawyers. All these false beliefs were keeping half of our population in subjugation. Suddenly, whammo: you unveiled the truth. A woman can run a marathon, and can run it well. Women can go to medical school and become doctors and lawyers.
Did you realize when you ran the Boston Marathon for the first time in 1966 that it would be such a revolutionary event?
When I was training for the Boston Marathon, the civil rights movement had just started; there was no women’s movement. I was finding something in my running, a freedom and spiritual connection with nature. I took a 3,000-mile trip across the country in a VW bus; at night, I’d sleep out under the stars, and during the days I would run longer and longer distances. I was on a spiritual journey, but it was also a physical journey, because I was getting stronger and stronger in my training. I was way outside the social norm, and I found the social norm extremely restrictive. I didn’t know how to change it.
I trained for two years, and then I [submitted] my application [for the Boston Marathon] and received a letter back that said women are not physiologically able to run 26.2 miles, and furthermore they’re not allowed to because it’s a men’s division race. The longest race approved by the Amateur Athletic Union in those days was a mile and one-half. Women in sports had no reason to run more than that–and even that was a stretch. I didn’t know that, so I got this letter, and suddenly I saw a chink in the armor. I thought, if I could prove this false belief about women wrong, it could call into question the other false beliefs that have been used to keep women down for centuries, the false beliefs that women have about themselves and that men have about women. I hoped that, if I could do it in a really upbeat, non-threatening way, it could be the initiating point of a social movement.
So I ran and finished ahead of two-thirds of the men. One of the things I wanted to do was end the stupid battle between the sexes and show that men and women can enjoy all of life together. We can all be complete people; we don’t have to fit each other into these stereotypes. We have to get rid of these stereotypes and group identities and typologies.
I was amazed: I didn’t know anything about the press, and the next day it was a front-page headline. It went all over the world that a woman had run the Boston Marathon. It really was an event that changed people’s consciousness.
What was your first pair of running shoes?
I ran in nurse’s shoes because they were made of leather; they had a flat sole and they didn’t slip. They were actually great shoes to run in. I trained in those, and just before the race, a friend of mine in San Diego said, “Why don’t you buy a pair of boys’ running shoes?” So I did, but they were new; they gave me blisters. The didn’t have a thick sole. So I had horrible blisters and really hurt my feet running. It was so disappointing, because during the last 3 or 4 miles of the marathon, my pace dropped way off. But there was only one brand that I knew of in those days, and that was Adidas. Since then, there have been huge improvements in the design of running shoes to protect people’s feet and absorb a lot of the shock. But they didn’t have the technology then, and there weren’t any women’s shoes. I didn’t know you were supposed to break in the shoes; I was so naive about competitive running.
When you spectate at a race or watch one on TV now, what does it mean to you to see all the women participating and to know that you helped pave the way for them to be there?
It’s amazing. It’s pretty much almost 50-50 men and women, which is what I wanted to happen. I kind of think of all these women as my daughters and sisters. I think, Wow, women now have a whole different view of themselves: they can go to medical school, they can be strong, they can be smart, they can be beautiful. Being strong and smart doesn’t mean you’re any less feminine. There’s a whole new definition of femininity: it’s now strong, fast, intelligent, smart, accomplished women actualizing themselves in the world. This is what I wanted to happen.
One thing I miss about the early women’s movement: Back in the ‘70s, when we first started, we had conscious-raising groups. I had one in my house. We’d talk honestly about how we felt and how life was. It was a sense of camaraderie among women. Now I see a lot more competition between women, and I miss that old sense of sisterhood, the “we’re all in this together” feeling. On the same level, women have made huge strides, which I think is fantastic. There are still women who are starving themselves to look like models, because they think that if they have a little weight on them that no one will love them. I keep saying, “No–be yourself. Just be yourself! Love yourself as you are; don’t try to make yourself into some image of what you think women should be.” I still see women trying to make themselves into some sort of stereotype.
I’d love to see more women go into science and music, mathematics, computers…I still see women being scared sometimes or a little shy in those areas, doubting that they can do it. People don’t realize how hard it is to learn something. I remember racking my brain over mathematics. I love mathematics, but it wasn’t easy. I had to go over and over to understand it. Finally, when you understand it, it’s fantastic. It’s the same when you’re creating something: you’ve got to work at it. I would love to see women really tackle the hard stuff.