Happy 75th birthday to Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to break the 70-year-old gender barrier of the world's oldest annual marathon and complete the Boston Marathon! With women banned from running in the marathon, Gibb, then 23 years old, snuck into the marathon from the sidelines in 1966, finishing the race in 3 hours, 21 minutes, and 40 seconds -- faster than two-thirds of the male runners! "I thought I might get arrested or they would throw me out," reflects Gibb. "But how can we prove that we can do something if we are not allowed to do it?" Ultimately, she decided running was worth breaking the rules, explaining: “I just fell in love with [the marathon] because I knew these people felt the same way about running I felt... I thought: If I can run the marathon and run it well, it will break down the stereotypes that have been used to keep women confined.”
While Gibb loved to run since she was a child, she didn't know much about competitive running but when she watched the 1964 Boston Marathon she says, "I fell in love. I wasn't thinking whether it was men or women. I just fell in love — I knew it was my destiny." She trained for two years to run the marathon and, when she felt she was ready, Gibb requested an entry form for the 1966 Boston Marathon. To her shock, her request was refused: Amateur Athletic Union regulations forbid women from running more than 1.5 miles, and besides the race director informed her, “women are physiologically incapable of running 26.2 miles." But Gibb, who regularly ran for hours -- as many as 40 miles at a time -- knew that was wrong. So on race day, she covered her hair with a blue hoodie, and hid behind a bush near the starting line until she could blend into the pack. She was afraid the male runners would bulldoze her off the course; instead, “to my great delight, they said, 'Gee whiz. I wish my wife would run’... This is just what I wanted: men and women treating each other with respect.” She was greeted with cheers of support from the police officers lining the route and from many spectators in the crowd, especially when she ran past the all-women Wellesley College.
Despite Gibb's positive reception, it did not mean that the marathon was now open to female runners. The next year, Kathrine Switzer registered for the race using her first initial and BAA co-director Jock Semple tried to pull her physically from the course mid-race, leading to one of running’s most dramatic photo sequences. Switzer's fellow male runners worked to protect her and urged her on, and she completed the race as the Boston Marathon's first registered female runner. However, it wasn’t until 1972 -- after many years of pressure from women's sports advocates -- that the Boston Marathon officially allowed female runners. It took another 12 years of campaigning for women to finally be allowed to compete in the marathon at the Olympic Games -- a victory which was achieved at long last with the first women's marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
This year, over 13,000 women ran the Boston Marathon, and uniquely, the Boston Marathon is one of few sporting events where men and women’s winners receive the same prize money. Gibb herself is tremendously proud of her role in advancing women in running: “Almost half the race is women now. This is the world that I wanted to create," she says. "This is what I wanted to see: men and women and individual people who have taken on the challenge or running the marathon.” And she marvels at how a simple decision by one person can have such an impact: “It's ordinary people who move the world into a happier and healthier place.”