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DEL MAR — Now in her 70s, Boston Marathon legend Bobbi Gibb, the first woman who crossed the finish line in 1966, is still running.
Gibb, born in Massachusetts, now splits her time between the East Coast and Del Mar and said: “Yes, I still run. If it’s too hot or cold or rainy or snowy in Boston, I run inside on my trampoline. My favorite place to run is the Del Mar beach and Torrey Pines.”
But it’s the Boston Marathon that put Gibb on the map. She said she first saw the famous race in 1964, at that time hardly anyone ran and for a grown woman to run in public was thought improper. There were few, if any, other marathons happening.
“Boston was the only one I knew of,” she recalled.
Gibb said she always loved running, and as a young girl would run in the woods with the neighborhood dogs.
“With the Boston Marathon, I saw others who felt the same way I did about running,” she said. “Something inside me decided I wanted to run with them, so I started to train myself by running longer and longer distances.”
In the summer of 1964, she traveled across the country with her Malamute puppy, Moot, sleeping at night under the stars. During the day, she’d run in different places.
“It was a spiritual journey, as well as training for the marathon,” she said. “I trained for two years. In the fall of 1965, I ran 65 miles in two days of the Woodstock Vermont equestrian 100-mile and figured I was ready for Boston.”
In January 1966, she married a Navy man and moved to San Diego, and continued training on the beaches and mountains.
A month later, in February 1966, she wrote to the race director of the Boston Marathon for an entry and bib number.
“I didn’t hide my gender,” she recalled. “He wrote back refusing my request, saying that women were not physiologically capable of running marathons, and that it was a men’s division race for which women were not qualified. The longest women could run was a mile and a half.”
At the time, Gibb was running 40 miles at a stretch: “I said: ‘All the more reason to run!’”
“I knew if I could prove this false belief about women wrong I’d throw into doubt all the other prejudices and false beliefs that had been used to keep women down for centuries,” she said.
So, she took a bus from San Diego to Boston, and arrived the day before the race at her parents’ house in Winchester, a suburb of Boston.
“My parents thought I was nuts, but I persuaded my mom to drive me to the start in Hopkinton.
She let me out of the car some distance from the center and I began to run, looking for a way to get into the race without being removed or stopped,” she said.
“I was wearing a tank top bathing suit over a hooded sweatshirt, and my brother’s Bermuda shorts. I found a clump of bushes near the start and then warmed up running in an ally way for some 40 minutes.”
The men gathered at the start, she said, and she ran back to the bushes and hid.
“The starting gun fired. I let about half the pack go by then I jumped in,” she said. “In just a few minutes the men realized I was a woman. They could have easily shouldered me out or called the officials or the police and had me taken out, but to my great relief they were friendly and protective. ‘It’s a free road. We won’t let them throw you out, they said.’”
Gibb said she was getting hot, so she took off the sweatshirt, and now everyone could see she was a woman running. The crowds cheered.
“My progress was being reported on a local radio station and the press was following my run.
When I reached Wellesley, the women were screaming and clapping. One woman shouted, ‘Ave Maria! Ave Maria!’ There were tears in her eyes. I felt tears in my own eyes. This would change the way people thought about women and set women free!” she said.
Gibb ran on to Boston and finished ahead of two-thirds of the men.
“When I reached Boston, the governor of Massachusetts came to shake my hand,” she said.
The next day, April 29, 1966, it was front page news with the headline: “First Gal to Run Marathon.” Word went out around the world that a woman had done the impossible.
“It really shattered the stereotype about women,” she said. “If a woman could do this, what else could women do that was thought impossible?”
The next year, 1967, she returned and ran again. There were two women running that year. She finished about an hour ahead of the other woman, K Switzer, who had obtained an invalid number in the men’s division race by concealing her gender on the application and on the medical form, avoiding the required pre-race physical exam, and having a man pick up her number for her, Gibb said.
When officials saw her run by with an illegal number, they tried to remove it because the presence of an unqualified runner threatened the accreditation of the men’s division race and would have invalidated the running times of all the qualified runners under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union.
In 1968, Gibb returned and finished first among five women.
“In all, there were eight of us who ran in what is now called the Women’s Pioneer Division. It was not until 1972 when the first official AAU accredited marathon was held in Boston,” she recalled.
In 1969, Gibb didn’t return to Boston as she realized that she had made her point and now was on to other challenges.
She would go on to graduate from Revelle College, UCSD, in pre-med, philosophy and mathematics, and applied for medical school.
“In those days, it was thought women weren’t capable of the rigors of med school and 97 percent of the places were reserved for men. When I went for my interview, I was told I was ‘too pretty to go to medical school; I’d upset the boys in the lab.’”
Later she went to law school and worked in neuroscience research at MIT.
For the love of running
The fascination with running runs deep for Gibb as she has always loved to run, even as a child. Racing across a green field, feeling the wind, watching the shimmering grass whirl by still gives her a feeling of exhilaration and joy, she said.
In 1964, she was studying physics, math and biology at Tufts University School of Special Studies and sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School.
“I found in running through the woods a sense of peace, a unity of mind, body and a feeling of freedom and joy,” she said. “At that time, there was no track for women and women were not thought capable of running more than a mile and a half. Luckily, I didn’t know this. I wasn’t connected with the world of sports.
“Running for me was a meditation, a healing and a spiritual feeling of relating to the universe,” she said. “I gloried in the miracle of being alive on this amazing planet in this infinite universe.”
“Everything I was learning in science added to my sense of the mystery and awe I felt at this whole existence. I marveled at the earth, the moon, the stars and planets, atoms, molecules and photons of light? How did they get here and why?”
Running, she said, brought here back in time to “before women were subjugated; a time woman ran free through the woods in Ancient Greece with their hunting dogs. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, Athena goddess of knowledge.”
“I was seeking something deep in the human heart and psyche. If everyone could only feel this sense of well-being of running how much happier and healthier the world would be!”
These days, Gibb spends much of her time working on her sculptures and writing; she has written four books to date and is “always writing another.”
“I’ve always loved to paint and sculpt. As children we all start out doing art, just as we all start out running, and learning and are curious about everything. I just never stopped these first things and have kept on for my life.”
She took up clay sculpting more seriously in the early ‘60s while attending the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. She’s been sculpting ever since and loves painting murals.
Four of her bronze sculptures of runners are in the National Museum of Sport in Indianapolis. Many of her sculptures are in private collections and she exhibited in the prestigious Geraci Gallery in Rockport and the State-of-the-Art Gallery in Gloucester. She focuses on the human figure in action, and on bronze portrait bust commissions.
“I work until I capture the human spirit in bronze,” she said. “Recently, I’ve been commissioned by the 26.2 Foundation to do a life-sized figure to be placed along the Boston Marathon route.”
She completed said life-sized clay sculpture many months ago and is waiting for the foundation to raise the funds to cast it in bronze.
And of course, the question comes up often if she was at the Boston Marathon when the bombings took place in 2013.
“I was co-grand marshal that year and was sitting in the bleachers at the finish. I was getting cold, so I went to warm up. When I got home, I saw the horrific unbelievable tragedy unfolding on the TV.
“My heart went out to the victims and their families,” she continued. “Once again, we saw the best of humanity as the first responders, medics officials and volunteers rushed to the aid of victims, and as our law enforcement tracked down the criminal/terrorists.”
“I believe the kindness and generosity of people who helped the runners who were stranded, is really what people and humanity are all about — the 90 percent are good people who help and care for others and are the core of our communities.
“And we saw the worse of humanity in the perpetrators — those who create such pain, misery, tragedy and horror for the rest of us,” she said.